In addition to recognizing the best in fiction published in the English language, the good people at the Man Booker Prize have also begun to celebrate translations of works in languages other than English. In previous years, the International award has gone to an author for their body of work, including Ismail Kadaré in 2005, Chinua Achebe in 2007, and László Krasznahorkai in 2015. However, translated fiction is growing considerably in popularity:The volume sales of translated fiction books have grown by 96% from 1.3 million copies in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2015. Additionally, the role of translator becoming increasingly respected in the publishing and reading worlds, as we really begin to explore what it means to make the heart and soul of a story accessible to a wider and wider audience (see the infographic below for some more information). Thus, this year, the Booker joined forced with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to recognize a single work of fiction in a language other than English.
Last week, that award went to The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (pictured above). The Vegetarian is a three-part novel that follows the story of Yeong-hye, a dutiful Korean wife who, spurred on by a dream, decides one day to become a vegetarian, a deeply subversive act, not only because it involves giving up meat, but also because it means Yeong-hye is defying her husband and culture in order to make this change in her personal life. This subversive act fractures her family and, as Yeong-hye’s rebellion takes on a number of increasingly bizarre and frightening forms, the real cost of her decisions becomes starkly, hauntingly clear, even as the story itself feels increasingly more and more like a cataclysmic nightmare. It’s a deeply unsettling, but surprisingly engaging book that is, if nothing else, totally, and completely different from anything else I’ve ever read.
Of the book, The Guardian said: ‘Across the three parts, we are pressed up against a society’s most inflexible structures – expectations of behaviour, the workings of institutions – and we watch them fail one by one…it’s a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet. It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions.’
Boyd Tonkin, the chair of the 2016 judging panel, said of Kang’s book:
‘The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, is an unforgettably powerful and original novel that richly deserves to win the Man Booker International Prize 2016…Told in three voices, from three different perspectives, this concise, unsettling and beautifully composed story traces an ordinary woman’s rejection of all the conventions and assumptions that bind her to her home, family and society. In a style both lyrical and lacerating, it reveals the impact of this great refusal both on the heroine herself and on those around her. This compact, exquisite and disturbing book will linger long in the minds, and maybe the dreams, of its readers. Deborah Smith’s perfectly judged translation matches its uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn.’
The Free For All is delighted to congratulate Han Kang and Deborah Smith, and is eagerly looking forward to the announcement of the Man Booker Prize Long List in July!