It has just been announced that the first winner of this year’s reconfigured Man Booker International Prize is The Vegetarian by Han Kang translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. A very well deserved win for one of the most startlingly original and surreal works of translated fiction I’ve read this year. Many congratulations to them both!
Myself and my fellow shadow panel members also voted for our winner last week from our own shortlist consisting of Ferrante, Lianke, NDiaye, Oe, Kang and de Kerangal. It was a close run thing between ‘The Vegetarian’ and Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe in the run-off vote but ‘The Vegetarian’ also came out top in the end, meaning that we are in agreement with the real judging panel for the second year in a row (last year, we selected The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck as our winner for the now-defunct Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). While ‘Death by Water’ had its devoted fans amongst our group, ‘The Vegetarian’ had wider support in both the longlist and shortlist stages and also featured in many of our early prediction lists before the longlist was even announced.
Last Thursday, I went to an event at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London sponsored by English PEN where four of the translators talked about how they came to translate the Man Booker International Prize shortlisted novels. The thing that particularly struck me during the discussion was how all four fell into translation almost by accident. Portuguese speaker Daniel Hahn had no intention of becoming a translator until he was asked to read one of José Eduardo Agualusa’s previous novels for a friend in the publishing industry and liked it so much he agreed to translate it. Ekin Oklap works for a literary agency and was asked to find a translator for Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel. As she speaks Turkish herself, she put herself forward and was accepted to take on the job, taking four months off work to complete the translation. Charlotte Collins completed a range of voiceover, journalism and editing work in Germany before eventually settling on translation relatively recently.
This year’s winner Deborah Smith only started learning Korean at the age of twenty-two, proving that not all literary translators are multilingual from early childhood. She said that learning a niche language made it easier for her to secure a grant combined with the happy coincidence of Korea being the focus of the London Book Fair in 2014 where she met Han Kang’s editor. I hope Smith’s experiences will inspire more people to learn a foreign language and read more translated fiction as well as continuing to raise the profile of Korean fiction around the world.
I’ve really enjoyed participating in the Man Booker International Prize shadow panel and it’s been fantastic to discover new authors who I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of from a very strong longlist. I’m looking forward to next year already!