Fidelity or infidelity? The mistranslation controversy over The Vegetarian

Sun Kyoung Yoon
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

This article examines the controversy over The Vegetarian (Han 2015), Deborah Smith’s English translation of Han Kang’s Korean novel, 채식주의자 Chaesikjuuija (2007). The translation, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, provoked a heated discussion in South Korea. A close analysis of three influential articles – Cho (2017), B. Kim (2017), and W. Kim (2018) – shows how the debates on the supposed mistranslation of The Vegetarian are dominated by a preoccupation with fidelity and literal translation. They dismiss the translator’s interpretation or transformation, regarding accuracy or fidelity as the sole criterion for a good translation. Significantly, the critics’ advocacy of literal translation, and hence their objections to The Vegetarian, reflect three levels of political anxiety: over ‘superior’ translation, over ‘English’ translation, and over a female translator’s ‘feminist’ translation.

Publication history
Table of contents

Deborah Smith’s English translation of Han Kang’s Korean novel, 채식주의자 Chaesikjuuija, The Vegetarian (Han 2015), winner of the Man Booker International (MBI) Prize in 2016, provoked a heated discussion in South Korea, focusing on its supposed mistranslations. As the uproar intensified, both the English translator and the Korean author, who were bombarded with emails of complaint, defended their work and agreed to a corrected edition. Writing in the LA Review of Books, Smith (2018) defended her translation by saying that she had not betrayed the Korean original; at the same time, in an interview with the press, Han (2018) declared that the obvious mistakes in The Vegetarian were not obstacles to understanding the novel, nor did they make the English version a very different book from the Korean original. However, both novelist and translator agreed that to settle the issue of mistranslation, future printings of the translation would contain around sixty revisions. The controversy over Smith’s translation reflects the enduring power of fidelity as a qualitative judgment in Korean translation criticism and, more significantly, exposes some of the specificities of the politics of Korean–English translation.

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