This BBC story is a very interesting account of why Deborah Smith, who translated Han Kang’s prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, learned the language:
Smith, whose only language was English until she was 21, decided to become a translator on finishing her English Literature degree having noticed the lack of English-Korean translators. She said she was “certainly not a born Korean speaker” and still spoke Korean “very much like somebody who learned it from a textbook”.
“I had no connection with Korean culture – I don’t think I had even met a Korean person – but I wanted to become a translator because it combined reading and writing and I wanted to learn a language.
“Korean seemed like a strangely obvious choice, because it is a language which practically nobody in this country studies or knows.”
She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”. However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later. […]
Deborah Smith taught herself Korean and was smart enough to spot there was a need for translators to turn the language into high-quality English – which she managed brilliantly with The Vegetarian. The prose is relaxed and idiomatic but it’s powerful. There isn’t a paragraph or turn of phrase which feels like it didn’t originate in English.
The story is deliberately mysterious but Smith said she couldn’t ever call up Han Kang to ask how a particular event or character was to be regarded. “I didn’t have any way of contacting her and, as a first-time translator, I wasn’t even sure what the etiquette was. Was I even allowed to ask questions? So I just got on with putting the book into English.”
I hope her story encourages other people to learn lesser-known languages and become translators. Thanks, Paul and Eric!