Posted : 2016-05-17 17:44
Updated : 2016-05-17 21:34

Han Kang wins Man Booker prize

Author Han Kang, right, and translator Deborah Smith from Britain pose after winning the Man Booker International Prize with the novel "The Vegetarian" during a ceremony at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Monday. The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the United Kingdom. / EPA-Yonhap

'Vegetarian' honor stresses importance of translation of Korean literature

By Yun Suh-young

Novelist Han Kang won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize with her novel "The Vegetarian," becoming the first Korean to receive the prestigious literary award.

The award is given to the best non-English novel translated into English and published in the United Kingdom within the year.

Deborah Smith, the British translator of the novel, was also equally recognized for her work and will share the prize money worth $70,995 with Han.

"The Vegetarian," first published in Korean in 2007, is Han's first book to be translated into English. The English version was published last year by Portobello Books, an independent publisher in the U.K.

It was Smith, 28, who proposed the book to the U.K. publisher to be translated into English.

The book was among six shortlisted novels contending for the prize selected from 155 candidates long-listed in March. The selection of Han's book was unanimous, according to the judges.

"After our selection of a diverse and distinguished long-list, and a shortlist of six truly outstanding novels in first-rate translations, the judges unanimously chose The Vegetarian as our winner," said judging panel chairman Boyd Tonkin, in announcing the winner Monday (local time).

"This compact, exquisite and disturbing book will linger long in the minds, and maybe the dreams, of its readers. Deborah Smith's perfectly judged translation matches its uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn."

Han said she hopes that the award will have a positive influence on the Korean literary community.

"I'm lucky to have met a great translator and a great publisher. I hope my fellow Korean authors will also have such opportunities," Han said after receiving the prize.

"The writing of the book was a process of asking myself questions and finding answers. My works are mostly struggles of trying to answer questions about humanity. I hope people will think differently about reading novels through this opportunity."

Han, a professor of creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, studied Korean literature at Yonsei University and has won several awards in Korea including the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today's Young Artist Award and the Korean Literature Novel Award. She made her literary debut as a poet in 1993 and as a novelist in 1994.

Smith began learning Korean seven years ago after enrolling in a graduate program at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She initially majored in English literature at the University of Cambridge, receiving graduate and doctoral degrees in Korean Studies and moving to Korea to pursue her career.

Her works had so far been concentrated on Korean female authors Han Kang and Bae Su-ah, including Han Kang's "Human Acts," which was published recently and Bae Su-ah's "The Essayist's Desk" and "The Low Hills of Seoul." She also recently established Tilted Axis Press, a nonprofit publishing company that translates literature from Asia and Africa.

"There are lots of Korean novels and poems, but when you translate them they are not necessarily as good as the original. It is just as important to have great translators as good writers in order for Korean literature to be globalized," said Brother Anthony, professor emeritus at Sogang University, after hearing the news about the winner.

The Englishman, who is a naturalized Korean, is noted for promoting Korean literature overseas by translating many works into English.

"If Han Kang writes only in Korean, then only Koreans can read," he said. "Without the translated work, foreigners don't have access to the literature. This is why the Man Booker awards the writer and the translator equally. I send my congratulations to both the recipients whom I know very well."

"The Vegetarian" is about Yeong-hye, an ordinary Korean housewife, who seeks a "plantlike existence" and decides to become a vegetarian. After recurring nightmares torment her with imagery of blood and brutality, Yeong-hye renounces eating meat altogether.

But such an act is considered subversion by her family and one that rebels against the tradition and culture of the country. As she tries to obsessively defend her choice amid intrusive assertion of control coming from her family, Yeong-hye fantasizes about becoming a tree.

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