Home Books A South Korean novel wins the world’s biggest translation award

A South Korean novel wins the world’s biggest translation award


London, May 17, 2016: One of the most erotic literary novels published this year, a slim South Korean work about a woman who forsakes eating meat, has won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize (MBIP) for fiction after a fiercely contested final judges’ meeting that pitched books from Angola, Austria, China, Italy and Turkey, as well as South Korea. Translated by Deborah Smith, a young English scholar who began learning Korean only seven years ago, “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang has been lauded on both sides of the Atlantic as strange, visionary and transgressive. It is published by Portobello in Britain and by Hogarth in America.

Written in three parts, each with a different narrator, the book begins quite plainly: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” This subversive act, inspired by a dream, fractures the family life of the heroine, Yeong-hye. Her rebellion takes on increasingly bizarre and frightening forms. Seemingly ordinary relationships turn into a maelstrom of violence, shame and desire.


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At the winner’s dinner on May 16th Boyd Tonkin, chair of the 2016 MBIP judges, said: “In a style both lyrical and lacerating, [the story] reveals the impact of this great refusal both on the heroine herself and on those around her.” As Yeong-hye’s father tries to forcefeed her and her husband divorces her, the novella veers from domestic drama to artistic parable and on, in a long, drawn-out silent scream, to a meditation on literally becoming a tree. “This compact, exquisite and disturbing book will linger long in the minds, and maybe the dreams, of its readers,” Mr Tonkin went on. “Ms Smith’s perfectly judged translation matches its uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn.”

After the Booker Prize Foundation changed the rules in 2013 to allow writers of any nationality writing in English to vie for its longstanding Man Booker Prize for fiction, the rules for the MBIP were also adjusted. The prize used to be given every two years for a body of work, written in English or translated; now, for the first time, it is given for a single translated book published in Britain within a given year. This year, the judges read 155 submissions.

The £50,000 prize, divided equally between author and translator, comes at moment of increasing interest in translated fiction in Britain. The six autobiographical novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard, “My Struggle”, and the four Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante (the last of which, “The Story of the Lost Child”, was also shortlisted for this year’s MBIP alongside “The Vegetarian”) have given erstwhile insular Britons a taste for foreign fiction.

A survey by Nielsen Book, commissioned by the MBIP and published last week, showed that although literary fiction accounted for only 7% of fiction sales in Britain in 2015, translated fiction sales have doubled in the past 15 years, from 1.3m to 2.5m copies, at a time when the overall market for fiction fell from 51.6m in 2001 to 49.7m. Moreover, translated literary fiction now sells better than books originally written in English. In 2001 every literary fiction title written in English sold an average of 1,153 copies, whereas every translated title sold only 482 copies. By 2015, the position was reversed: every literary fiction title written in English sold just 263 copies, whereas every translated title was selling more than twice that—an average of 531 copies.