Feed on

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was translated into English in 2015, bringing about a lot of criticism regarding the translation. The translator, Deborah Smith, made many changes (and some errors) when translating the work from Korean to English. One of the most notable changes was that of the novel’s opening sentence. Originally, Yeong-hye’s husband stated that he never thought of his wife as “anything special,” whereas in English, Yeong-hye was described as “completely unremarkable in every way” (Kang, 11). These two statements have very different tones, as the Korean is simply more dismissive and the English seems to imply that the husband looks down upon his wife. According to an article by Claire Armistread in The Guardian, the translation has been severely critiqued for its changes, and a speaker at a 2016 conference stated that “10.9% of the first part of the novel was mistranslated. Another 5.7% of the original text was omitted. And this was just the first section” (The Guardian). A translator featured in a Los Angeles Times article stated that he felt the English version was an adaptation rather than a translation.

Some people think the translation was a failure while others believe it to be a success despite its errors, but the main question in this discussion remains. How closely does a translation need to resemble its original text? Reading these articles reminded me of the class discussion over The Emissary and how the author would essentially develop different stories when working on translating her works from Japanese to German or vice versa. Are those translations considered failures because they differ from the original, or is the translation of The Vegetarian critiqued this way simply because of its errors (translating “hand” as “foot,” for example)? If the author had translated it herself and made the same mistakes would it still be viewed this way?

Personally, I do not think a translation should be judged harshly for a few minor errors; there are sometimes obvious typos in published books, and those are not critiqued as these mistakes are, even though for the most part, they are small issues that do not affect the overall reading of the book. The plot and metaphors of the book seem to be the same in Korean and in English; a woman takes control of her body and her life in a society in which she is not meant to have much control over either, and her family must come to terms with her bizarre, new life. While some changes may briefly change the way the text is read (as with the first line), the story mostly remains the same. The translation provided a new audience with this story and told it in a way she thought would be most compelling. Therefore, it should be considered a success.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.