On the Joyful Tears of a Translator
When Deborah Smith, Translator of Han Kang's The Vegetarian, Won the Man Booker International Prize
The supposedly live stream of the announcement of the inaugural winners of the newly reconstituted Man Booker International Prize came so many minutes after the winner had been revealed by other tweeters, fewer people than intended probably ended up watching it. I did. But then, I am a literary translator, so it makes sense that I should want to witness the moment one of my colleagues received a perfect and symbolic half of the full £50,000 book prize for their translation (“symbolic” because it marks a sea change in the reception of our work; not “symbolic” in the way translators are used to understanding the word in reference to prizes).
When chair of the judging panel, Boyd Tonkin, announced Han Kang and Deborah Smith as the winners of the prize for their novel The Vegetarian (Portobello Books, 2015), a very composed but smiling Han Kang kissed her publisher on the cheek, stood up, hugged Smith, and waited to be called up on stage. Smith, her translator, broke down in tears, and she was still crying when she received her award. By the time Kang took to the podium to give her half of their acceptance speech, her translator was drying her eyes and controlling her by now dry heaves. “Don’t cry,” Kang said softly into the microphone, her head turned towards Deborah.
It was a tender moment, and one that also shone a light on the two different relationships born out of translation: your relationship to your author, and your relationship to your book. Because a translation is always your book –it is yours and the author’s book, as new Man Booker International Prize money split openly recognizes. Encouragingly, the new statistics released last week showing that translated literary fiction makes up 3.5 percent of the literary fiction titles published in the UK but 7 percent of the volume of sales suggests that readers have already come to terms with the idea of a book having two writers, if indeed they ever cared in the first place. I imagine it must take a little more for the authors themselves to come to terms with this fact, but as this year’s judges’ decision shows, the ones who want their babies to work in translation, to be lovingly reborn in a foreign language as they were lovingly created in a first one, do well to give space to the new surrogate parent where space is required, and help where help is requested.
From her acceptance speech, it’s clear that Kang trusts and admires Smith. At the same time, she clearly wants to be a part of the translation process. During a translation workshop at the Writers’ Centre Norwich in 2015, Kang wrote of translators: “[They are] people who delight in the intricacies of language. People who take even the most minute difference to be something large, important, significant. People who, through that keen sensibility, give a single text a new birth in another language… I felt touchingly grateful to everyone in our session, including Deborah – no, somehow to every translator in the world.”
It might seem skewed to readers that while her translator wept beside her, Kang, who waited a decade for her careful, contemplative and highly personal novel to be read by English readers, showed no sign of losing her composure or breaking down in emotion as she accepted one of the highest official accolades a writer could hope to receive during their career. And in fact something skewed does occur during the translation process, at least when you are translating a good book: as a translator, while you pick away at the prose and twist the kaleidoscope of possible meanings to create the most subjective and vital translation you can, you become closer to the book than the author, who is often usually already onto the next project. You become the book’s guardian. You write the fourth apologetic email of the week to the author asking her to “please just try to explain what exactly this ‘no’ means here” and receive a kind but somehow detached “I trust you”. You trust me! What kind of a parent would trust someone else to make this decision for their child? I believe that, just as people tend to feel guiltier about not preventing an accident that involves someone else’s child than their own, so does a translator feel a keener responsibility to a book’s meanings and voices than its own author does. Writers, like parents, know that letting go of their books is a necessary part of writing them.
And perhaps authors never have quite such an attachment to their books as the translators working them into other languages do. Writing requires a level of irresponsibility that translators cannot afford. In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Roland Barthes writes: “to know that one does not write for the other… this is the beginning of writing.” Literary translators like Smith, contrary to writers, only write for the other. Most literary translators I know fell into the profession because they happened to speak two languages and wanted to share the books they loved with more people. Translators re-write books in their language so that all those “others” whom Barthes’s writer strictly wasn’t writing for can read her all the same. This matters to translators, almost as much as prepositions do. Translators are destined to be fussy surrogate parents; we smother the texts, and we have to: how else could we, as Daniel Hahn, also shortlisted for this year’s prize, puts it, “write exactly the same book…—exactly the same—while using none of the same words”?
Of course Deborah Smith cried as she received the 2016 Man Booker International Prize this week. She cried, as she said in her speech, because she felt overwhelmed by the support she had received from friends and the literary community. But perhaps she also cried out of love for and an attachment to an enduring work of literature, The Vegetarian, to which she holds more secrets than all of us; and to its original creator, serene Han Kang, already a few books and a couple of films removed from her brainchild. Kang told Smith not to cry as her friend. As a reader I say: Cry away, Deborah. It’s a sign of what makes you, with the anglophone world’s growing pool of dedicated literary translators, so good.