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Chicken or egg? Novel or translation?

Chicken or egg? Novel or translation?

Han Kang's Man Booker International Prize win has been reported worldwide. What has been interesting to note among the various pieces disseminating her victory is the way the Man Booker International Prize has started to be more widely recognised as a prize for translation every bit as much as for pure literature. The Economist, for example, headlined its article, ‘South Korean novel wins the world’s biggest translation award’, while a Guardian piece was entitled ‘The Man Booker International prize: a celebration of translation’. The Telegraph meanwhile took things a stage further – perhaps a stage too far? – in trailing their coverage as ‘Briton wins Man Booker International Prize for Korean translation’. Naturally Britain is best but relegating poor Kang, who'd only gone and written the book in the first place, seems a little harsh. 

The battle, as a thoughful piece in the New Statesman pointed out, is not yet won. ‘Too many booksellers and readers still see translated fiction as a separate category, distinct from crime, romance or historical fiction and defined solely by its status as a work of translation.’ The writer went on to note sensibly that translated fiction is the broadest possible category and that by ‘suggesting it is possible to 'like' translated fiction, just as one might like crime or sci-fi, booksellers imply that there is something that unites all of these books’ when in fact there is nothing. The answer is to mix English-language and foreign fiction on bookshop shelves. A good novel is a good novel, regardless of what language it was written in.

Just as Britain can take pride in Deborah Smith's prowess as a translator, in South East Asia the news of Han Kang's triumph has, not unnaturally, been met with glee. Her win is also being heralded as marking a new stage in the literature of the region or, as one news outlet put it, marking ‘a major victory for a decade-long effort to drag one of Asia’s oldest but, until recently, least-known literary traditions into the global market’ and bolstering ‘South Korea’s emergence as an increasingly prominent player on the global cultural stage’. That is a lot of responsibility for one young author to bear. According to Charles Montgomery, who runs the website Korean Literature in Translation, ‘South Korea is a high-context culture, with every Korean sharing a deep social, cultural, philosophical knowledge that can make its literature impenetrable to outsiders.’ It is a view echoed by Deborah Smith herself: that high-context culture ‘produced somewhat austere prescriptions as to what constitutes ‘proper’ literature – a rulebook that the younger generation have been all too happy to tear up.’

The results were not slow in being felt, most notably in the way Han Kang's success has translated (pun intended) into international interest. According to Joseph Lee, president of Korean Literary (KL) Management, which handles foreign rights for Han Kang, The Vegetarian has already gone into a second printing of 20,000 copies in the UK and 7,500 copies in the US. Lee has also fielded expressions of interest from India, Indonesia and some Arabic countries. The knock-on effect means that publication rights to Han Kang's 2014 novel Human Acts have been sold to 10 countries, while rights to her latest book, The Elegy of Whiteness, have sold in Britain and the Netherlands despite the book not yet being published in Korea.

A couple of media sites noted but made nothing of the extraordinary fact that The Vegetarian was a unanimous choice among the judges. Happy and universal agreement among judges is far rarer than one might think, for all the united front they put on at awards ceremonies. Of course, the veil of secrecy that hangs over the judging process should remain firmly stapled in place but it is breaking no rules of omerta to note that some of the most celebrated of Man Booker prize winners, for example, triumphed on a split vote. It is hindsight that makes some books seem the only possible choice. For judges, all frothy in the heat of reading, things are not always so clear.