I love The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith. I think they are are both incredible and tragic works about humanity, both it’s brutality and compassion. So I was disappointed when I came across this article today about the error filled translation of The Vegetarian.
While I have no issues with the minor errors that don’t affect the plot (what kind of stew isn’t important, same with which room of the house they are in), other errors and changes described in the article are more jarring.
According to this article, 31.5% of the text in the first section of the book contains embellished translations. Embellishments that change the tone of the original novel. Apparently they change Han Kang’s “spare and quiet” prose into Smith’s “high, formal style with lyrical flourishes.” This seems like a huge shift in writing style.
It also changes the characters. I remember thinking of the husband as pretentious, arrogant, and willfully evil in my mind. According to the article, in the original Korean the husband is merely “a bland, bumbling kind of guy, unaware of his own sexism or biases.” While I did picture him a bland, this version leaves out the more nefarious intent behind his actions. The changes made by Smith give the characters more purpose and control over their decisions, which is not present in the original. According to the article this change makes the work more appealing to Western readers who frequently complain of the lack of agency in South Korean literature.
This reminded me of Fitzgerald changing the endings to his short stories to have a better chance of being published. I side with Hemingway on that one:
[F. Scott Fitzgerald] had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring. (from A Moveable Feast)
I do agree that Smith’s writing is beautiful, though, and her changes may have made the work appeal to a wider audience that would have passed on it otherwise. But is that enough of a reason to justify a looser translation? Han Kang did approve the English version, and it was faithful to the overall theme if not tone. I’m conflicted on this, but leaning toward a preference to a more faithful translation.
While I read and loved the translated work, I think I would have preferred the book to be closer to the original. I wouldn’t have minded the more passive nature of the characters if that is what Han Kang originally intended. I would have also loved to read the original sparser prose to see how it would have affected my view of the story.
Is it worth losing some of the original meaning to appeal to a wider audience? Let me know what you think!