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Han Kang explodes

Han Kang explodes

The effects of Han Kang's Man Booker International victory have been quick to manifest themselves. Before her winning book, The Vegetarian, was shortlisted for the prize it had sold a respectable 20,000 copies in Kang's native Korea. That though was over the course of nine years since its first publication in 2007. Within a week of her anointment a staggering further 462,000 copies had been printed, leaving one rather fearful for Korea's trees. The numbers left Kang bewildered: I am overwhelmed. I had thought the previous 20,000 copies sold was good enough. She went on to express her hope that her win (I found it odd – in a good way) will prove the catalyst for a wider appreciation of her country's books: I feel that Korean literature is starting to become a trend, now is just the beginning. The Koreans are coming . . .


Further evidence of Kang's new-found celebrity was evidenced by the presence of more than 100 journalists at her first press conference since returning home. As well as discussing the MBI she spoke too about her new book, The Elegy of Whiteness, which she started writing in late 2013 and has only just finished. The 132-page novel is composed of 65 short chapters, and according to one source is not an easy read. Kang wrote the book as a way of dealing with her feelings about a sister who died before Kang was born. In Korea white represents life and death – it is both the colour of the clothes of a newborn baby and also for a dead person. The book is being translated by her Vegetarian collaborator Deborah Smith and is due for publication in English in the autumn of 2017.


The softly spoken author has yet, it seems, to realise just how things have changed for her. I took the subway here but nothing happened . . . I want to continue living as if nothing had happened, she told the roomful of reporters. That might be out of her hands, however much she would like people to hear her voice simply in the form of writing. Kang is far too sassy to think that sticking her fingers in her ears and intoning La, la, la at the top of her voice will do the trick. Her solution? The best way is, I think, to hide in my room and start writing as soon as possible.


Prompted by the Man Booker International Prize's initiative in awarding half the £50,000 prize money to the translator of the winning book, the art of translation itself has become what is now known as a trending topic. Ros Schwartz, the translator of, among others, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Georges Simenon into English, told the Financial Times that 30 years ago the role of the translator was one of a humble servant waiting for the crumbs from the publishers’ table. Now though it is translators who are bringing little-known authors to the attention of publishers. Translators are being seen as grown-ups, she said. Ann Goldstein, translator of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, is now a minor celebrity as a result, which is, she says, something of an oxymoron. Robert Chandler, translator of Vasily Grossman and Alexander Pushkin, points out though that things aren't entirely rosy: I don’t think anyone would do translation unless they loved it, as the pay is so bad. For another worker in this particular literary mine, Tim Parks (an Man Booker International Prize judge in 2013), there is one great benefit though: It’s a great relief not to be responsible for what’s in a book but just the person who makes it possible to read it in another language.