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2016 Man Booker International Q&A: Deborah Smith

By Eric M. B. Becker

Deborah Smith's translations from the Korean include two novels by Han Kang, The Vegetarian (shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize) and Human Acts, and two by Bae Suah, A Greater Music and Recitation. In 2015 Deborah completed a PhD at SOAS on contemporary Korean literature and founded Tilted Axis, a not-for-profit press focusing on contemporary fiction from Asia. In 2016 she won the Arts Foundation Award for Literary Translation. She tweets as @londonkoreanist. 

Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Han Kang's work?​

Deborah Smith (DS): The way she probes some of the darkest, most violent aspects of humanity with perfectly calibrated stylistic restraint; the way her prose style is influenced by her work as a poet, inflecting it with both lyricism and jaggedness; that each of her books show the influence of the South Korean model, where writers officially “debut” with short stories and continue to switch back and forth throughout their career, resulting in hybrid forms which often privilege tone and atmosphere over character or plot. And the way she deliberately repurposes certain features of Korean literary history—so-called “passive protagonists”—and of the Korean language itself—ambiguity, what we might call redundancy—to startling effect. 

WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you'd done?

DS: It got published! It was my first one. So, my Korean was uniquely bad. I had to consult a dictionary uniquely often.

WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?

DS: I just finished Mend the Living, which means I’ve now read seven from the long list! For me, Han Kang and Bae Suah are South Korea’s greatest contemporary writers—they’re the two I’ve chosen to translate, and I’m currently on my third book by each. The Bae Suah translations will be out in the US soon, so when I find a UK publisher, she could be a contender, though she’s far more experimental than Han Kang. Hwang Jungeun is my (and Han’s) hot tip from the younger generation—my company, Tilted Axis, publishes her prize-winning novel One Hundred Shadows this September, translated by Jung Yewon. Of our other writers, Hamid Ismailov is definitely one to watch—his Russian novels have already received rave reviews, and we’re now bringing out the books he wrote in Uzbek, translated by Donald Rayfield, who taught himself the language specifically for this project. 

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: An excerpt from Han Kang's novel "The Vegetarian," translated by Deborah Smith (WWB's April 2014 Issue)

More interviews with 2016 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Published Apr 12, 2016   Copyright 2016 Eric M. B. Becker

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