The Under-Translated Language, with Deborah Smith

This month we sat down with translator and not-for-profit publisher Deborah Smith to get her thoughts on the art and business of literary translation, and learn more about one of the most under-translated languages around.

Deborah Smith

Deborah Smith's literary translations from the Korean include two novels by Han Kang, The Vegetarian and Human Acts (both Portobello UK, Crown US), and two by Bae Suah, A Greater Music (Open Letter 2016) and Recitation (Deep Vellum 2016). @londonkoreanist

Deborah recently founded @TiltedAxisPress, a not-for-profit press focusing on contemporary literary fiction. Tilted Axis' first titles will include a darkly erotic Bengali novella, an obliquely allegorical take on South Korea's social minorities, and a feminist, environmentalist narrative poem from Indonesia, published as a 'sight-impaired-accessible' art book. These will be followed by translations from Thai, Uzbek, and Japanese.

Lots of people grow up wanting to be authors, did you grow up wanting to be a translator? How did you end up in the profession?

I wanted to be an astronaut! I didn’t know ‘translator’ was a profession. My parents don’t read much, and Doncaster didn’t get a bookshop until I was 17, but I’ve always been addicted to books, and I always read at least as much in translation as not - I think because I didn’t have anyone to shape my tastes, and only ever encountered books in translation lumped together with everything else under ‘fiction’.

I was surprised when I went to university (to do English) to find that no one else had read the authors I loved (Mann, Calvino, Borges, Tanizaki) and that they’d all read people I’d never heard of - mainly British and American writers from the early 20th century. I found the course itself incredibly parochial, so when I graduated I was itching to learn a language (being monolingual at 21 was an embarrassment), and thought maybe I could combine it with a career, given I had zero other ideas. So: translation! 

Korean is an absurdly under-translated language, given how literary a country South Korea is.

What drew you to Korean language and literature? It would be ridiculous to suggest Korean literature is any more homogenous than English, but does it have qualities English readers might not know about?

Partly the mystery - when I chose to do a Korean Studies MA at SOAS I’d never read a Korean book, eaten Korean food, or met a Korean person. I needed funding, so it had to be a language where there were scholarships available and the courses were undersubscribed. And I guessed it would be a pragmatic career choice - lots of great books untranslated, almost no competition. Naive, but not exactly incorrect. 


Is Korean an under-translated language?

Korean is an absurdly under-translated language, given how literary a country South Korea is. When I first started learning the language, almost all the translations were published by university presses in the US, and a lot of these had been chosen on anthropological interest, i.e. for students to ‘learn about Korean culture’.

But the tide’s definitely changed in the last couple of years, and finally a handful of authors - Han Kang, Hwang Sok-yong, Bae Suah, Jung Young Moon, Shin Kyung-sook (several translated by Sora Kim-Russell) - are getting published steadily in English translation, by brilliant presses like Portobello and Periscope in the UK, Open Letter and Deep Vellum in the US. And Graywolf are soon to publish a novel by Han Yujoo, translated by Janet Hong. Plus, I’ll be publishing two or three myself (not translated by myself). 

In publishing, ‘universal’ seems to be code for white, male, and middle-class, which is lazy, damaging, and just plain boring.

You run Tilted Axis Press, a not-for-profit publishing company. Why did you set up your own press and what principles guide you?

I set up Tilted Axis because, through my work as a translator, I’d come into contact with a lot of other great people working with non-European languages, who always had an utterly brilliant-sounding author they were longing to translate.

I also got sufficient insight into the publishing industry to see all the reasons why it wasn’t happening - editor can't read the original language; author doesn't speak English; inherent conservatism involved in chasing sales figures. And the little that did get through got some godawful cover featuring geishas or henna or banyan trees slapped on it.

So I wanted to try and do something about that. ‘Publish less, publish better’ is one principle. The idea that you’re doing a good deed just by printing the book - what Frank Wynne calls ‘privishing’ - is unfortunately still prevalent among small presses. Another is to build long-term relationships with authors and translators. And I’m considering a manifesto called ‘Against Universality’. In publishing, ‘universal’ seems to be code for white, male, and middle-class, which is lazy, damaging, and just plain boring. 


How do you get work as a translator? Are you commissioned? Do you approach publishers or authors with ideas?

At the moment I only translate two authors, Han Kang and Bae Suah, and in both cases the initial contracts came from me falling in love with their work and pitching them directly to publishers. This sounds lucky. It is lucky. The vast majority of Korean literature is untranslated; there are only a handful of translators (and no others in the UK); the Korean government has an extremely generous funding programme. 


How does the author-translator relationship work? Are there any challenges you’d highlight to advise others?

Again, I’m aware that this is me being incredibly lucky, but so far there have been no challenges or downsides at all. I work with Han Kang far more closely because her English is good enough for her to read through my translations, and I’m always grateful for her meticulous notes, which give me a deeper understanding of intentions, context, resonances, and often lead me to alter my translation.

Bae doesn’t read English, though she translates from German - Sebald is her personal favourite, and she’s recently translated Pessoa using German as a bridge. I’ve met her, and had a fair bit of contact about contracts, her books, but not my translations themselves. 

It sounds overblown but it genuinely is a thrill, and an honour, to translate these women. I get actual chills down my spine. And It’s one of the great privileges and happinesses of my life that I'm able to call Han Kang my friend. I hope I can do the same with Bae Suah as well, though I’d also be happy to keep her as a slightly enigmatic idol!  

a pragmatic career choice - lots of great books untranslated, almost no competition. Naive, but not exactly incorrect.'

Is there a particular book you’d love to translate and bring to an English-language audience?

Han Kang’s first novel, Black Deer. It opens with a pair of journalists on the night train from Seoul to a poor coal-mining village in mountainous Gangwon province, where a mural of a black deer has recently appeared down one of the mines, causing a stir among the superstitious locals.

The journalists suspect the mural to be the work of a young artist they both have prior entanglements with, whose desire to break free from the sanitised world of commercial art culminated in her disappearance a year ago. It has a lot of classic Han Kang tropes - art, mental illness, a central character viewed obliquely, through intersecting perspectives - but the setting and the suspenseful plot make it unique, and the depiction of social conditions is neither romanticised nor ‘poverty porn’. 


Were there translated books that inspired you growing up?

The Magic Mountain, in H.T. Lowe-Porter’s translation. I can’t say it inspired me as a translation, because I don’t think I was really aware of that (though I was certainly aware of all the untranslated French dialogue), and Germanists tell me she wasn’t actually a great translator. But it inspired me to think, hard. 


What, to you, represents the best of translation? Are there up-and-coming translators you’re keeping an eye on?

Mui Poopoksakul is a young translator single-handedly bringing Thai literature to the English-speaking world. Emma Ramadan and Roland Glasser are both introducing excitingly idiosyncratic Francophone voices (female Oulipian Anne Garreta and Congolese jazz-master Fiston Mwanza Mujila, respectively).