Deborah Smith gives insights on her craft

Deborah Smith talks about translation at SOAS

I didn’t speak Korean well

Translation is an intuitive process says SOAS alumna Deborah Smith.

Ten years ago Deborah did not speak Korean at all; now she is regarded as a leading practitioner in the field of translation, having translated the Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian. She credits the language tuition she received at SOAS but bemoans the lack of availability of Korean literature in the UK.

“Whatever the words were, they hadn’t been words of comfort, words that would help her pick herself up.”

The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, is on sale in Waterstones

The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, on display in Waterstones Bookstore

I find that objectivity is not desirable in translation

Her newness to the Korean language meant she needed to vigilantly double-check every word. She also called upon the aid of a native Korean friend to help with more subtle translations. Smith spent long hours questioning her friend about certain words and expressions: without this help, her mastery of the language would have been more painstaking and taken far longer.

“It is important that the translator likes the book and has an emotional connection to it. I was moved by all the books I have translated, otherwise I wouldn’t have wanted to spend time with them. I also had an understanding of the authors as I thoroughly researched them beforehand, during my PhD studies. I believe that this was an important step. Translation is creative and it is especially true of literary translation. With literature, direct translations don’t always work best. Just because a word is the literal equivalent of another word, it doesn’t mean it’s the right one, if one is aiming for a literary effect.”

“…Such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that perhaps this was a surface impression left behind after any amount of unspeakable viciousness had been digested, or else settled down inside her as a kind of sediment…” 

Translating the effect

“How do I translate the effect the original book had on me? I try to keep the same effect, and I try to deviate as little as possible from the original. This means that if there is a wordplay in the original, I try to keep that; if there is a joke then I also try to come up with something funny. The quality of the writing makes a difference because it is what creates the effect. I think highly of the authors that I’ve translated, I genuinely think they are brilliant writers.”

“…But in the evenings, when she left her employees and walked through the sweltering night streets, brimming with music and crowded with couples on dates, she could feel that gaping black wound still sucking at her, pulling her in…”

Intuitive process

“I think translation is a highly intuitive process, you know instinctively when something doesn’t sound right. If I am not sure about a sentence, I read it aloud to myself so I can feel what I am doing. The most challenging part of translation isn’t really the translation. It’s getting the translation published. This is why I have founded a non-for-profit translation company, Tilted Axis Press in 2015.”

Smith’s advice for inspiring translators? “Read as many books as you can.”

The quotes are from The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Smith.


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