Han Kang and Deborah Smith: ‘It is fascinating to ponder the possibili­ties of language’

The winning Man Booker International author and translator explain their writing relationship – and the difficulty of working across time zones

Deborah Smith
As The Vegetarian was my first translation I had no idea how any aspect of the process worked, let alone what I would do day by day. Having spent most of my life reading, and making no distinction between work in translation and in English, I decided after graduating that I would learn a language and become a literary translator. I chose Korean partly for pragmatic reasons, because I knew the country had a lively literary scene, but in fact I had read nothing from there before, because there were no translations. Rather optimistically, I put on my Twitter bio that I was a translator, and eventually I suggested The Vegetarian to a publisher, who asked me to translate it. When I began I didn’t know what the usual author-translator relationship was, whether you were supposed to get in touch, or even if Kang spoke English. So I just went ahead and translated the whole book, sent it in with a list of questions, and waited.

Han Kang
The Vegetarian had already been translated into several languages, none of which I could read. When I saw these books it always felt weird to have my name and picture on them but not really knowing what was inside. So I was very happy when it was translated into English because it is my only other language, and reading through Deborah’s translation, and her notes and questions, it was fascinating to ponder on the subtleties and possibilities of language. I sent back answers to her queries and some questions of my own and we started our exchange of emails. Sometimes I’d send a whole page just for a single line, but they were mostly short, and very pleasant, exchanges.

The UK working day is almost exactly opposite to that in Korea so you either have to get up early or stay up late to have any sort of crossover. As I’m a morning person I get up, check any overnight emails, and then start work straight away, often before even showering. Until recently I would just work all day, only stopping when my mind fell asleep at night. I’ve recently managed to slow down a bit, and I even sometimes go outside for a walk. If a passage or sentence takes more than a couple of goes of thinking about, I mark the document and move on. It is better to translate in big chunks. You get into the flow and you don’t want to be snared on something as you can easily lose your way. The really nice thing about translation is that you don’t get writer’s block. You know that if you sit down at your computer for X number of hours you will produce X number of words. It makes you feel very productive and that you have earned a gin at 6 o’clock.

I’m a morning person too, which is when I write my fiction. And I also go for walks, although often just in my apartment, pacing up and down, thinking about my work because, unlike Deborah, I do get writer’s block! I don’t write in the afternoons, so instead I either teach or read or deal with my emails or questions of translation. Our long distance system has worked very well, but it was very nice to have met Deborah last year in Norwich, we got through so much so quickly! And she has also now visited me in Seoul too.

We have developed quite a routine in Seoul. Kang takes me to lunch – somewhere vegetarian – and then we will go to a gallery I never would have found for myself. Just being in the city makes me think of things related to her work, which I then attempt to discuss with her in my rusty Korean. After The Vegetarian, Kang and I worked on her next novel, Human Acts, which required far more conversation about what aspects of Korean life may or may not be intelligible to a UK readership. Yet even though it involved much more contact between us, it was completed in a more orthodox way than The Vegetarian. Back then, since I had no idea how long it took to translate a book, I just did it as quickly as I could and ended up sending it in three months ahead of my deadline. But at least I learned one thing about the publishing industry from the incredulous response of my editor: that it is as rare as hen’s teeth for someone to deliver early.

The Vegetarian, published by Portobello, is winner of the Man Booker International prize 2016.

Han Kang and Deborah Smith

The GuardianTramp

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