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Award-winning novel 'The Vegetarian' fraught with errors

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Han Kang, right, author of
Han Kang, right, author of "The Vegetarian," and Deborah Smith, who translated the Korean novel into English, pose while holding the award-winning book in London in May 2016 after they won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The two have been nominated for the same award this year for Han Kang's "The White Book," along with 12 others. The winners will be announced in May amid new allegations that Smith's translation of "The Vegetarian" was flawed. / Korea Times file

Literary translator raises new allegation about the award-winning book

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Han Kang's award-winning book "The Vegetarian" is back in the spotlight, as a literary translator raised a new allegation about a "fundamental" mistranslation.

In the article titled "The 'creative' English translation of 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang" published on March 30 in the Translation Review journal, Kim Wook-dong, professor emeritus of Sogang University, claimed the English translation has plenty of mistranslations, including vocabulary and homonymy errors.

He said translator Deborah Smith made such mistakes maybe because of her "negligence or inability to translate."

Kim asserts Smith misused Korean vocabulary, and thus made her translation weak.

One of the outstanding mistakes is the confusion of the Korean word "pal" (arm) and "bal" (foot), according to the expert.

"Smith made the mistake in one of Yeong-hye's haunting dreams in which she first describes her being lost in a dark woods. 'The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet,' he wrote." Kim said the sentence should read "My face, my arms, torn, making my way through the sharp-pointed leaves."

Kim's critical review of Smith's translation was published weeks before the winners of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize are to be announced in May. Han Kang and Smith were nominated again for the prize for "The White Book," following their winning the same prize in 2016.

Smith translated "The White Book," a collection of 65 short writings featuring the author's thoughts on white objects, into English.

It remains uncertain whether Kim's harsh criticism will negatively affect Han Kang and her translator Smith in the committee's forthcoming selection of winners. But one thing that seems obvious is Kim's critical review will be of no help in the pair's winning of the international honor again.

The English translation of "The Vegetarian" came under fire for translation errors last year as some literary experts said some parts of the story were mistranslated or omitted.

Some experts said the English version is a whole new one, lauding Smith for her creative rewriting.

Smith argued "translation is a process that needs varying degrees of interpretation and editorial decision." The author sided with Smith and said such mistranslations do not pose a serious problem to conveying the original context of the novel.

Kim's critical review, however, rekindled the translation controversy. He alleged British-born Smith's mistranslation came from her limited understanding of Korean language.

As the lingering controversy shows, literary translators are vulnerable to criticisms from critics of both the original and target language. If translators are faithful to the original text, target language readers often find themselves lost in translation because there are certainly things only locals can understand. If translators put the target language first and omit or add phrases to help them understand phrases containing "Koreanness," they are vulnerable to mistranslation allegations.

Kim claimed Smith's translation errors are "fundamental" and widespread all throughout the book.

He said Smith made several errors regarding homonyms as seen in the Korean word "bit" which has two potential meanings – light and color. But, he said, Smith "ignored" homonyms and misinterpreted the Korean phrase "chorok bit" as green light, instead of its meaning green color. Given the context, Kim suggests that phrase should be "springtime trees thick with green-colored leaves."

Regarding the timing of the publication of his critical review which came weeks before the announcement of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Kim said he had no intention to influence the selection of the winners.

He noted he completed and submitted his article to the academic journal last year, months before Han Kang's "The White Book" was nominated again in March for the British literary award.

"My work came much earlier than the nominations of the 2018 Man Booker Prize," he told The Korea Times. "Assessing translated works and the translator's performance is part of my job, and as a scholar I've worked hard and published my articles for decades."

Kim said mistranslation is common in literary translations and "The Vegetarian" is not the only work that has translation errors. But he added "The Vegetarian" has much more serious translation errors compared with other works.

Kim said he likes Han and her work and has no intention to hurt or discredit her translator Deborah Smith.

"Ideally speaking, great translation comes when local and foreign-born translators of the target language work closely together," he said.

Kwak Yeon-soo


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