Max Porter on The Vegetarian

Max Porter on publishing The Vegetarian: 'Everyone agreed that this was an important book'

Max Porter explains the process behind the publication of The Vegetarian, our July Book of the Month, and why it was essential that it reached readers who might have felt that translated literature was not for them

Written by Max Porter

Publication date and time: Published

In April 2013, when I was an editor at Granta and Portobello Books, I sat on a panel at London Book Fair to discuss how translators can best communicate with publishers and ‘make their work matter’. I was very inexperienced, was not and never will be an expert in literary translation publishing, but I had noticed that various barriers, mystifications and outdated structural impediments were preventing translators from reaching editors. I said that if a translator – based on an accurate appraisal of what I was acquiring, reading, or supporting elsewhere – thought I’d like a book, then they should send me a sample. At the end of the event, a person called Deborah Smith walked over and handed me seven pages of her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  

It wasn’t a new book; it had come out in Korea in 2007 and been a success. It wasn’t the first time it had been sent to Anglophone publishers; Ms Han’s US agent at the time had submitted a different sample, by a different translator, to multiple publishers over several years. I didn’t know any of this. I was just reading a story about a woman who stopped eating meat. A woman who thought she was turning into a plant. It was unforgettable. It was terrifying, shocking, elegant, radical and beautiful, so we – the team at Portobello books – set about acquiring it and commissioning Deborah to do a full translation.  

I remember having to fight a little bit, but not much, at acquisition stage. Everyone agreed the sample was extraordinary, that this was an important book. Some felt it was too strange a prospect to be commercially viable. Music to my ears. Everyone agreed it was highly unusual that Deborah didn’t speak Korean and had taught herself to translate the language only three years earlier. We did as much research as we could about the book and its reception, as well as Han Kang’s other works, and decided it was exactly the kind of book an independent publisher like us should be bringing to readers. Deborah’s translation-in-progress was hugely accomplished, fluent and atmospheric. It had a visceral immediacy and dazed musicality that wasn’t like anything else. 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

We wanted to avoid cultural stereotypes or obvious market signifiers of translated fiction. We didn’t want the fact it was a Korean novel to carry more weight than the fact it was a staggeringly good novel.

Deborah told me immediately that Kang could read English well enough to check the translation, which helped. I edited the translation, which surprised the author. I believe that a book being re-written in a new language deserves and benefits from editorial scrutiny in that language, so we tweaked a few things. It is a different book, needing different pacing, different tools for exposition, dialogue and lyricism as well as for political, social or emotional specificity. Korean and English are also profoundly different languages, so there is no point striving for fidelity or exactitude; the translator needs to create a new but related book that succeeds as an English language novel.  

It was a relatively light edit overall, but there was one significant cut and some revisions to the way the book is structured. We wrote back and forth a lot. I sat with Deborah and we went through the draft with pencils. She then fed those changes back to Kang who accepted or rejected them. It took a little longer than a book in English might to deliver into production, but I think translations should take longer.  

The conversations we have as editors, writers, translators or readers about translation are some of the most important and interesting conversations we can have in the fields of language and literature. They are the political membrane in which the life spark of the exchange of stories across imaginary and real borders is activated, so they should not be private, hidden or rushed.

Han Kang

We also spent a longer time than usual discussing the format and cover design for The Vegetarian. We wanted it to be affordable and accessible. We wanted to avoid cultural stereotypes or obvious market signifiers of translated fiction. We didn’t want the fact it was a Korean novel to carry more weight than the fact it was a staggeringly good novel, and we wanted it to look fresh and challenging and unlike the comparison titles an algorithm might throw up. All of us felt we should avoid lazy, generic (or worse Orientalist) imagery on the cover of the book. No blossom! No watercolour Seoye lettering. No image library beautiful Korean woman merging with a painted screen. We wanted it to pack a punch. It is a novel built of haunting and disturbing images and we didn’t want to shy away from that. Some people argued that our initial cover went a little bit too far in the grotesque direction (a digitally rendered shock of pink and white lilies concealing a bloody steak, a finger, and an eyeball) but I thought it was tremendous. It came from the uncanny, disturbing psychosexual world of the book. I argued that book covers can be transgressive and surprising just as book interiors are. The paperback’s severed wing design the following year was less disturbing, more beautiful, which was lucky given it was about to find hundreds of thousands of readers.  

Portobello Books (which ceased to exist in 2018 and became part of Granta Books) in those days was a very collaborative and happy team; we talked a lot. We sat round a table looking at hundreds of variations of the cover with different type, different layouts. We talked so much about the copy for the book cover, how we should describe it, what we should and shouldn’t say. We did this work for every book but for The Vegetarian we felt we had to get it right, it couldn’t disappear, it needed to find readers. It especially needed to find readers who might have felt that translated literature was not for them. Those people the International Booker-shortlisted translator Anton Hur recently described in an article on the Booker Prizes website, for whom ‘the words “translated literature” are used to conjure up dead European men writing about wars, bourgeois families and modernism’. 

The events of 2016 are blurred in my memory but the book found enthusiastic early readers, got amazing reviews, then it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, then shortlisted, then it won and we were all at the dinner and it was dizzying and emotional and Korean journalists descended and Kang and Deborah were swept up in a life-changing storm, the effects of which were sometimes deeply alarming, sometimes straightforwardly wonderful.  

Max Porter and Han Kang

The book found many readers, which is the most important thing. Perhaps it brought Korean literature, or novels about transgressive experience, or translated fiction in general, to a wider audience, or a younger audience, and that can only be a good thing. The direction of travel in recent years has been hugely encouraging, as this report from the Booker Prize Foundation in conjunction with Neilsen proves, which shows that readers of translated fiction in the UK are significantly younger than readers of fiction generally, with sales increasing. 

We later worked with Deborah and Kang on Human Acts (my favourite of Kang’s translated books, a genuine landmark in world literature I think) and the quiet, sublime The White Book. I have since left publishing and Kang is my friend and we see each other when we can and I find it hard now to separate my love and admiration of her as a person from my love and admiration of her writing, and I don’t mind. In both cases something is lost between languages, but something stranger is gained. A sense of difference is potently felt between us as people and writers, but it is an examined and generative difference which is shared to become growth, a progression and a dialogue. We read each other, and there are some things we don’t understand, so we read more.  

A lot has been written about Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian. Much of it very interesting and worthwhile, some of it uninformed or snide, all of it part and parcel of the outsized sometimes wonky global attention a famous Anglophone prize brings. She has been rigorous and generous in her responses. She has sought to learn and share her thinking. 

Han Kang 2016

The conversations we have as editors, writers, translators or readers about translation are some of the most important and interesting conversations we can have in the fields of language and literature.

She has written spectacularly well on the politics of translation, and her translation of The Vegetarian specifically. (For anyone wishing to explore this subject more fully, books such as Sophie Collins’ Currently & Emotion: Translations, David Bellos’ Is That a fish in Your Ear, Daniel Hahn’s Catching Fire and Kate Briggs’ This Little Art have brought the complexity and importance of translation to the fore.) 

Deborah also used her share of the International Booker Prize winners’ fee to start Tilted Axis Press, an imprint which has radically changed the face of literary publishing in the UK and continues to examine, challenge, diversify and expand the activities we associate with literary translation, as well as having a jaw-dropping hit rate in terms of excellent books and excellent translations. I admire her so, so much. For her adventure into translation, for her every weighted word choice, and for the way she has used her platform and her time.  

Han Kang and I have spoken often of trust. The trust economy of handing your work into another language, to a stranger, to a distant ear. Trusting people to take your heart work, your careful, exacting language machine, and turn it into a product. Winning the International Booker Prize in 2016 necessarily meant a loss of control and a huge amount of exposure and attention on her person and her writing. It’s been extraordinary to see her regain that control, finding herself in the work, in books, in the city she lives in, in her dedication to voice and style. Her work has always concerned itself with how to reconcile human violence with human compassion, as individuals, family members, or nation-states. The depth of this investigation, and the global scale of her audience after winning the International Booker Prize, makes her a truly inspiring and important writer. 

Deborah Smith and Han Kang