You Say Melon, I Say Lemon: Deborah Smith's Flawed Yet Remarkable Translation of "The Vegetarian"

You Say Melon, I Say Lemon: Deborah Smith's Flawed Yet Remarkable Translation of "The Vegetarian"

Charse Yun
Charse Yun

When news hit that novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Korean: Chaesikjuuija) had won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize last year, a jolt of excitement surged through the country. In terms of prestige, the Man Booker is perhaps second only to the Nobel Prize for Literature. And in a nation known for its craving for international recognition, the book had pulled off a stunning coup.

But when I began to hear my students and colleagues complaining about the accuracy of the translation, I wondered: Who would be first to spoil the party? I certainly didn’t want to do it. While I copy edit translations and teach English writing in a translation department, I didn’t know if my Korean was sufficient to do an in-depth analysis of Han Kang’s original novel.

Published in South Korea in 2007, Chaesikjuuija is a dark, disturbing tale about a woman named Yeong-hye who refuses to eat meat, mentally unraveling to the point of believing she is becoming a tree. When the English translation was released in 2015 as The Vegetarian, it was met with rapturous acclaim.

From the start, much of the attention focused on the book’s translator, Deborah Smith, a then 28-year-old PhD student at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. In the West, reviewers lavishly praised the book’s “lyrical and lacerating prose,” referring directly to the translation itself as “masterful” and “exquisite.” Much was also made of the fact that Smith had started learning Korean only six years earlier.

After the Man Booker International prize, however, controversy began to emerge in South Korea. A number of articles in the Korean-language media began to report numerous mistranslations in The Vegetarian. Some newspapers even began to post line-by-line comparisons with the Korean text.

Little, however, was written about the controversy outside South Korea. It’s doubtful these criticisms will ever reach the West. Even if they did, they’d scarcely be heard under the roar of thunderous applause.

Still, like the critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, I’m like to offer some fresh, well-seasoned “perspective” to go with the cold side dishes of criticism.

First, the translation clearly has its flaws. According to a research paper presented last year at a conference at Ewha Womans University, 10.9 percent of the first part of the novel was mistranslated. Another 5.7 percent of the original text was omitted. And this was just the first section alone.

I also carefully studied the first section of Han’s original Korean text and compared it to Smith’s translation. It’s important to keep in mind that niggling errors occur even in the best of translations, and any scanty, cherry-picked, line-by-line comparisons from a 200-page book will inevitably appear trivial, if not petty, when posted.

Indeed, while the number of mistranslations in The Vegetarian is much higher than one would expect from a professional translator, most of these errors are very minor and do little, if anything, to derail the plot. For example, English readers will simply glide over the fact that anbang, the main bedroom, is rendered as “living room”; likewise, few will know that dakdoritang is confused as “chicken and duck soup.” No harm, no “fowl.” In one case, the mistranslation actually makes the effect stronger. When Smith mistakes “arm” (pal) for “foot” (bal), Yeong-hye suddenly seems more brazen: “…she stretched out her foot and calmly pushed the door closed.”

What is more unfortunate is that Smith misidentifies the subjects of sentences. In several places, actions and dialogue are simply attributed to the wrong characters. While Smith has stated that she tried to stay “faithful to the spirit of the text,” that defense cannot be applied to what are clearly undeniable errors.

It may apply, however, to the embellishments that Smith makes to the text. This is more jarring and difficult to show. To cite examples out of context is difficult, since it really has to be seen in comparison to the Korean in order to be believed. Page after page, Smith inserts adverbs, superlatives, and emphatic word choices that are simply not in the original.

For example, in the opening line of the novel, where Han writes that the protagonist’s husband never really thought of his wife as “anything special,” Smith renders this as “completely unremarkable in every way.” And when the husband states he simply wasn’t prepared for this “change” in his life, Smith makes it an “appalling change.”

Taken collectively, these insertions and elaborations are extraordinary. This may not have been entirely Smith’s choice (“Take more liberties!” her English editor exhorted her). According to the same research above, however, a whopping 31.5 percent of the text’s first section consists of these re-written embellishments. Moreover, they significantly alter the tone and style.

I can’t emphasize enough how different Han Kang’s writing style is in Korean. Han’s sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a “nineteenth-century ring” to it, reminiscent of Chekhov.

The example is extreme, but imagine the spare style of Raymond Carver being translated so that it sounds like Charles Dickens.

The Vegetarian Han Kang Deborah Smith
Cover of “The Vegetarian,” written by South Korean novelist Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith (Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé)

This even changes how characters are depicted. Smith makes Yeong-hye’s husband sound haughty, sophisticated and pedantic. In actuality, he’s a bland, bumbling kind of guy, unaware of his own sexism or biases. My students felt that the character was wholly misrepresented.

But here, it could be argued that Smith’s translation was probably successful because she ratchets up the style. By emphasizing the conflict and tension, Smith brings Han’s narrative into sharper relief. If Han’s sentences are like delicate lines scored with a cutting knife, Smith carves out deeper grooves with a chisel.

These embellishments highlight the difference in what appeals to readers abroad. A lack of agency, the ability to decide and make purposeful choices, presents a huge problem for Western readers of contemporary South Korean fiction. Most of the time, short stories and novels feature dazed and detached protagonists who are overwhelmed and buffeted by life.

Cho Jae-ryong, a literary critic and professor, points this out when he argues that Yeong-hye is “passive and even dream-like, suppressed by Korea’s patriarchal system.” In contrast, the article states that Cho feels that “Smith’s incorrect interpretation portrayed her as someone who is active and rational.”

But those passive “victim” qualities are precisely why many Western readers find so much contemporary Korean fiction to be unpalatable. We enjoy reading stories about characters who are active and rational, who fight to overcome obstacles, and who act and are not simply acted upon.

In Smith’s version, there’s at least a heightened defiance, a quasi-agency, in Yeong-hye’s absolute refusal to eat meat to the very end.

For example, when the husband notices Yeong-hye’s lack of response to his query, Han writes: “…as if she hadn’t heard me. In contrast, Smith amplifies her non-submissiveness: perfectly oblivious to my repeated interrogation.”

Even depicting the husband as more active makes the drama more interesting. When he asks his wife why she refuses to have sex with him, the original Korean has the simple: “I asked her why.” But Smith renders this as “I chose to confront her about it.” A subtle shift, but notice the determination imputed to the helpless husband.

This doesn’t mean that Han Kang wrote stereotypically catatonic characters. Smith is only highlighting a certain reading that is already embedded in the original. My theory is that readers were intrigued by the different viewpoints in each section (aside from some lyrical passages, Yeong-hye is seen entirely through the eyes of others). This made Han’s narrative sufficiently stronger and more complex than a single, self-absorbed narrator, and hence, more provocative to read.

In the end, everyone has a different metaphor for translation. For me, it’s cooking. You have a brilliant sous chef who attempts to recreate the original chef’s recipe abroad with ingredients not found in her country. She misreads the directions. She confuses “broil” for “boil”; she adds “lemon” instead of “melon.” She also pours in a generous dollop of dressing found nowhere in the recipe. But ultimately, she is able to come up with a remarkable version that millions of new diners find delicious. Several Michelin judges (in Han’s case, a five-member jury) happen to taste it and award it three stars.

The original chef is pleased and gives her approval (for the record, Han Kang has read the translation and fully supports Smith’s version). Both chefs gain much renown domestically and abroad. Interest in the home country’s cuisine soars globally. Everyone is invited to the feast.

But some in the home country are dismayed. In the same way that Westerners here in Seoul might denounce pizza advertised as “authentic” when it contains dubious toppings like blueberries, corn, or sweet potato, some critics might argue that the translation failed to convey the distinct “flavor”of South Korean fiction.

Of course, if you are able to read Korean, you’re bound to feel this ambivalence. Especially in the translation field, the reactions range from cautiously supportive to vexed and disappointed. The Vegetarian certainly should not be modeled as an ideal standard or as a classic “textbook” translation, as one misguided scholar suggested. (Though I’d argue that The Vegetarian would still make a fascinating classroom text as an example of excellent readability as well as the need for rigorous cross-checking).

But just as in Anton Ego’s “discovery and defense of the new,” Smith’s talent in English is undeniable. She has a preternatural gift that borders on genius. Even if The Vegetarian hadn’t won the Man Booker International, it would still have been a remarkable feat.

Finally, it would serve us well to remember that “unfaithfulness to the original” doesn’t necessarily mean betrayal, as if the translator carried out willful acts of mistranslation. For one thing, it presumes a lack of sincerity and respect for the source material.

Instead of jumping on her errors in a “gotcha!” kind of criticism, one could argue that it’s impressive how much Smith got right for a relatively new learner of the language.

And ultimately, Smith carried out perhaps the most important task of all: She successfully introduced a work of literature to people who might otherwise never have had a chance to read it. In that regard, Smith was faithful to the end.


Cover Image: Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé

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