Deborah Smith on Translation, Han Kang and Bae Suah, and Tilted Axis Press


Translator and editor Deborah Smith is responsible for a number of striking literary works from a multiplicity of angles. The last year has seen both Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Bae Suah’s A Greater Music appear on shelves in the United States, to great acclaim. Smith is also the founder of Tilted Axis Press, a publisher dedicated to new fiction in translation. All of which is an impressive array of work, and one which continues–next year will bring translations of new books by both Kang and Suah. Earlier this fall, while Smith was visiting New York, we met up for coffee and discussed her work with international literature; an edited version of our conversation follows.

This seems like a good place to start–where did you first encounter Bae Suah’s work?

I was doing a PhD in Contemporary Korean Literature at SOAS in London–the School of Oriental and African Studies. It was my first there, so 2011-12. I was reading the general criticism about the last couple of decades of Korean writing, because that was what I was focusing on. I came across this very fusty older male academic really laying into her for the book A Greater Music, [saying] that she can’t do realism. Which I don’t think she was actually attempting. But also, he described her as doing violence to the Korean language.

I think this was just around the time when I had become aware of Clarice Lispector, and conversations about her having done similar things: being an autodidact, and deliberately using nonstandard grammar and spelling and that kind of thing. That made Bae Suah sound incredibly interesting to me, so I checked out her novels.

What was the first book of hers that you ended up reading?

It was A Greater Music. Back then, I’d only been learning Korean since 2010, so I couldn’t read so widely or make informed decisions. It was more like, if I wanted to read a novel and read it properly, I had to translate it as I went, so that was what I ended up doing with that one.

How did you end up getting ahold of the Korean edition of the book? Was there an easy way to get ahold of them from London?

No. There should have been, technically, through my university library. They could order things, but months later they never appeared, and they never appeared in the four years of me actually getting a PhD. I did get funding to go over to Korea once a year to do fieldwork research–which was to sit in a library, because they have the collections there. There’s nothing in the UK, essentially. I went to, mainly, secondhand bookshops and bought as many Bae Suah things as I could find. All bookshops in Korea are searchable through computers, so it’s really easy, especially for secondhand stuff, to find things.

As a translator, when you’re working on a book by a writer who uses a particular language in a particular way, what is the challenge for you as far as evoking that in a completely different language?

I think the main challenge, particularly for her, is that she is also a translator. She translates from German into Korean. Not always work that was originally done in German–she has done a lot of writers like Kafka and Sebald. Often, she was at the forefront of introducing them to editors in Korea, and publicizing them to readers as well. She’s also recently translated Fernando Pessoa, who did not write in German, and she does not know a word of Portuguese. He wasn’t translated into Korean otherwise; no one else would have done it.

A lot of what Koreans tell me her prose style evokes for them is translations from German. The particular problem of trying to replicate that in English is that the structure of German is much closer to the structure of English than it is to Korean. It wouldn’t sound odd, really, and it wouldn’t sound German, either–it would just sound generically Anglophone.

When I was translating her, the thing that I was most aware of was trying not to smooth out the weirdness too much. I was reading the stuff about Lispector, and had these nightmare visions of translators in a few years and saying, “This terrible colonialist who wanted everything to be proper and conservatively grammatical.” So I tried not to do that. Otherwise, I just tried to make her sentences sound dissonant in some way. So they’re not quite right, but also appealing. It becomes quite hypnotic when you read it in the Korean, and quite lyrical in places as well. She writes a lot about music, and the other thing that her style evokes is that. It’s more about the cadence of the sentence. The core book itself, the structure, is more about variations on a theme, and coming back to certain motifs rather than a straight chronology.

What first drew you to Korean literature as a field of study to begin with?

The question I get asked all the time–and the question for which I had less of a boringly pragmatic answer. I did my undergrad in English literature. I found that quite parochial and limiting. For pleasure, I read mainly translated, mainly more contemporary work. To suddenly have to go back to Chaucer and claw your way towards modernity was a bit of a struggle. Also, I graduated with no skills; it was the time of the financial crisis–I think it was the year after that. I’d always wanted to learn a language. I always thought languages could be a thing for me, but I somehow hadn’t–which you can do in the UK education system. I thought, if I’m going to learn a language, I might as well learn one that people generally don’t speak, at least in the UK and in 2010.

I also had the vague idea that maybe literary translation could be a thing that I could do. There were no other options–I only really liked reading and writing. Korean was one of the few languages that I knew were relatively big. It was a developed, wealthy country, which presumably must have a fairly thriving literary scene, but I’d never come across a single book translated into English. Which I think I would have done if I’d been in the US, but I didn’t then. I chose it for those reasons without knowing anything about it.

What kept me interested, and what proved that it had been a good choice, was primarily the formal differences. The short story has much more prestige than it does in the Anglophone tradition, so the diversity of forms that a writer can work with is greater. They don’t really write novels that are just straight novels. Something like The Vegetarian or Han Kang’s other book that I translated, Human Acts, there’s some jumping around with chronology, there’s a different perspective every time, it’s more important that they hang together tonally as well. It’s like a collection in that sense. That was something interestingly different for me.

I’m thinking back now to the Dalkey Archive series of novels translated from Korean. I picked up something from that after reading Ed Park’s piece on Korean fiction in The New Yorker

It’s a country where there’s a very high premium on literaruture as an intellectual pursuit. Whether or not people are reading the books, you buy them, and you have them on your shelves. It was bizarre to me–I was in Korea when [Patrick] Modiano won the Nobel, and they had enormous posters in the subway for these Modiano books. I thought, “Are these really flying off the shelves here?” But they do, because of the prestige associated with any kind of big prize.

When you’re doing a translation, is it often simultaneously for publishers in the US and the UK, or one or the other?

It’s been different. With Han Kang, the publisher that I pitched to was in the UK, and I did it for them first. The US edition came out a year later. They pretty much just Americanized spellings and words. Whereas with Bae Suah, I pitched to Open Letter and Deep Vellum, but when I did the translations, I did it the same way I would translate Han Kang, so everything was in British English. They Americanized it, but not too heavily.

I remember reading an interview with Roland Glasser about translating Tram 83, where he discussed the challenge of trying to find phrases that would accurately convey some of the language for both American and British readers.

There have been a couple in the second Bae Suah book, the one for Deep Vellum. I kept saying things like, “From the off.” Which is a British thing; it comes from horse-racing. In the US, it means “From the get-go,” but that sounds so incredibly American to me. I think we went with, “From the beginning.”

Last year, I saw Benjamin Paloff talk about translating The Game For Real, and how he’d sought out words that hadn’t been invented before the time when the novel was written–which seemed to have a number of challenges.

I think I’m lucky in the sense that I only translate contemporary authors. Someone like Bae Suah–her books have relatively concrete settings. A Greater Music is in Berlin, and the for the people who know Berlin well, it may be a more specific time than it is for me. A lot of the time, it is quite nebulous.

Though there is a reference to the financial crisis in there.

Definitely. That’s something else I like about her writing: it is very avant-garde in a sense, but it always comes back to these very real social and financial constraints. The other book that I’ve done of hers, Recitation, is about ideas of statelessness, and travel, again, with a very contemporary filter of what it’s like traveling with a particular passport from a particular country in Europe, and how different that would be if you were wealthy or you were not. Immigration checks, all that kind of thing. It doesn’t just exist on a completely theoretical, abstract plane as well.

Is it difficult to translate someone who is themselves a translator?

It’s not difficult in the practical way. Because she translates a lot of authors who are dead, and because she translates sometimes through a bridge language, she is the opposite of wanting to be literal. As a writer, she sees translation as another part of her writing, so she affords me that same freedom. She can’t read English, so she’s happy for me to go away and do what I want with it and be as creative as I need to be. I think she also understands that, because I’ve been as lucky as she has, and we get to choose authors who we are completely obsessed by and translate them. When you love a piece of writing, you don’t want to get too far away from it. You love it as it is. You don’t think you can improve on it. And so you feel a sort of responsibility as well.

When did you become involved with publishing books?

Publishing was last year. 2015 was when I was finishing my PhD, and I felt like I needed something to do besides that. Because I’d been translating from Korean, it had encouraged me to be a bit more hands-on as a translator then someone, otherwise, would need to be. I got an insider’s view of the publishing industry, particularly smaller independents who focus on translation or do a lot of translations. I saw stuff that inspired me, that I wanted to do as well. Also, the kind of implicit biases that make it more difficult to work in certain languages, to make it through. Translating from Korean, that was something I wanted to push against as well.

I did my apprenticeship at And Other Stories for a few months. I ran their social media accounts and asked Stefan very, very vague questions like, “How do I be a publisher?” He said, “We’re all just winging it.” The nicest thing was that, because like translation, no one’s in it for the money, everybody’s doing it because they love it, and everyone’s very supportive and encouraging and shared their contacts and their advice. I set up Tilted Axis in 2015, and we published our first book in June of this year, which was a very short novel translated from Bengali. It’s contemporary, like all the stuff that we do, by an author called Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay. We also said that we would have at least fifty percent of our list by women, because that sounded like a useful thing to do. It hasn’t been difficult for me to find a lot of great female authors. I don’t know if that’s just my woman filter on or not.

Earlier this week, I saw that the National Book Foundation had announced a study into translation, which I found very interesting–I’m always curious about what books do and don’t get translated, and how languages factor into that, which governments support translation…

It’s difficult to get around that. We’re doing translations from Asian languages. Within Asia, there are some languages that are more represented than others, even though, compared with French and German, there’s almost nothing [translated]. There are a handful of countries, like Korea, that have great funding bodies. And there are others, like Thailand, that have nothing.

Our first book for 2017 will be the first translation from Thai to be published in the UK that isn’t a historical poem. In talking to the Thai Cultural Ministry, they’re very encouraging, but because there’s no precedent, they’re not even really sure what that would entail, [or] how long it would take to set something like that up. We were lucky, in that we got funding from English PEN, who are a UK organization and who are also on the lookout for under-represented languages.

The other thing that we wanted was to think about wasn’t just, let’s translated from some languages where there’s nothing, but also: what are the kinds of books that get through? What are the kinds of narratives? When you have so little from or about a certain region, you get stereotypes. We’re trying deliberately to look for something that wasn’t always there, that wasn’t an image that was in many heads.

That’s the other issue: when you have cultural or national funding, sometimes they have ideas about the kinds of books they’d like to represent their country abroad, and they aren’t always the ones that would excite you.

What translations do you have in the works? Are there any authors you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?

I think that I’ve been so lucky, because Han Kang and Bae Suah–I’m startlingly in love with both of them. And, like most Korean authors, they’re incredibly prolific. They’re still writing and publishing a book a year. They both have extensive backlists. If I just continued translating the two of them, I would count myself very, very lucky.

The other thing that I’m aware of is, because I have been lucky enough to win a prize for The Vegetarian and get a certain platform as a translator, I don’t want to be clogging up the translation scene for everybody else. With the publishing company, we do a Korean book a year, and they’re not my translations.

At the moment, I’ve fully translated three books by Han Kang. One is only going to be out in the UK next November. Two and a half by Bae Suah–the one on Open Letter, the one on Deep Vellum, and a story collection I’m midway through and have to get done by the end of the year. I did a fable for adults, which is the second thing I ever had published. I didn’t realize this until after I’d done it, but one of my Korean friends told me that it was something that everyone in Korea reads at school. I’m not sure what the equivalent would be in the US–things that feature animals and are also about life, in some way. It was written by a poet, and it was very nicely done; I enjoyed that. The most recent book I’ve done was The Accusation, a collection of short stories by a North Korean writer, who is apparently still living in the country, who has written under a pseudonym. That will be out in the Spring.

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