The author of our July Book of the Month talks about the impact of winning the International Booker Prize, how the novel has been received worldwide – and questioning what it means to be human

Publication date and time: Published

You were the first winner of the International Booker Prize after the rules changed for 2016. How did it feel to win, and what did it mean for you? 

I wrote The Vegetarian between 2003 and 2005, and published it as a full-length novel in 2007. I remember thinking that it was rather strange (in a good way) to win the International Booker Prize in 2016, more than a decade later. Since winning the prize, my other works including Human Acts, The White Book, and Greek Lessons, as well as my most recent novel, We Do Not Part, have been or are being translated into several languages. I’m grateful that the International Booker Prize has invaluably helped my works to reach a wider readership in different cultures.  

You were also the first Korean to be nominated for  and win  the award. Do you feel there was more recognition for Korean fiction as a result of your win, or was it becoming more visible internationally anyway? 

At that time, there were already excellent Korean poets and writers – such as Kim Hyesoon – whose works had been translated into English. Now, more and more works of Korean writers are being translated and published overseas. In recent years, the number of translators working on Korean literature has increased dramatically – a phenomenon that seems to be also closely related to the global success of Korean cinema and pop music. 

The novel was based on your 1997 short story ‘The Fruit of My Woman’. What inspired you to develop this into a full-length novel, or a story in three parts? 

After writing ‘The Fruit of My Woman’, I hoped to one day write a variation on that story. It was only after writing two full-length novels that I was able to do so in my third novel, The Vegetarian. In particular, Part One of The Vegetarian retains many formal traces of the original short story. For example, the husband takes on the role of an unreliable narrator, and the voice of the female protagonist appears only partially, in dreams or in monologues addressed to her mother. The difference between these two stories about a woman who becomes - or wants to become - a plant lies in the level of darkness, passion and intensity. The Vegetarian is much darker, more intense and painful; nothing supernatural happens as in ‘The Fruit of My Woman’, and the characters plunge to their doom in the midst of brutal reality. Another difference is that the protagonist of the novel has a sister, which creates a strange sense of self-identification. 

Han Kang, 2017

It is intriguing to see the subtle differences in interpretation between various cultures and generations, but what strikes me even more is the way the novel has been received in general. For example, it has been more embraced and understood by female readers everywhere

— Han Kang

The Vegetarian has been translated into over 20 languages. Has the reaction to the novel been different in different countries and have any of those reactions surprised you? Has it attracted a different readership (e.g. younger readers) in different places or resonated in different ways? 

It is intriguing to see the subtle differences in interpretation between various cultures and generations, but what strikes me even more is the way the novel has been received in general. For example, it has been more embraced and understood by female readers everywhere.   

For the English edition, you worked with the book’s translator, Deborah Smith (Smith taught herself Korean and this was the first book she translated). What was this experience like, compared to other language translations? And how did it feel when there was a level of controversy around the translation? 

Contrary to the concerns expressed by many, I do not believe that the translator has deliberately undermined the original, nor do I believe that she has created a new work that is completely different from the original. The errors have been corrected and translation is by its very nature an extremely difficult and complex act that involves loss and exploration. Lyricism, rhythms, poetic tension, subtlety, the layered meanings, the deeply inscribed cultural context of the departure language – everything that is possible only in that language – is inevitably lost in the transition to the arrival language. The challenging task for any translator is to navigate through this dark tunnel of loss and find the closest equivalents or analogies to be as faithful as possible to the original text. 

I first came across the English version of The Vegetarian when Granta Books sent me the file of the first proof. I was so absorbed in writing Human Acts at the time that, to be honest, I spent about three or four hours reading the manuscript without even looking up words in a dictionary. Along the way, I spotted several errors, and exchanged a few emails with Deborah about them. That was the extent of my involvement in the translation of The Vegetarian. However, in 2015, when Deborah was working on Human Acts, I wasn’t writing anything else, so I had the peace of mind to engage in a deeper dialogue with her. When Deborah translated The White Book in 2017, she and I compared the manuscript with the original text sentence by sentence. Later, when a heated debate erupted over the translation of The Vegetarian, I wished I had spent as much time reviewing the translation as I had with Human Acts. In fact, perhaps I should have commissioned an expert to compare it sentence by sentence with the original. 

The debate seems to have been a confusing conflation of two arguments. The first is mistranslation, as mistakes were made. There were mistranslations of Chinese characters and incorrect assumptions about context when subjects were omitted from sentences – as is often the case in Korean. In 2017, Deborah made 67 corrections based on the various points raised. The UK and US editions of The Vegetarian, reprinted in 2018, as well as the language editions translated via English, were then revised based on these corrections. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who found errors in the translation and emailed me. 

The second point of contention is the extent to which the translation deviates from the original text. The problem here is that mistranslations have been used as evidence for this argument. For example, the Korean word cheohyeong refers to the older sister of one’s wife, but since the first part of the word (cheo) means ‘wife’ and the second part (hyeong) means ‘older brother’, it could be confusing to a beginner, who might take it to mean the older brother of one’s wife. The resulting mistake led to the misconception that the translator had changed the characters. Also, about half a page overall of the original text is missing from the English translation, which I understand was an editorial decision on the part of the publisher. The translator had diligently translated every sentence. 

Deborah Smith and Han Kang

When I write fiction, I put a lot of emphasis on the senses. I want to convey vivid senses like hearing and touch, including visual images. I infuse these sensations into my sentences like an electric current

— Han Kang

The Vegetarian combines beauty with horror. It is a story that is at times brutal and disturbing, with scenes of physical and sexual violence, force-feeding, and a foreboding sense of death. What draws you to write about darker subjects, and human actions? 

I wanted to deal with the questions I had about the world and humanity in the form of three sections about two sisters crying out in silence: one who wants to stop being part of the human race, refusing to eat meat and believing she has turned into a plant, and the other who wants to hold her sister from death, conflicted and pained herself. When I write novels, I find myself trying to reach the end of the question – not an answer – which initially drew me to write it. To penetrate my questions on the meaning of being human, it was inevitable for me to go through such intense scenes and images. 

The story is rich with visual iconography and reoccurring motifs. Did you intend to write these into the story, or did they evolve naturally? How important are these visual elements of the story? 

When I write fiction, I put a lot of emphasis on the senses. I want to convey vivid senses like hearing and touch, including visual images. I infuse these sensations into my sentences like an electric current, and then, strangely enough, the reader discerns that current. The experience of that connection is phenomenal for me every time. 

You wrote The Vegetarian in 2007, and when translated into English in 2015, many readers and reviewers felt it was a parable, a transgressive commentary on Korean etiquette and society, as well as patriarchal norms. 16 years on, how do you feel this stands up?   

I agree that the novel can be read as a parable against patriarchy. However, I do not think that this is unique to Korean society. There may be differences in degree, but wouldn’t it be  universal? I did not set out to create a portrait of Korean society in particular.  

The Vegetarian challenges conventional narrative structures. Yeong-hye’s story is told through three narrators, yet she is rarely allowed a voice. Why did you choose to write your protagonist in this manner? 

Yeong-hye is a radical and strong character. She is determined to become a plant in order to save herself. The irony, of course, is that her efforts bring her closer to death. Instead of having Yeong-hye speak directly, I wanted to show through the narration of other characters how she is observed, hated, misunderstood, pitied and objectified. I imagined the moments the readers piece together her truth as it emerges from these misunderstandings. 

As well as winning the International Booker Prize, The Vegetarian won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, receiving critical acclaim and made several ‘best of the year’ lists. How did it feel to write something that has been celebrated around the world? What impact did this have on your career in the following years? 

The three years I spent writing The Vegetarian was a difficult time for me, and I never imagined that it would one day find so many readers. At the time, I was not sure if I would be able to finish the novel, or even survive as a writer. I was suffering from severe arthritis in my fingers, so I wrote the first two parts at a leisurely pace, using a felt-tip pen that glided smoothly across the paper, and then typed out the last part holding two ballpoint pens upside down. To this day, I feel awkward when I hear about the novel’s ‘success’, especially since the protagonist, Yeong-hye, doesn’t seem to fit the word ‘success’. 

Somehow, I made it through that period of my life and finished the novel. I was then able to move on to the next one. In the final scene of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye’s sister stares out of the ambulance window ‘As if waiting for an answer. As if protesting against something.’ Indeed, I feel that the whole novel is waiting for an answer and protesting against something. Usually, the questions I’m left with after writing a novel drive me on to the next one, so I wrote my fourth novel starting with the question in the last scene of The Vegetarian: how do we come to terms with human life, which is so beautiful and so violent at the same time? Then the question posed at the end of my fourth novel became the starting point of my new work. That’s how I have written on until now. I have started to write a new novel this summer, waiting to reach what I am going to find at the end. 

What three works of translated Korean fiction would you recommend to readers, and why? 

I would like to recommend One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon; Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin, translated by Jamie Chang; and Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur. All three works never avert their gaze, but look directly at the world and the human interior. 

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung