Why She Learned Korean.

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!


  1. Bathrobe says

    A wonderful story!

    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.

    From the article, it’s clear that Smith isn’t terribly good at Korean (still spoke Korean like somebody who learnt it from a textbook) but is firmly rooted in English (degree in English Literature). It pays to be a good writer in your own language if you want to be a translator.

  2. I myself edited and partly translated a scholarly book written in German, which I can’t read without a dictionary. I took great pains with the English, though, and a journal review praised the clear and idiomatic translation (though panning the book overall, but that’s another story).

  3. …Korean, a language which practically nobody in this country studies or knows…
    I wonder whether she might have decided a different language was more urgently in need of literary translators if she had spent time living or studying in the US. (Ethnic Korean population in the US: 1.3 million, with 300,000 in the LA area and 200,000 in the NYC area; In the UK, around 18,000. Korean language study is also quite popular among students in US universities from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, especially on the Pacific Coast.)

  4. Jim (another one) says

    Echo what DMT says. Korean-Americans make up 4% of the population in the three main counties of the Puget Sound, about the same as African-Americans. By contrast English-Americans make up about 15% and Norwegian-Americans about 6%.

  5. SFReader says

    I discovered that Ms. Deborah Smith did her MA at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, located in Bloomsbury district of central London.

    Less than 10 kilometers to the south from SOAS, she could easily find New Malden, London suburb boasting ethnic Korean population of some 20,000.

  6. SFReader says

    Browsing the SOAS website, it struck me that they always refer to the school as SOAS and never give its full name.

    Is Oriental a racist term now?

  7. You can mostly thank Said for that, but Oriental (like Jew, but more so) is a problematic term as a noun, and that infects the adjective somewhat.

  8. @SFReader: It does actually appear in the copyright notice at the bottom of each page – but it is odd that they don’t mention it in the “About SOAS” section.

  9. International Business Machines Corporation doesn’t exactly emphasize its full name either: they’ve come a long way from card tabulating and sorting devices.

  10. David Marjanović says

    …Yeah, they’ve been bought by Lenovo… 🙂

  11. Only the PC part.

  12. SFReader says

    BP feels so ashamed of its origin and business that they now prefer to call themselves “Beyond Petroleum”

  13. TTG Studios, who recorded several seminal albums of the 1960s, got their name from the Arabic-Yiddish compound Tilḥas Ṭīzī Gesheftn, ‘Lick my Ass Enterprises’, which had been used as a code/inside joke in the anti-British Jewish underground in Palestine.
    The other interpretations of the name, “Two Terrible Guys” or “Two Talented Gentlemen”, are apocryphal.

  14. SOAS was the earliest leader in Britain in Korean Studies under William Skillend. I met Prof Skillend at the Association for Asian Studies convention in San Francisco at an organizational meeting of its new committee on Korean Studies in 1965, I believe. I was, at the time finishing my undergraduate studies with a major in Korean literature and a minor in Japanese.

    Somehow Ms Smith’s translating experience puts one in mind of the great “interpreter” [vice translator] of Chinese and Japanese, Arthur Waley.

  15. Y: As someone with an amateur interest in sweary language — I’m a contributor to the Strong Language blog — I’m fascinated by the TTG story. Can you divulge how you know truth from apocrypha?

  16. marie-lucie says

    the Arabic-Yiddish compound Tilḥas Ṭīzī Gesheftn, ‘Lick my Ass Enterprises’

    My mother’s brother’s wife was born in Egypt, from a Middle Eastern Jewish family with relatives in several countries, some of whom ended up in France as she did as a young child, so that she grew up speaking only French. She remembered one Arabic phrase, a swear word which I can see here written for the first time: Tilḥas Ṭīzī !

  17. gwenllian says

    You can mostly thank Said for that, but Oriental (like Jew, but more so) is a problematic term as a noun, and that infects the adjective somewhat.

    From what I’ve seen, at least in the US, the adjective’s been infected completely.

  18. For people, yes. “Oriental rugs” (which are from West Asia, particularly Iran) is still a current term.

  19. gwenllian says

    Rugs, yes. But “Oriental culture”, “Oriental languages” or “Oriental studies” are out.

  20. Even with rugs, the word seems to be in decline. I’m sure I saw more places selling “oriental rugs” thirty years ago than now. The two places near where I live that sell them do not say “oriental.” (I cannot rule out, however, that there may just be a decline in the popularity of the rugs, but that terminology has not changed among the smaller number of places selling them.)


  1. […] Hat tells the story of one solitary person who decided to learn […]

  2. […] post, “Why She Learned Korean,” appeared in Language Hat, Steve Dodson’s excellent and often scholarly blog about language. […]

Speak Your Mind