In the second episode of The Booker Prize Podcast, hosts Jo Hamya and James Walton revisit the 2016 International Booker Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Listen to more episodes from The Booker Prize Podcast here.
In the second episode of The Booker Prize Podcast our hosts – the novelist and critic Jo Hamya and critic and broadcaster James Walton – take a look back at the 2016 International Booker Prize winner, The Vegetarian by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith.
The Vegetarian – the first of Han Kang’s books to be translated into English – explores shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand each other, as well as what happens when someone refuses to conform to society’s expectations.
In 2016, the International Booker Prize moved from a bi-annual award recognising an author’s body of work to a prize that celebrated an individual book translated into English, giving its author and translator equal billing. The Vegetarian was the first novel to win the revamped prize.
This July, we’re revisiting the novel as our Book of the Month, exploring it more deeply through a series of features, from reading guides to exclusive essays, and of course, The Booker Prize Podcast.
If you’ve got a problem you’d like some literary help with, email us at [email protected] using the subject line “The Booker Clinic”.
Warning: this episode contains references to suicide.
This episode contains significant plot details.
6. The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook
Jo Hamya: You can decide which side you on. You can decide whether you agree with James and you think that she’s mad, or whether, like me-
James Walton: Yeah, let’s introduce a poll.
JH: Not a poll.
JW: That’s a mad-
JH: We want comments!
JW: Yes, no…
JH: Welcome to the Booker Prize Podcast. I’m your co-host, Jo Hamya.
JW: And I’m your co-host, James Walton. And today, Jo, we’re looking at which book?
JH: We’re looking at The Vegetarian, by Han Kang.
JW: Well done, two points. From my old days as a quizmaster. But there’s two things about this that we probably should explain right at the start. First of all, it’s our Book of the Month-
JH: It is!
JW: -for the podcast. Do you want to say a little bit about how that works?
JH: Yeah, I think it’s fairly self-explanatory for our incredibly intelligent listeners, I’m sure. Each month, the Booker Prize will be giving you a book to read. You can leave comments about our Book of the Month on our Substack, and you can discuss it as a community via social. You should talk about your thoughts and we’re going to have a chinwag about it ourselves.
JW: Yeah. And if you violently disagree with us, let us know, but obviously better if you violently agree with us-
JH: Yeah, we prefer that.
JW: The other thing about it that I probably should explain. Briefly. It was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize - in 2016, after it was revamped. So, the International Booker Prize was brought in, in 2005 I think, and it was awarded every two years for a body of work for basically anybody who wrote, whose work was available in English, but also included English writers. Ian McEwan was shortlisted one year. Philip Roth won, I think in 2011, causing one of the judges, Carmen Callil, to walk out in disgust. But then it was revamped as just for a single book in translation, with the prize shared by the author and the translator. And the first beneficiary of that prize, in 2016, was the book we are discussing today - The Vegetarian, by Han Kang.
JH: And we should just say, in the spirit of the prize, translated by Deborah Smith.
JW: Oh, yes, we really should. Well done. Translated from the South – translated from the Korean. She’s a South Korean writer.
JH: Well, since we’re still getting to know each other, I’ve got a question for you, James.
JH: So, my question for you this week, James, because a lot of the horror in The Vegetarian revolves around food - the sight of meat, and then gradually the sight of food more generally - I’d like to know what your worst ever meal was, and it doesn’t just have to be in terms of flavour or how it tasted. It can be the company you were in or the circumstances you were eating in.
JW: Listeners, I’ve had no notice of this question. And what’s it’s caused is to flash into my mind, a family Christmas dinner, which I would say… absolutely, you know, our family Christmas dinners were great, particularly that bit where we were old enough, our parents were still you know, full of beans, we didn’t have any children and it was just… the five of us. But there was one where my younger sister…
Well, we used to go over the road and have these astonishingly strong gin and tonics mixed by our neighbours, and then come back and have this sort of drunken Christmas meal. And my younger sister at some point - and you must bear in mind, we’ve all got paper hats on and everything - just started saying, ‘Dad, dad, dad. You know, we do love you and everything, but we’ve never really known you. What, are you really like, dad?’ Of course, the rest of us said, ‘Stop! Oh, please stop!’ The blood draining from his face. All of us with our paper hats slightly askew and desperately trying to change the subject. And, of course, she had the sort of doggedness of someone who’d been on a few gin and tonics. ‘No, no, no. But really!’ So yes, that’s the one that sprang to mind.
JH: Ah, yeah. Emotional connection. The worst possible accompaniment to a meal.
JW: Yeah, indeed. Okay then blisteringly original and… Okay, let me… have something completely different. What’s the best meal you’ve ever had, Jo?
JH: Okay, this is going to sound really soppy… But I think Hampstead Hill Gardens - where the pergola is, which is slightly beyond that. I went there with my partner, and he’s a kook to say the least. It was actually Valentine’s Day this year.
JW: Oh, that’s beautiful.
JH: And, I left it to him to organise, as he should, and he was like, okay, I’m going to take you for a romantic meal. And then he takes out this picnic basket and I’m like, this is so great. We’re going to… have a really romantic, lovely picnic on Hampstead Hill. And then he takes out a French military ration pack that has.. these tins of duck pâté… and this little portable… tiny burner hob that you have to set alight, that you would use in the military - and it was just such a left of centre move.
JW: Weirdly enough, that makes him a bit of a smoothie, in my mind.
JH: I was expecting… I don’t know, just like a classic picnic with cheese from… Sainsburys or Waitrose or something. And, the man had gone to all the lengths of… Probably like… Yeah, I don’t know how he got hold of it.
JW: How he sourced it.
JW: He could have gone with a couple of scotch eggs and a pork pie. No, he’s good.
JH: Yeah. I know, but it was… it was amazing and I loved it.
JW: It’s also quite interesting that that’s what French soldiers have - duck pâté and dauphinoise potatoes…
JW: Corned beef? C’mon!
JH: I mean, it is slightly like, you know, texturally, it’s a bit sludgy, but… it did it for me. You know, I’m going to marry him now so-
JW: Ah well…
JH: -so it must have worked.
JW: Congratulations! Hurray! Well, there we are. Tip for anybody, just get your French. Army rations in. But let’s return, with some speed then, to The Vegetarian. A book as I say, well it’s a book in three parts. A slightly strange book. In three slightly strange parts. So, let’s do… a part each. Why don’t you kick us off with Part One?
JH: Sure. The first part starts off with this married couple. The protagonist of the book is called Yeong-hye, and the opening line - it’s narrated by her husband, this section - and it goes, the opening goes.
JW: ‘Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her, I wasn’t even attracted to her.’
JH: And that kind of gives you a sense of the marriage. It is fairly bland. Yeong-hye generally cooks. Her husband keeps the house. He’s not really emotionally invested in her. One imagines that, before the events of this book, they had fairly staid, irregular, infrequent sex. But Yeong-hye wakes up one day after a dream and she decides that she’s not going to eat meat anymore. Her husband comes downstairs one morning to find her throwing out all the fish and meat. So he gets distressed. In his view, the only reason people should change their diet or be vegetarian is either to lose weight or because their health requires it. And he expresses this to his wife and she really doesn’t care. She keeps going with her vegetarian diet. She tells him that he generally eats lunch and dinner out of the house anyway, so all he has to really endure is a vegetarian breakfast. And yet there is still a sense that what she is doing is causing a massive rift in their marriage and also some kind of social awkwardness. So, at one point her husband takes her to a work dinner and Yeong-hye sticks to her vegetarian diet, without any kind of fuss, and-
JW: Sticks to her vegetarian diet by not eating anything, because it’s meat.
JH: Yes. And still the wives of the businessmen present, and the businessmen present, take this as a form of kind of unacceptable rebellion or of kind of social transgression. It gets very, very awkward. This act of resistance is quite novel to her husband. And, rather disgustingly, at one point he finds himself sort of… so frustrated by it as to be aroused. So he begins raping her, basically.
JW: But she says she wouldn’t have sex with him because he smells of meat as well…
JH: Yeah. And although the first time it happens, she resists, eventually she… becomes passive to this, too. And in the morning she kind of pretends as though nothing has happened and he’s sort of left with his guilt over the situation, really, which foments within him as well. The… section climaxes when - frustrated - Yeong-hye’s husband insists on a gathering with Yeong-hye’s family, so that they can convince her to start eating meat again. And they go to her sister’s house - her sister’s called In-hye. And at this dinner, Yeong-hye is shouted at by her father, is kind of admonished by her brother and mother and sister. But things escalate to the point that her father ends up hitting her, her brother ends up sort of pinning her to her chair and her father tries to force meat into her mouth, even while she’s verbally and physically resisting. And this particular novella ends on Yeong-hye slitting her wrists with a fruit knife in front of them all, and being taken to hospital.
JW: We then cut to Part Two, which is seen from the point of view of In-hye - her sister’s - husband.
JW: Who’s unnamed. Who is a sort of video artist. And he has long had this idea that what would be great would be to paint people’s bodies with flowers… as a video artist and film them having sex, in some way. And then he discovers that Yeong-hye, so his sister-in-law, has what’s known as a Mongolian mark - it’s a new phrase to me, actually, but it’s a sort of blue mark on the buttocks, I think - which he finds enormously arousing - the idea of this, and the idea that it could be turned into painted flowers. And so he… pops around to hers on the pretext of seeing if she’s okay, because she’s been released from mental hospital at this time, and persuades her to be painted with flowers and… while he videos himself painting her and then videos her… naked with the flowers.
JH: She’s rather willing though.
JW: Yeah, no, she is, yeah, yeah, yeah… And sort of completely, she just accepts what’s happening to her, I think at this stage. But then he brings in a friend of his - he decides actually what he wants to do is film her having sex with a bloke covered in flowers. He decides he’s basically too fat and ugly to do it properly. Brings in a-
JH: A fitter, younger friend…
JW: -in a rare flash of self-knowledge. And so he brings in a friend who gets painted and everything and is happy to lie naked to her, but won’t go through with the full sex. At which point the brother-in-law… calls that off, then gets a friend of his to paint him with flowers. Goes round to Yeong-hye’s. They have sex. They then video the sex. The bad news being that by the time they wake up in the morning, his wife - her sister - is there and has watched the video and they sort of dash off to the balcony where both of them contemplate suicide, but they’re sort of straightjacketed.
JH: I don’t… I don’t think Yeong-hye contemplates suicide.
JW: No. Yeong-hye might not actually. That’s true, yeah… No, fair do’s. Yeah, he, definitely contemplates suicide. We find out later. She is just there. She loves being covered in flowers.
JW: She finds it very sort of arousing herself. So it ends on an almost cliffhanger really. Is he going to throw himself off the balcony? From where we cut to Part Three.
JH: Where Yeong-hye has been in a psychiatric hospital for what seems like a while. Her sister is the only person who’s maintained contact with her or given her any kind of care. Yeong-hye’s husband has long since left her. And her family have… cut off all ties with her. In-hye is also separated from her husband and kept custody of their son, and so she’s balancing running a business - she runs a cosmetics store - with childcare and caring for her sister, while also coming to terms with the betrayal inflicted on her by her husband. And it’s a huge mental load on her, which kind of gets explored in this third part. Yeong-hye’s physical condition - and James will argue her mental condition, although I contest this a little bit - has deteriorated as well. She’s found at one point in a forest having escaped from psychiatric care… trying to be a tree. Rooted to the spot-
JW: I’m going to stick to my mental condition argument.
JH: -in the rain. I think it makes so much sense!
JW: -But we’re going to be good.
JH: -We’re going to talk more about it later. But yes, her desire, progressively, is essentially to become a plant or a tree. And so she begins rejecting not just meat and fish, but food altogether. She insists that she only needs water and sunlight as sustenance. And so, there’s this sort of dual narrative of Yeong-hye’s physical decline alongside In-hye’s mental decline as she kind of goes further into depression and insomnia. And I think we’ll leave it there… in case some of you are spoiler weary.
JW: That summary -
JH: -That’s a lot to unpack!
JW: Yeah there is. That summary makes it sound like an odd book. Which it is… but it reads more matter of factly… than perhaps a summary makes it sound. But basically, what’s it all about, I suppose? What makes this more complicated for me is that Han Kang has… stressed in interviews, I think, that it’s not a book about the Korean patriarchy or about Korean society and the pressures that Korean society puts on women. But… it is, isn’t it?
JH: Ah, yeah-
JW: She wants to see it as more universal than that. And that all…and that these feelings are… wherever you’re from and whoever you are - and maybe whatever gender you are - you will feel sometimes as if you’re just enduring life and you just want out.
JW: But it does… feel more culturally specific. I mean, I’ve spent two days researching South Korea, so I’m not-
JH: Now you’re an expert.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. So I know all about it, but… But that does seem to be the case to me that… There’s a guy called Raphael Rashid. He writes in British newspapers, but he lives in Korea and he wrote a book in Korean about Korea, which is suggesting that the enormous pressure that is put on people to… They’re called specs, he calls them – like, as in computer specifications - so you need… your marriage is part of that, a nice house is part of that, a good job, working late is all part of that. But once you’ve got it, what do you do? Are you happy? And he thinks there’s enormous pressure and there’s one bit where he says, ‘When I finally realised I didn’t need to follow what everyone else was doing, I felt a sense of relief and release.’ And that’s sort of what happens to a Yeong-hye a bit, do you think?
JH: Yeah. So we should, I think, speak a little bit more specifically about the women in this novel - also the men in this novel, because it’s not like feminism is exclusionary of men. And I think there’s a potential reading, definitely for Yeong-hye’s sister but also for Yeong-hye herself, that the treatment they receive from their husbands is partly what leads to their, if you want to call it mental decline, mental decline.
JW: Yeah. I mean, they’re both… Yes. No, I wouldn’t dispute that for a second. I mean, to be honest with you, it starts off to me almost quite funny, that first sentence you read. And… he’s chosen his wife because he doesn’t need to…worry too much.
‘The paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts. The inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis - I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.’
Because she’s just not… she’s nothing special. He doesn’t have to… be on his top game.
JH: Yeah, he doesn’t have to impress her.
JW: No, he doesn’t. You said… it’s a bland marriage and everything and a bland life. And it is. And that’s the way he likes it, isn’t it?
JW: So, he just wants – this is fine and my wife’s fine, she’s nothing special. My job, it requires me to be up late but, you know, that’s what life is like. And then this erupts into it.
JH: Yeah. I think it’s possible to say that, vegetarianism is potentially the first actual desire that Yeong-hye has expressed over the course of their marriage.
JH: She’s… clearly not expressed sexual desire or any kind of financial ambition or, you know, another thing that’s remarked upon is the plainness of her appearance. The only thing that’s remarkable about her is that she doesn’t wear a bra, but her husband still finds this sort of offensive because she doesn’t have, quote ‘the sort of shapely breasts’ unquote.
JW: Yes, that’s it. Not wearing a bra is bad enough and rude enough and everything. But especially…
JH: Yeah exactly!
JW: Especially if your breasts aren’t good enough. To pull it off.
JH: Don’t have the tits to pull it off.
JW: No, exactly. No.
JH: But… so, yes.
JW: But he, as I say, he starts off as… Sort of mildly, if you’re feeling generous, slightly comic, befuddled figure. But… becomes more villainous than that-
JH: Yes! But I think it’s sort of to do with, as I said, it’s the first time that she’s expressed…that she seems to have expressed a desire within their marriage, and I think he is bemused at first. That’s a fair reading. But becomes more villainous because she begins expressing this desire more and more strongly, or not even-
JW: Sort of, sort of expressing it. I mean… this is backtracking a bit, but right at the start you said she’s the protagonist and she sort of is. But as protagonists go, she’s very-
JH: She never speaks, really.
JW: -no, she’s not, she’s not there-
JH: She doesn’t speak until the end.
JW: -we hear a little bit about her dreams. We hear the odd, I mean, her only explanation about why she’d become a vegetarian is ‘I had a dream’.
JW: She seems to have expanded a bit because he knows a little bit about the dream, but basically she… is just there.
JH: She’s a cipher.
JW: Yeah. And, I mean, one of the, sort of, villainous, maybe even slightly half-comic things… Even by the end, the idea that his wife is in a psychiatric hospital and is suffering badly - is like it’s one of the worst things that’s ever happened to him.
JH: Yeah. Because it’s impacted his reputation!
JW: Yeah, it has. Yeah. And then obviously she’s seen by her brother-in-law in a way more fondly, but still… yeah, she’s still sort of… As I say, as protagonists go, weirdly sort of absent. It’s what other people make of her, in a way.
JW: And, obviously I think we’re invited to make what we’re invited to make of her too, which I think perhaps brings us to the big question that I know we disagree over.
So, what some reviewers have said, or what some readers have said and seems to me to be true - whether it’s problem or not, I don’t know - is that when she announces she’s going to be a vegetarian, I think in South Korean society, at that time, people think she’s that she’s basically gone mad.
JW: And I would argue that the twist is that she has, really. You’re not quite so sure that she has.
JH: Well, tell me what you think first.
JW: Okay. I don’t think she’s mad because she’s become a vegetarian.
JW: I think she’s… I would try to work out a theory of sort of insanity as a protest, almost. I don’t know if you’ve read the book The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virago Modern Classic - which was thrust into my hands by my wife early in our relationship. Obviously early in our relationship, so I read it. And-
JH: She wanted to start you off well!
JW: -and it’s a terrific book actually, but it’s about a woman who is…. A sort of patriarchal - I think there’s no bones about that one - a patriarchal doctor and patriarchal husband insist on having a rest cure following postpartum depression. She’s… more or less locked in a room with this weird yellow wallpaper that she imagines a woman trapped behind, and so on. But in a way, the question in that book is, has she… gone mad or is she… is her madness a sort of protest? Like the only thing she can possibly do in the circumstances really? Or even, you might argue, the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre.
JH: I see. I have thoughts about that, too. You say she’s gone mad. How-
JW: Okay. She-
JH: -how are you…
JW: -she slashes her wrist
JH: qualifying or quantifying that?
JW: Okay. Slashing her wrists.
JW: Ending up in a psychiatric hospital. Thinking she wants to be a tree. Thinking she wants to be a plant. Thinking, she wants to photosynthesize. That she can get by without water. And food.
JW: Come on. That’s all pretty bonkers.
JH: I see the direction you’re heading in. She’s not mad.
JW: A little bit, a little bit barking. Surely, I mean…
JH: So, several things. I’ll just start with… hard facts before I build up a kind of grander theory. I don’t think she’s mad in the sense that she is actually quite lucid… when doctors are talking about her, or in the moments when she speaks or when people… hold her hand or whatever. She’s responsive, she’s clear. She’s got boundaries - and they’re weird boundaries, I’ll give you that - but she sticks consistently to them. She actually doesn’t ask for anything insane. She asks either to be left alone or not to be unconsensually or non-consensually force-fed. When her sister holds her hand at one point, she holds her hand normally. Her sister’s surprised by the fact that her grip is still quite stable and strong. I think she’s very well aware of the fact that she’s not a plant. I think she really wants to be one, but she is very aware of the fact that it’s a goal, not something that she is. I think the thing that does drive Yeong-hye’s actions is not insanity. It’s just a very deeply rooted desire to… cleanse herself of all the really terrible things that have been done to her. And it is a lucid desire that is received as insanity. It’s… only mad-
JW: It’s like that thing about women-
JH: It’s only mad when you place it in contrast with those social norms. I think if … this novel had been set up really differently - well, I mean this is sort of an inane point ‘if we were reading a different book’ - but I guess what I mean by how impressive I find it that Han Kang’s managed to… rather subtly create a really tightknit web of how morality functions in her reader’s mind, to make you question whether or not Yeong-hye is mad or not after all… If that work had been done any less professionally, if the craft hadn’t been so impressive, I think none of us would be calling her mad.
JW: No. Okay. I mean, I think that’s maybe one thing we’re not.
JH: It’s slightly convoluted,
JW: There’s two things I think I want to say which is… Well, maybe even three. One is… we’re not, I think… it’s making it seem like a puzzle to be riddled, to be unwrapped.
JW: And… it is one of those, I would suggest, almost irreducibly mysterious books. I mean, I know the word Kafka gets bandied about, but fortunately for my purposes, it’s also been bandied about by Han Kang, because… she’s a fan. So…what does it actually, what does Metamorphosis mean? We… don’t know. It’s not… a straightforward allegory of anything. It’s just a mysterious thing, as well as everything else. And I’m beginning just to create a sort of bland synthesis between our two points of view, if I may suggest. I think to say, you know, oh no, she’s definitely not mad, or she’s definitely mad - I think the book allows us to do neither of those really. And that’s what makes it such an intriguing read.
JH: I would-
JW: I know-
JH: I know you’re trying to make a peace accord, but I still don’t think she-
JW: No, no. And I do still think she’s mad that-
JH: That’s a really-
JW: So yes. No, that’s right.
JH: So that peace accord… I think it’s fine if we disagree and we both love this book so much.
JW: Yeah, yeah.
JH: Something that we should talk about here that’s interesting, as we’re differing in our interpretations of this book, is that we are, of course, reading an interpretation of this book. It’s a - in my eyes very beautifully done - translation by Deborah Smith.
JW: Yes, we should speak about this because, as I just about remembered at the beginning, the International Booker Prize award is shared between the author and the translator.
JW: In this case, Deborah Smith. And then…after it won, there was this thing that was controversial enough to have its own ‘-gate’ at the end. Han Kang-gate. Do you want to say a little bit about Han Kang-gate?
JH: Yeah. In a way, it’s a perfect first novel in translation for us to look at because it allows us to look at the sort of issues surrounding translation - the difficulties, and the joys of it. So, Han Kang-gate was started in the New York Review of Books by a writer called Tim Parks, and I’m going to quote from the Guardian here. ‘It was said he professed himself mystified that it had won the Man Booker International Prize when, quote, “The prose is far from an epitome of elegance. The drama itself neither understated nor beguiling. The translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom” unquote, and then… ‘Parks was clear that he didn’t like the novel in English, but he was also clear that he didn’t know Korean, so couldn’t make a direct comparison with the original.’
JW: Yeah, he is a translator –
JH: Internet expert-
JH: But he was joined later by a Korean academic called Charse Yun. His complaints were the following: that 10.9% of the first part of the novel was mistranslated and another 5.7% of the original text was omitted, and that was just in the first section. And he says, quote, ‘It’s important to keep in mind that niggling errors occur even in the best of translations, and any scanty cherry-picked line-by-line comparisons from a 200-page book will inevitably appear trivial, if not petty, when posted’.
But, more seriously than that, he says that… there are mistranslations that sort of change the novel’s meaning. So, the opening lines, for example, ‘Han writes that the protagonist’s husband never really thought of his wife as anything special. Smith renders this as “completely unremarkable in every way”.’ And he describes Smith’s translation, essentially, as being ‘the contemporary style of Raymond Carver being garnished with the elaborate diction of Charles Dickens’.
JW: Yeah, that seems a little harsh to me. That seems to be a consensus that her spare prose had been sort of tarted up in some way.
JW: Sexed up documents. But I must say… if this was the top sexed-up version of spare prose it must have been really spare to start with. Because it’s still… it’s not florid as it stands, is it?
JH: So… it really isn’t. But Smith herself wrote a rebuttal in the LA Review of Books and she makes a lot of really valuable points about translation in it. In the first place, she makes perfectly clear that the way this book was translated was through an ongoing conversation between her and Han Kang, where the manuscript was sent back and forth in various emails and they essentially translated together. And to me that pretty much seals the argument.
JW: Yeah, that’s the clincher for me. Han Kang was pleased with it. And you… can obviously watch her being interviewed on YouTube and her English is pretty good.
JH: Yeah. And… the way this article ends is that Smith says: ‘There’s no best way to translate, but there are a few propositions regarding translation that, if generally accepted, might make for more constructive conversations: changes, not betrayal; editors exist, generally with quite firm opinions; and that to praise the translation is not to devalue the original.’
And that’s where she stands. But I think along the way there are a lot of really interesting questions that crop up. The most interesting… the two most interesting to me are - one, when you’re translating into the English language, do you risk what Smith calls a kind of cultural imperialism? Do you impose anglophone, semantic fields, cultural norms and cadence onto a novel that doesn’t initially contain them? You know, do you change that book into something else?
JW: No that… that’s got to be the heart of it, hasn’t it? So, you know, what is a translation: are you’re translating the words into English – or are you translating the book into English?
JW: And if you’re translating the whole book into English, then obviously it’s going to have English… cadences, and, you know, I think to shy away from translation on the grounds that it’s sort of cultural imperialism is going a bit…far.
JH: Yeah, Smith has…she has this great line where she says that, essentially, you’re deluded - if you’re an English speaker and not a Russian speaker - you’re deluded if, having read War and Peace, you think you can say, ‘I love War and Peace’ instead of, ‘I love the English translation of War and Peace’.
JW: Apparently… Dostoevsky’s names are quite as funny as Dickens’. But…we don’t know that.
JH: Something that Yun says, that-
JW: Some of Dostoevsky’s names, I should say. Yeah, go on.
JH: Something that Yun says I find interesting is… he’s making a point about what risks getting lost in translation. And he says that: ‘One of the reasons… that many Western readers find so much contemporary Korean fiction to be unpalatable is the passivity of its narrators. Smith, however, emphasises conflict intention, making Han’s work more engaging for Western readers than a faithful rendition would be.’
JW: Yeah, that is very interesting, because even after she’s done that, there’s still something slightly infuriatingly passive about Yeong-hye, isn’t there? I mean… the book does deal a bit with how annoyed the doctors get with her, how annoyed her sister gets with her-
JH: And her husband?
JW: Yeah, and the husband, ‘Just for god’s sake eat some food, love’… Sort of stuff.
JH: Well, I think there’s a lot more to the idea of translation or of working between two languages. I think anyone who’s bilingual will kind of understand that you don’t use different languages in the same way.
JW: No, no… If I can jolt in it, because I know you are bilingual, you speak Polish as well, don’t you?
JW: Because… I’ve done some French, but the way I speak French is I work out the English and translate it one by one.
JW: Very, very painstakingly.
JH: And then do people immediately know that you’re English?
JW: Yeah, at some point before that. The bit where I’m going…Hmmm. Yeah, no, clearly… clearly that’s not what bilingual is. Bilingual is you’re just thinking and speaking Polish.
JH: It’s fluency. And part of the work of translation I think Smith tries to… get at in that LA Review of Books article is that you’re not just translating words, you’re also translating the cultural context and political histories and associations that come with those words, and come with them being used in any given kind of specific context. So, my analogy to you yesterday was sort of that it’s - in many languages - fairly difficult to translate jokes. Because, in a lot of cases… I remember being told such amazingly dirty jokes in Polish when I was growing up by my uncles, like really filthy stuff. And then translating them into English, to try and be cool on the playground, and them falling completely flat. But it was, because I translated them-
JW: I feel your pain, Jo.
JH: But it was because I’d tried to translate them… word for word.
JH: And the analogies didn’t work. The… verbal associations didn’t work and a lot of… Smith’s work that people take issue with and that she’s very… careful with is… more than linguistic… It’s sort of social and emotive. How do you translate the way that an entire country speaks and functions to someone who has no idea?
JW: Yeah, I think as well… it is thinking, but I think she might have made the mistake of saying she’d only been learning Korean for three years when she started to translate it, I think. But, as you say, and as I agree, Han Kang’s seal of approval’s good enough for me. But also it doesn’t… I mean, it doesn’t feel like a book that… could be set in London or something, does it?
JH: No… But I think that’s the really beautiful thing about it, and about successful translations, is that it basically makes the English language weird to you again.
JH: You know, I don’t think I’ve had a sense of wonder while reading since I was an undergraduate and that was because… floods of information were suddenly being flung at me and I was, like, ‘God, this is new and strange’ and I felt invigorated. And what books in translation do, I guess, is… they put you on the back foot a little bit because a language that you know and are fluent in is suddenly being used to a completely different purpose, whether that’s in a sort of subtle way or whether it’s just completely that you’ve never seen it being used in this context for a specific plot or for this emotive reason, or, you know, to justify these moral values. And I love it, and I think to that question of, you know, is it a completely different book? You know, does it matter whether you read the original or whether you have a word-by-word translation? I think obviously translated books are going to be a kind of relational offshoot of the original text but… isn’t it just so wonderful? It’s like, you know, books are like mushrooms and they’re spawning… not in a… Last of Us way where it’s horrifying and everyone’s dying, but more in a kind of… beautiful, nourishing way.
JW: No, I do agree. And also, you know, there is the fact that we’ve got no choice. I mean, we’re not going to-
JH: Yeah, unless we go and learn a new language…
JW: …every single time we want to read a book in translation. So, if a book’s clumsily written, do you translate it clumsily. That’s one… that’s one thing… I’ve read about, about this and Milan Kundera talks about this, and he’s obsessed with translations of Kafka, which on the whole have tended to avoid his repetitions, tended to break up his paragraphs, tended to essentially to make him an easier read… for perhaps understandable reasons - but he feels that’s an astonishing betrayal. You know, if he’d wanted to be an easier read, he’d have been one.
JW: But it’s impossible to know, unless…
JH: Well, there’s a quote from Nabokov who, it says here, was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them. He believed that ‘the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase’.
JW: But then…he did that book, didn’t he? He translated something astonishingly faithfully… it’s not going to come to me…
JW: …but everyone just thought that, well, this is rubbish.
JH: Borges, on the other hand, says that ‘a translator should not seek to copy a text, but to transform and enrich it. Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization’. And he insisted that… it’s a more advanced stage of writing - writing spawned from writing, essentially.
JW: Yes… and translate does have that double meaning, doesn’t it? I mean, you know, to be translated?
JW: Isn’t, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, isn’t Bottom translated into an ass… so… it means transformed as well-
JW: -as well as just word for word. Should we end by talking about who we’d recommend this to?
JH: Yeah. I’m going to be potentially slightly niche.
JH: In lockdown, a lot of people got into gardening or baking bread or, you know, that kind of stuff. And I, you know, because I’m a higher evolved human being-
JH: -and also a wanker… I got into Korean cinema. And my favourite is a South Korean director called Hong Sang-soo. And he had a kind of a retrospective of films that was shown on XXXXXX during lockdown, and I watched them all. They’re amazing. And they were also sparse and quiet. But there is kind of tension at the heart of them. So, if you’re a fan of those films, I would recommend this book to you.
If you’re a fan of, probably the more generally better known, Park Chan-wook film The Handmaiden - adapted from the Sarah Waters novel, also Booker-listed, Fingersmith - I would recommend this to you. I think also… this is a book that’s heavy on imagery. I found it to be really cinematic and so I’m kind of going off film recommendations. If you’re a fan of French New Wave Cinema, I would recommend this book to you.
More generally speaking, I guess, on a more personal level… This is quite a personal thing to say, but I don’t know if a lot of people feel this, but there are moments in my life where I feel like there is so much going on. I’ve got so much personal responsibility to my family and my work, and in trying to… stay true to my own ambitions and desires that there is this… silent scream building in me that I’m not quite allowed to release. I tried it once and I was told off. Very roundly. And if you have ever felt anything like that, I think this book will really, really speak to you.
JW: Yes. No, I think… we have it. We… in a way arrogantly, you know, dismissed Han Kang’s idea that it’s not about South Korean patriarchy, but there is that universal feeling of, you know… when you just want to opt out. I mean, the… slightly, don’t want to cheapen it, version, but the Robert Benchley, the American humorist’s line about ‘I’ve got so much to do that I’m going to bed’.
JW: But that’s it… It’s that on a small scale. I think I’d recommend it to anybody who, I mean… if you’re competent, it’s an easy read - exactly. But it’s… A) short, which is always good for a slightly more difficult read. But B) it is… intriguing. Anybody who can read a book where… the meaning is… You think you’ve got it, but you haven’t… and as I say, it’s not a puzzle to be solved. It’s not a riddle – ‘And the answer is this’. If you’re… happy with those kind of books, I think this is one… of the best around.
JW: So it’s… I mean, it really had me. And… it deepens as well. So it starts off with that, you know, husband… as I say, almost a sort of comedy routine that darkens and then gets pretty weird in the second section. And then the third section is pretty much flat-out heartbreaking, really. I mean-
JW: -It’s very strong.
JH: I think it, it’s… in league with books like The Death of Ivan Ilych, also a novella. Or The Stranger, classically.
JW: Yeah, there is a bit of Camus in there. Yeah, there is…
JH: So if you like those. Even if you don’t, really.
JW: If you feel like a bit of existential angst, and who doesn’t…
JH: Basically, yeah. You know, if you’ve ever wondered whether it’s a good idea to go to therapy or not, pick up The Vegetarian.
JW: Yeah, what’s life all about? You ever wondered that? Then I would… go for The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Which is just to remind you it’s the book of the month - Booker’s Book of the Month - for this month and also was the first ever winner of the International Booker Prize in its new form in 2016.
JH: Yeah. And we would really love you to join in on the conversation. So please do write to us, whether that’s through socials or even better… you can leave us a review with your thoughts and we will… read faithfully through all of them, and you can decide which side you’re on. You can decide whether you agree with James and you think that she’s mad, or whether, like me-
JW: Yeah, let’s introduce it to a poll,
JH: Not a poll.
JW: That’s a mad-
JH: We want comments!
JW: Yes. No…
JH: We want comments.
JW: We want informed and intelligent comments. And we will… read them all. And we might even read some of them out
JH: And… the more of them that say ‘Jo was absolutely right’, the more likely you are to be to be featured on our next episode.
JW: Oh, that’s… to be discussed. Yeah. Come on, come along with Team Mad.
JW: Now it’s time for the Booker Clinic, the recurring section in which we solve your problems, possibly. by prescribing novels to read - Booker or otherwise. If you have an ailment you’d like curing on a future episode, please tell us about it on social media using the hashtag #thebookerclinic. Who are we, healing today?
JH: Well, Anon obviously.
JH: Anon, because of the slightly controversial nature of the question. The question goes: ‘I’ve been having an affair for about two years. What books can help ease my guilt?’
JW: Oh…Well, I don’t want to come over too… I don’t want to get in touch with my inner Catholic too much here. But you know, what… about stopping the affair? That would sort out your inner guilt. But anyway, leaving that aside. Slightly self-serving, this. It’s very…hard. Despite my cunning pretence there, we do have a bit of fore-knowledge of these questions and… it is hard to find a book where-
JH: An affair ends well?
JW: Yeah. Where adultery is like… great and guiltless.
JW: But isn’t that… part of it? Certainly all the… I mean, the great… I can give you a few great adultery books.
JW: Even leaving aside Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary, like the two key European novels… adultery is the big question there. John Updyke does adultery, in both senses, a lot. And there’s a collection of his short stories that’s spread over many years, which is… unbelievable autobiographical detail of his marriage, really - The Maples Stories.
So, a couple called the Maples, and it follows their early - his early - marriage to his wife, his moments of infidelity, the time when eventually the infidelity… There’s normally a sort of practice run… And then… So he has one affair where he’s determined, he thinks that this is it - I’m going to leave my wife and children. But he’s quite good on the unsparing bit. You know, he says ‘the erotic impulse will tolerate a lot of damage.’ You know, you can damage your wife and your children quite badly just to get in …just to follow your penis essentially. Eventually… they’re all present tense titles, the Maples stories, but I think they’re collected together. They’re unbelievably brilliant. There is one called Separating, where… it’s the one where he has to explain to his kids that this is it now, this is their last meal together, and I’m, you know, ‘although me and my wife, me and your mother, still love you very much, I’m going off with this other woman’. And the son says to him, ‘Why, dad?’ And he realises he has no idea. That’s brilliant.
And if you want… from a woman’s perspective, I would say Heartburn by Nora Ephron, which is famously based on her own… She’s married to Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporter who went off with, who had an affair with Margaret Jay, who was not only the wife of Peter Jay, the British ambassador to Washington at the time, but also the daughter of James Callaghan, the British Prime Minister at the time. And Nora Ephron writes about it. I mean, she’s as ever funny, but it’s… pretty unsparing as well about what it does to her. So that’s not going to assuage you guilt, I’m afraid.
JH: Well, actually, you know what? No, don’t be so moral. James.
JW: Ok. Sorry, Anon
JH: You’ll scare people off asking questions. But… I’m actually quite struck by you… quickly shrugging off Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary. I know the women in those novels don’t come to particularly, great endings, but I feel like both Tolstoy and Flaubert, what they do very convincingly – and that might actually help ease your guilt, even though honesty is always the best policy – sound like my mother!
JW: Yeah. Not sure about that.
JH: Is that what they do for you is frame why it’s understandable. In the sense that, you know, Emma is cooped up in this town that she didn’t really ask to be in. She has no… financial recourse for her desires. You know, all she really has to do is sit about the house and wear… pretty dresses while she dreams of a larger life and an affair is what enables her to… have a will to live.
JW: No, no. I have a love of that bit where she shouts. But I would, if this is a letter for a woman, I would suggest the Philip Roth thing about basically every man starts off, as far as his woman is concerned, as a sort of Rudolph - the most glamorous thing in the world - but ends up as Charles Bovary. So you will end up as Charles – he will end up as Charles Bovary in the end, however, glamorous he seems now.
And again, I’m not sure how helpful this is, but if you want a portrait of adultery analysed in a completely sharp, brilliant and unsparing - but also funny and sympathetic - way, you could try Talking It Over by Julian Barnes from 1991, in which you have three separate narrators - the two blokes after the same woman, and the woman. And… it’s a great book. I don’t know whether it’ll assuage your guilt about adultery, but it might entertain you as you… what’s the wording? What do you do with guilt? As you… squirm. But it might entertain you a bit as you squirm.
JH: Well, that’s all from us today. If you enjoyed this episode, we would really, deeply, ferociously encourage you to leave us a review. It’s the only way we can grow this podcast. And it would mean a lot to us, wouldn’t it, James?
JW: It would. In fact, the only adverb I’d add would be ‘needily’. But thanks very much for listening and thanks, Jo. It’s been fun as ever.
JH: And as well as leaving us a review if you want to check out more Booker Prize content you can find us on socials at @thebookerprizes, or you can visit the Booker Prize website, which is at www.the bookerprizes.com.
JW: That’s right. And if you’ve ever wondered why that plural is there in the Booker Prizes… it’s because of the International Booker Prize, isn’t it? Looking around for my Booker colleagues for confirmation? Yes. So that… so now you know. But it’s been fun as ever, Jo. Thanks very much and thanks to everybody for listening. Until next time, goodbye.
JH: See you next time.
JW: The Booker Prize Podcast is hosted by Jo Hamya and me, James Walton. It’s produced and edited by Benjamin Sutton, and the executive producer is John Davenport, in a Daddy’s SuperYacht production for the Booker Prizes.