The awarding of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize to Deborah Smith’s English translation of The Vegetarian brought global recognition to emergent Korean literature, but domestically it has sparked outrage among numerous Korean scholars who believe the literal inaccuracies in Smith’s translation have brought about a “national disgrace.” Situating this overheated reaction in the larger context of the colonial history of Korean nationalism, this article points out the irony that the “noble cause” of anti-imperialist resistance has historically led to the silencing of women’s voices in the context of preserving and transmitting an idea of quintessential Korean culture to an international audience. Such nationalist tendencies demand the “feminization” of the translator—requesting her to be barely visible while performing a self-effacing humility in deference to the putatively “original” culture. In contrast to this tendency, reading Han’s original and Smith’s translation together makes visible the damages that both colonization and nationalism have inflicted on the representation of female experiences. In the end, what truly scandalizes nationalist critics is not the failure of the translator to accurately convey Korean experiences, but the success of the translation in conveying an area of Korean experience they tend to neglect: that of female subjectivity.
When Han, Kang’s The Vegetarian (2015) was announced as the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, it was a highly significant event in the history of Korean literature.1 Not only was it the first time a Korean author won the prestigious translation award, but given the prize’s reputation for fostering cultural diplomacy, it seemed to symbolically establish Korea’s singular contribution in shaping the international literary scene. That impression was echoed by the novel’s massive sales domestically. Popular among literary circles at first, Han’s 2007 novel originally sold approximately sixty thousand copies, but after news of the award, sales shot up to about six hundred thousand copies in 2016 alone, at an initial rate of seven copies per minute. Hence it is unsurprising that the international furor inflated “national pride” (Fan 2018).
However, as the Guardian’s Claire Armitstead (2018) observes, one important reason other “masterpieces” of Korean literature fell short of receiving such global accolades had nothing to do with the quality of the work itself—after all, she argues, Korea has one of the world’s most fascinating and politically crucial bodies of literature—but the relative lack of fluent translators of Korean to English. In this context, the spotlight on The Vegetarian, like the $72,000 prize money, was equally shared by its author, Han, and translator, Deborah Smith.
This “equal share” quickly morphed into national controversy, however, as the critical reaction seemed to disproportionately bestow favor upon the translator. For example, when Marco Werman asked Smith in an interview, “Do you think if it weren’t for you, Han, Kang wouldn’t have won the Man Booker Prize?,” the implication seemed clear to several Korean critics (quoted in Yun 2017). As Charse Yun (2017) paraphrases: “What the interviewer seems to be asking is: Was it mainly your exceptional translation skills that brought about this achievement?” Despite Smith’s rejection of this suggestion, the interviewer’s implication sparked an indignant reaction in Korea, as it wounded the aforementioned national pride surrounding the novel’s prestige. A 2017 Huffington Post Korea article, for example, called Smith’s translation “off the mark”; it “betrayed” not only the original text but also the readers of the book in English (quoted in Fan 2018; Yun 2017). Vocabulary errors, omissions, embellishment, and “infidelity” to Han’s original style became the central focus of the controversy. As a result, the discourse on the English version of The Vegetarian encouraged critics to actively expose mistakes in the translation, leading to an obsession over minor details and words, such as Smith’s mistaking the word pal (arm) for bal (foot), or reducing the meaning of mudeowi (무더위) to humidity when it also indicates heat.
Before long outrage mounted and a scandal was born, focusing on incongruences between the literal scansion of the novel and the way it was translated.1 What is striking about the ensuing debate, however, is its prominent use of the rhetoric of betrayal, conquest, and national disgrace. This indicates that particularly among Korean critics there seems to be a consensus that Smith’s translation, through its inaccuracies, somehow puts the “national pride” of Korea at stake.2 The Los Angeles Times reports that Korean critics began to ask the question, “If the translation modified the original this much, can Korean literature even claim any of the glory?” (Yun 2017). From Cho, Jaeryong’s (2018) point of view, Smith’s translation is basically a “rewriting” (리라이팅) of the original, and the “victory” (승리) of having achieved the award really belongs only to the translated version of The Vegetarian.3 Jeong, Myeong-kyo, on the other hand, argued that The Vegetarian was definitely “a second creation” (제 2 의 창작), and Chŏng, Kwa-ri stated that “bestowing an award after the English translator and editor changed the original Korean text at will is savagery committed behind the face of charity” (한국어 원전을 영국 번역가와 편집자가 마음대로 바꿔버리고 상을 주는 것은 시혜의 표정으로 자행하는 야만) (Kim 2018). Here one cannot help but notice the astonishing extremity of such a position: not only is the Man Booker International Prize treated as a “glory” that validates the excellency of Korean literature as a whole, but Smith’s errors and omissions count for more than mistakes; they are a “disgrace” (치욕적). In effect, Smith was charged not simply for misunderstanding the language or literal facticity of the novel but for white-washing, mutating, deleting, and silencing Korean culture for a non-Korean audience.
In response to such allegations, Smith made clear at a press conference in 2016 that she did not modify any Korean names, regions, food, and so on. In fact, it was Smith who persuaded her editors to keep the word soju instead of “Korean vodka,” or manhwa instead of “Korean manga,” fearing that such translations would imply, misleadingly, that Korean culture derived from other countries. If anything, Smith claims that it is important for readers to be constantly exposed to foreign words through translated books. She said her aim is to make Korean words accessible and comfortable to English speakers, as some Japanese words such as sushi or sensei already are today (Hwang 2016). In Smith’s view (2018), while translation can at times perpetuate cultural imperialism, it is also what could effectively resist it.
Despite her efforts, however, the controversy is far from settled; in fact, it has become increasingly evident that the debates and accusations regarding the translation of The Vegetarian are overdetermined as a national issue rather than an issue concerning a singular text or an individual translator. The outrage of this vocal majority of Korean critics seems to respond to the suggestion that their idea of Korean culture is being misrepresented, distorted, and silenced—which is to say that Smith finds herself dealing not merely with readers, critics, or fans of the original text but also with a form of nationalistic paranoia.
This is why the charge is not just directed toward her as an individual per se but to her nationality. For example, when English journals decided to reject his article on Smith’s translation errors, Kim, Wook-Dong claimed that it was probably because of the “shame” his exposé would cause the committee members of the Man Booker Prize and, more roundly, the publishers “in England” (이후 영국 학술지에 발표하려 했지만, 영국에서는 맨부커상 위원회나 출판사 입장에서 창피한 일이어서 그런지 실어주지 않더라) (“English” 2018). The example is characteristic of the tendency to nationalize the discourse of translation that Smith finds herself constantly having to react against. In the 2018 Seoul and PyeongChang Humanities Forum, while defending her own translations (or translation in general), Smith felt compelled to point out that other translators in England in addition to herself reject the idea of distorting the culture of other countries.
Ultimately, however, the controversy isn’t exclusively about a foreign interloper, an English translator, misrecognizing Korean culture but an English woman who interferes in the project of introducing a “pure,” essential, and authentic Koreanness to the audience abroad. There is a gendered implication at work in what Smith identifies as the disturbing tendency many national critics have when engaging in debates over her translation, including dismissals of Han’s own endorsements of Smith’s (2018) translation that amount to “talking over her.”4 Of course, authorial intention ought not to be invoked as the final arbiter of a text’s worth, as if it could be made to issue a definitive verdict. Nonetheless, as someone in the putatively “feminized profession” of translation, Smith has had to personally deal with a certain set of demands, namely, that she conduct herself with a forced “humility” and that her work reflect an unassertive and self-effacing deference to the “original culture.”
Such gendered expectations have especially grievous implications when we recall that The Vegetarian is a novel that depicts rape, silencing, and other forms of gendered violence toward its female characters. By downplaying or ignoring this crucial dimension, nationalist criticism ironically subverts its own intentions: when the critique of a translation functions as a vehicle for nationalist discourse to emphasize an accurate introduction to Korean culture while neglecting consideration of whether the experiences depicted in the novel are successfully translated, it ceases to constitute resistance to cultural imperialism and instead morphs into an exercise of privilege and maintaining the status quo. Perhaps what truly scandalizes nationalist critics is not really the “failure” of the translator to accurately convey Korean experiences, but in fact the “success” of the translation in conveying an area of Korean experience they tend to neglect—that of female subjectivity.
In this context, I argue that it is in fact the “failures” in Smith’s translation, as well as the controversy that has arisen from them, that powerfully render visible the novel’s primary concerns. Simultaneously obscured and revealed by the literalist controversies of nationalist critics is a context of formative trauma in which the colonial history of Korea and its cultural resistance in nationalist scholarship has led to the neglect and in some cases even the erasure of representations of female experience. To recognize the true merit of this groundbreaking piece of world literature, then, it is imperative to unpack the historical context behind the translation controversy and to find another way of reading beyond the current hegemonic discourses of race, nation, and gender in analyzing the novel. At its heart, The Vegetarian concerns experiences and subjects that are at best illegible and at worst outright maligned and censored by these discourses. Throughout the novel in various unguarded moments and dreams, these censored experiences emerge through the cracks. However, it is ironically through the deadlocks of translation that they emerge most clearly; and by reformulating critics’ key assumptions and questions, we can approach the broader ethical and political stakes of the novel.
Nationalist discourse frames the debate on Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian primarily in terms of asymmetrical power relations between races and nations. Of course, there are good reasons for this. As Robert Stam and Ella Shohat (2012: 231) observe, unlike Whites who have the privilege of exploring individual complexities as if transcendent of social realities, people of color carry “the allegorical burden of representing a race.” Likewise, there is a chance that The Vegetarian may not be treated as a singular work in Korean literature but rather a representation of everything about Korea for readers who know nothing about the culture.5 The possibility for such misapprehension could indeed be a cause for nationalist suspicion: since the text itself is essentially treated as a “cultural ambassador” in their minds, it is thought that a White English translator should keep a minimal presence. The proprietary fixation of a certain strand of Korean criticism—the intense scrutiny over seemingly minor “literal” errors—would then be explicable in terms of the worry that any deviation from the original text might constitute an imperialist incursion.
However, what complicates matters is the fact that Koreans were colonized not by the English, or Whites, but by the Japanese; hence assuming the issue is just about the “English” or the West would be misleading and potentially problematic. It is necessary to emphasize this point, not to exonerate the hegemonic cultural influences associated with English or English-speaking countries like the United States, but to recognize that their cultural impositions and geopolitical practices notwithstanding, there is a different topology of colonial trauma at hand here than is usually found within critical postcolonial theory in Western academia. In the case of Korea, the cultural imperialism of English language and culture does not immediately correspond to a national takeover; rather, Korea’s encounter with modernity as well as Western language and culture was introduced through and mediated by colonial Japan (K. Jeong 2011: 5). Such colonial modernity, which functioned primarily to serve the interest of the Japanese administration in regulating Koreans as “manageable” colonial subjects, focused on positioning Koreans as “a single inferior race” (Yoo 2008: 159) or “second-class citizens” (Kern 2009: 295) that are “other” to Japan (K. Jeong 2011: 14).
What complicates this process, however, is that racial signifiers that typically demarcate the colonizer and the colonized in other countries are not as prominent in the context of Japan and Korea relations. To put it differently, significantly absent in this case is what is implicit in Homi K. Bhabha’s theory (1994: 89) of the colonial subject as a mimic man who is not only “almost the same but not quite” but also “not white.” On the one hand, this situation might have allowed the colonized subject to more effectively undermine the colonial fantasy of maintaining rigid boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized.6 Historically, however, a more torturous colonial history unfolded as a result which, I argue, is partly what initiated nationalist defensiveness against some of the “excessive” practices of Korean critics we see today. Thus, to properly analyze the history, characteristics, and limitations of the translation controversy over The Vegetarian, it is imperative to look into the historically pernicious issues related to the particular colonial history of Korea from the early twentieth century to the Second World War.
In “The Price of Identity,” J. Michael Allen (1996) compiles government documents as well as newspaper archives from both Korea and Japan to analyze the 1923 Kantō Earthquake and its aftermath in the mass killing of Koreans in Japan. Drawing from studies conducted by Kang Tôksang and Küm Pyóngdong, Allen writes that although the precise death figures are contested between five different historical sources (69), it was clear that Koreans living in Japan were singled out as specific targets of misinformation, prejudice, and violence by vigilantes as well as by the Japanese government after the devastating earthquake that hit the Tokyo-Yokohama region (83).
This mass murder of Koreans, also known as the Kantō Massacre, is significant in mapping out the two main poles of Korean colonial trauma: the emphasis on accuracy over fluency in foreign language and the fear of national, cultural, and historical erasure. Although Allen contends that the massacre involves racialized antagonism toward not just any marginalized other but specifically Koreans, it is also important to note that the method used to single out Koreans from the Japanese was not by appearances but through a shibboleth based on language: anyone who could not pronounce “十五円五十銭” was labeled Korean—this is why some Chinese, Vietnamese, and other expats were mistaken for Koreans—and beaten, deported, or even killed on the spot. This incident is an apt illustration of the way imperialism for Koreans, as well as survival tactics, involved language rather than simply race.
Language also becomes important in preserving, communicating, and transmitting culture and collective trauma. That is why many Koreans were outraged in 2013 when Yokohama’s Board of Education recalled Japanese textbooks that used the word massacre” (虐殺) rather than “murder” (殺害) in describing the aftermath of the Kantō Earthquake. In 2017 Asahi shimbun reported that Japan’s Cabinet Office deleted its webpage containing detailed accounts of the tragedy. The reason they gave for taking it down was that “many complained about its inclusion of the passage on the massacre of Koreans,” but for those who are concerned, they are considering “sending copies individually by email to people who wish to view it in the future” (Cho K. 2017). Already in the previous century, the Kantō Massacre was “rarely discussed outside Korea” or “hardly known outside Korea,” which contributes to what Allen (1996: 85) aptly describes as “the feeling many Koreans have that the world at large does not care much about what many Koreans see as a history of suffering—a history that is itself tied up with concepts of Korean identity.” This feeling, already prevalent since the beginning of the twentieth century, combined with the historical memory of the various assimilationist policies that intensified throughout the period of Japanese occupation,7 persists today at the core of the aforementioned nationalist paranoia: Korean identity must be preserved in its “purest” form and should become known, remembered, and appreciated outside Korea. It is no wonder, then, that a strong push toward constructing, reclaiming, and self-determining a “distinct and homogeneous ethnic [Korean] identity” became a necessity, not only for the purposes of domestic solidarity but also to project it to the world at large (Shin and Chang 2004: 122).
It is in this context that a particular characteristic of Korean nationalism emerged: not only was Korean nationalism a “resistant nationalism” that served to unify the colonized and fight for independence and national sovereignty (Kwon S. 2016: 140), but it was also an ideal that was considered to occupy the front line that needs to be defended at all costs. Given the ways in which Korean identity formation during this period ended up mixing and conflating race, ethnicity, and nation (Shin and Chang 2004: 121), anyone who failed to prioritize nationalism over everything else was quickly demonized as a traitor to all three at once.
Unfortunately, this applied to voices of “women, lower class people, dissidents, and minority groups” (Herr 2003: 139). Even as they contributed to the cause of overcoming the colonial master, such groups were vulnerable to the hasty judgments of reformers if their concerns and struggles for rights did not immediately serve the nationalist agenda. This highlights the dark side of the nationally unifying ideology of the resistance movement—under the umbrella rhetoric of fighting for all Koreans, hence purporting to transcend race, class, gender, and so forth, it was “often promoted as a means to distract from [preexisting] social divisions” (139) before colonization, thereby reinforcing existing hierarches and maintaining the status quo.
Numerous scholars have pointed out that this phenomenon has been exceptionally evident in the issues revolving around women’s rights during the colonial period of modernization. For example, Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi (1997: 7–13) argue that feminism “stands at odds with nationalism” because the latter is an ultimately masculinist discourse with a “homonational misogyny” that considered itself to be fighting for a “greater cause” than any other movement; Theodore Jun Yoo (2008: 58) argues that male nationalist reformers, one of the main forces that participated in the public debate on “the woman question,” were especially perplexed by modern Korean women who crossed traditional gender boundaries by looking like and attempting to “live like a man”; and Kelly Y. Jeong (2011) acknowledges that under colonialism, native masculine subjectivity, which in the case of Korea is identified with the nation itself and hence is always already in crisis, oftentimes transforms into a defensive “hyper-masculinity” (15) that manifests as “hostility, and even violence towards women, and sometimes as hatred of the emasculated self” (x).
What’s imperative to acknowledge, however, are the ways in which such gender politics are in fact symptomatic of competing moral discourses between and among what Yoo (2008: 93) maps out as the “three discursive forces”—Korean women, nationalist reformers, and the colonial state.8 The influx of Western missionaries to Korea and Japan from the mid- to late nineteenth century asserted that “the status of women was an important measure of any society’s progress toward civilization” (Lock 1995: 85), and that interfering with “uncivilized” societies to elevate the status of women was without question doing the “right” thing. In the early twentieth century, the subjugated status of women, the conventional disdain for “educated women” (Choi 2009: 6), and the “backward custom” of early marriage in Korea (Yoo 2008: 154) were considered proofs to the Japanese imperial gaze of “national inferiority” (Suh 2013: 16), providing the colonial invaders with a difficult-to-surmount moral authority.
As a reaction, some nationalist reformers subscribed to the idea that the status of women indeed “represented the barometer by which to measure progress” and became advocates of women’s education if it meant to foster “docile and self-sacrificing women that . . . would lead the nation into the new era of progress and national freedom” (Yoo 2008: 58, 74). Others went so far as to believe that the unequal status and treatment of women is, however problematic, “the symbol of ‘authentic’ national identity” that “therefore must be maintained or restored” (Herr 2003: 136). But neither of these positions provided comfort or a stable sense of moral authority for the nationalists, especially when a new type of Korean woman—the “New Woman” (신여성) or “Modern girls” (모던걸), as they were later labeled by the press—emerged in the 1920s. Coming from a privileged class that allowed them to study abroad and dream of having a career, these New Women strove to claim agency in defining their identities as well as gender boundaries against the scripts set out by both the colonial state (manageable colonial subjects) and Korean nationalist reformers (docile wives and mothers who support Koreans achieving independence) (Yoo 2008: 73).
Now challenged by not only the imperial gaze but also feminism from within, the nationalist agenda was compelled to respond to this morally contested terrain regarding women. One of the ways this impulse manifested was to undermine the moral authority of female emancipation. The New Woman’s aspiration for a career that was unavailable in her domestic land was depicted as a sign of selfishness, putting the personal above the national;9 her choice in fashion, which involved short hair, Western-style hats, high heels, and red lipstick, was taken as indication that she glorified Western culture at the expense of her Korean roots; and her striving for free love and the right to divorce was a sign of sexual permissiveness and frivolousness. For these reasons, modern girls, as a pun, was degraded to motten girls (못된걸), which translates into “mean girls” or “naughty girls” (Suh 2013: 19). In addition, working-class women’s feminist movements for economic independence were disparaged as a “needless bourgeois pursuit” (Yoo 2008: 153–54)—hence vain, narcissistic, and lacking national consciousness. In this vein of sexist reasoning, women who go “too far” in the eyes of nationalists betray their own race, ethnicity, and nation; therefore, these women cannot sustain their moral high ground, even as they speak for rights and justice.
While recognizing that anxieties and criticisms around modern women in the twentieth century were global, Jiyoung Suh (2013: 22) points out that there was something unique about the nationalist disapproval of the Modern Girl in Korea: “Specifically, the representation of Modern Girls in Korea was confined by the ideological frame of the socialist intellectuals who projected their class- and gender-consciousness onto Modern Girls, while denying the diverse and layered desires and fragmented voices of these Modern Girls in reality.” Here, there are two impulses of nationalism in motion. On the one hand, the depiction of the Modern Girl as “other” reinforced the image of nationalists as authentic, anticapitalist, “autonomous and rational individuals” (24) who fought for a larger, political, and ethical cause. On the other hand, they denied the actual voices of women who were, in reality, suppressed in such stock, stereotypical images. Ironically, despite nationalists’ paranoia about cultural erasure, they ended up silencing women—the most radical voices that existed within their own movement.
As a result, despite their considerable contribution to the nationalist resistance (there were, for example, a number of independence movements organized solely by women) (Kim 2009: 248), women’s rights movements were dismissed by nationalists as a distraction that was subordinate or adjunct to what was considered a more important struggle. This indicates that while colonial oppression was shared by both men and women, there was another layer of trauma that covered up the presence and voices of women. Depicted as “disruptive annoyances bordering on betrayal of the nation” (Herr 2003: 137), feminism was considered at best a distraction from, or at worst an obstruction to, the larger movement regarding national sovereignty and the preservation of an idea of Korean culture. Your turn will come, but “now is not the time” (142) was the nationalist attitude toward women’s voices, but this was precisely what burdened an already agonized Korean female subjectivity.
One can now see more clearly, via this history, the critical point that is missing in the debates over the translation of The Vegetarian—the pivotal question that could have and, I argue, should have been the focus of the controversy: Is the suffering of the female protagonist, Yeong-hye, successfully translated? In other words, did the errors, differences, and changes in style that nationalist critics lamented in fact misrepresent the experience of Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye?10 Unfortunately, this was not the question that shaped the current controversy. Instead, the whole scandal revolved around a semantic obsession focused on narrow differences between the original and the translated text. Although fears of cultural erasure began as justified responses to colonial suppression, they have, through unrestrained exercise, uncannily repeated their long-standing historical limitations—emphasizing “the greater cause” of preserving, transmitting, and making others care about Korean culture at the expense of silencing women’s voices. In the case of the translation controversy, then, it is imperative to stop blindly accepting the premise of the existing debate and start to not only revisit but conceptually reframe the way one sees translation in relation to its original, and what it means for a translation to “fail.”11
In contributing to the debate on Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian, Yun (2017) references his colleague Jung, Ha-yun’s view of translation, namely, that it can be “embarrassing” because it reveals the capabilities and weaknesses of the translator. According to Paul de Man’s analysis (1986: 98) of Walter Benjamin’s theory on translation, however, the opposite is the case—the “failure” of translation is not the failure of an individual translator but, rather, a radical exposé of what is always already disrupted “in the original, but which the original managed to hide.” The “essential failure” of translation is what enables one to see, in the original language, that which masquerades as sacred or canonical:
You are made aware of certain disjunctions, certain disruptions, certain accommodations, certain weaknesses, certain cheatings, certain conventions, certain characteristics which don’t correspond to the claim of the original . . . a translation brings out all that is idiomatical, all that is customary, all that is quotidian, all that is nonsacred [in the original] . . . the original is disarticulated . . . [and] decanonized. (97)
As de Man clarifies, this by no means implies that the “original is then no longer a great work” or “it wouldn’t be worthy of admiration” (98). The emphasis is rather on what translation enables in reading the original, or what is being discovered in this process. If the translated language exposes and thereby puts the original language into motion, it is the original language that in turn becomes foreign. Translation is, then, not about making a foreign language into one’s own or vice versa, but profoundly changing how one sees and relates to what masquerades as natural or normal. Intriguingly, this is precisely what the protagonist of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye, does in the novel: she makes visible the underlying assumptions of the everyday and the ordinary, thereby challenging and undermining the various ideologies surrounding her on a daily basis. Rethinking translation and its failure, then, not only provides insight into how to engage with the text in another way than the current critical discourse on The Vegetarian but also allows the reader to carefully listen and ethically respond to the female voices and suffering in the novel.
The narrative of The Vegetarian revolves around Yeong-hye’s sudden, mysterious determination to become a vegetarian after multiple nightmares that reflect her past trauma and suffering, which opens her up to an extreme sense of estrangement from society as well as from her own self and subsequently leads to a strong desire to morph into a plant. Initially published separately, the three sections of the novel attempt to record, at times to comprehend, Yeong-hye’s singular behavior as well as the course of events from different points of view.
For instance, the first section, “The Vegetarian,” is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband Mr. Cheong, who initially regards his wife as “completely unremarkable in any way” (Han 2015: 3). This conception changes utterly, however, on the night he finds his wife standing in the kitchen alone in the dark. Alarmed at such unusual behavior, Mr. Cheong speaks to her in hopes of bringing her back from her somnambulistic state. When he fails to get any response, he walks toward her and touches her shoulder, and, to his surprise, she does not show even a slight reaction. In the original text in Korean, Mr. Cheong realizes that his wife was by no means in a dazed state but was aware all along of his coming out of the room, asking questions, and moving toward her—she simply chose to ignore him (정신을 놓고 있었던 게 아니라, 내가 안방에서 나오는 것, 질문, 자신에게 다가오는 것까지 모두 의식하고 있었던 것이다. 그녀는 다만 무시했을 뿐이다; Han 2007: 14). In the translation, however, Mr. Cheong draws a completely different conclusion: “I had no doubt that I was in my right mind and all this was really happening; I had been fully conscious of everything I had done since emerging from the living room, asking her what she was doing, and moving towards her. She was the one standing there completely unresponsive, as though lost in her own world” (Han 2015: 7).
In his book on translation, Cho, Jaeryong (2018) speculates that here the translator “failed to recognize” or understand the original Korean text, possibly because the subject of the sentence was omitted in Han’s work: the original indicates that it is Yeong-hye who is actively conscious of her husband’s movements, while the translation seems to have Mr. Cheong retrace his own steps (55). As a result, Cho argues, instead of having Yeong-hye as a female subject who is perfectly aware of her husband’s surveillance, the translation gives Mr. Cheong the power and authority to be keenly aware of his own actions as well as the ways in which they are received. For Cho, this “lack of understanding” of the translator is problematic because it contributed significantly to “changing the theme of the novel as a whole” (55). However, the extremity of this claim should lead us to raise questions about its underlying assumptions: Cho’s argument works only if we first assume that the narrative voice of Mr. Cheong functions as the final verdict in accurately depicting his wife and second, that the reader’s reception of the husband’s viewpoint would necessarily be uncritical.
Cho is convinced that Mr. Cheong succeeds in claiming his agency by asserting that he was “fully conscious” of the situation, unlike his wife who seems to be “lost in her own world.” This implies that he is rational, stable, and completely in control—that is, if one wholeheartedly assents to what Mr. Cheong wants to believe about himself, his wife, and this unusual situation that he has encountered for the first time. But to assent to this would be to accept at face value the desire and fantasy involved in Mr. Cheong’s assertions. Cho’s point, then, ironically gives Mr. Cheong more credit than would the text itself, by assuming that the reader would unwittingly submit to the authority of his perspective.
When Yeong-hye completely ignores his voice and his hand on her shoulder, Mr. Cheong in the translation is compelled to review and examine himself, and he must try to determine whether this whole incident “was really happening.” His assertion, “I had no doubt,” then, is most likely a reaction or even an answer to a question that is raised in his own mind. Through Yeong-hye’s silence and lack of response, Mr. Cheong finds himself in a position where he has to objectify his movements, tracing them step by step, in order to deny the possibility that he is not in his “right mind” and that this was not “really happening.” Thus it is not Yeong-hye, as in the original, but Mr. Cheong who has to prove he is in his right mind by demonstrating his awareness of the situation. The “failure” of the translation does not, then, distort the theme of the novel by unquestioningly bestowing on Mr. Cheong the agency that rightfully belongs to Yeong-hye; instead, it opens up a space to question the authority of Mr. Cheong’s narrative voice, undermines his sense of stability and control despite his assertions, and exposes his limitations, which are in fact already operative in the original.
Threatened and intimidated, Mr. Cheong reacts with overconfidence in his ability to detect anything out of the ordinary, yet at the same time, he also needs to repeatedly assure himself that “this strange situation had nothing to do with me” (19). Yeong-hye’s face, however, disorients Mr. Cheong’s sense of being in control, as it looked “unfamiliar, as though I was seeing her for the first time” (11). His description, intriguingly, matches how Yeong-hye sees her own face in the fateful dream that causes her to become a vegetarian: “This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. . . . My face, the look in my eyes . . . my face, undoubtedly, but never seen before. Or no, not mine, but so familiar . . . nothing makes sense. Familiar and yet not . . . that vivid, strange, horribly uncanny feeling” (12, emphasis in original). Repeated in Yeong-hye’s consequent dreams and nightmares is the uncanny sense in which “familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible” (28, emphasis in original); this includes her face and even the sense of who she is, as she continuously discovers something strange and unfamiliar in her own self. Yeong-hye articulates this sensation as becoming a different person (or, in the Korean version, as if becoming a different person) (42), as in the moment in her dream when “a different person rises up inside me, devours me” (32, emphasis in original). In her later dreams, especially the one that she “can’t even call [a dream] anymore,” she feels as if a pair of “animal eyes gleaming wild [were] . . . rising up from the pit of her stomach” (33). This repeated imagery of something wild and different rising up from her own body makes Yeong-hye shudder and check on her teeth and fingernails in case they had suddenly morphed into tooth and claw.
Even her breasts, which she once believed was the only part of her body that she could count on for not being a “weapon” that can hurt or kill, become smaller and sharper as she becomes more and more sleep deprived because of her nightmares. As a result, she is compelled to ask herself “what I am going to gouge?” or, in Korean, “what is it trying to stab by becoming so sharp?” (무엇을찌르려고이렇게날카로워지는거지, 43, emphasis in original). The question she asks brings about the disturbing truth regarding the metamorphosis—that the breasts are not merely capable of becoming a weapon but also may have an active purpose or intention to gouge and stab something, or even someone. The “wildness” that Yeong-hye discovers within herself, then, is not merely the sensation of becoming someone different; it is also the unconscious desire to possess a “weapon,” even on the most tender parts of her body, or to become more aggressive and violent toward others and her surroundings.12
What makes this perhaps shocking or unexpected is that Yeong-hye is a victim of abuse. Yeong-hye was the only one in her family exposed to the beatings of her father—a hot-tempered Vietnam war veteran who is drunk most of the time. As a young girl who was docile and naïve, Yeong-hye not even once attempted to fight or resist her father’s abuse. Instead, she absorbed all her suffering deep inside herself, which possibly contributed to her growing up to be “a woman of few words” (4) with a passive personality. Picking up on such traits, Mr. Cheong chooses to marry her—not for love but because she fits his idea of a “completely ordinary wife” (4), and when this stereotypical expectation is shattered through Yeong-hye’s “strange” determination following her dreams, Mr. Cheong, drunk, feeling justified, and somehow aroused, rapes her.
As Mr. Cheong rapes Yeong-hye, he notes that after a strong resistance, her face eventually turns blank “as though she were a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services” (30). Here, the reference to comfort women—groups of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army until the end of World War II—evokes, as Fan (2018) writes, “images from Korea’s past as an occupied nation.” However, it is important to note that the issue of comfort women involves multiple layers of colonial and gendered violence. Herr (2013) argues that the discourse on comfort women was silenced for nearly half a century, owing to the pervasive Korean patriarchal ideology that shamed women who lost their “virtue” or chastity, regardless of the circumstances; and when it finally entered the political discourse in the 1990s, it was misplaced as either “men’s talk,” open for discussing compensation among politicians, or a cultural symbol that can criticize the Japanese occupation with an internationally recognized moral high ground (137–38). On this, Kim, Heisook (2009) points out in “Feminist Philosophy in Korea” that it is this nationalist sentiment on the issue of comfort women that rules out the possibility that they would “unite in voice with Japanese feminists who would have liked to deem it a problem of rape in war in general” (248). This is to say that the issue of comfort women historically became reduced to a rhetoric against the Japanese, which means it tends to be treated as a nationalist issue more so than a violation of individual rights. For Herr (2003), this nationalist tendency to “focus more on the external factors of sexual exploitation” is potentially dangerous, for it could function as a cover-up to “bypass the inner patriarchal oppression” (137). Hence it is imperative to have a more contextual understanding of the pain and hardships of the victims, rather than instrumentalizing their trauma and suffering for the sake of reinforcing a nationalist rhetoric.
Mr. Cheong’s reaction can be read, then, as the symptomatic consequence of the matter at hand. Excited by subjugating and overpowering his wife’s “surprisingly strong resistance” (Han 2015: 30), Mr. Cheong is reminded of an image of a comfort woman, absent-mindedly staring into the ceiling in darkness while a Japanese soldier takes advantage of her. For him, this is a disturbing image; at the same time, it is a safe fantasy. While it is true that Mr. Cheong is the perpetrator and a rapist, his self-image is mediated through a national rhetoric that emphasizes colonial history more so than the gender violence itself. “We” have a consensus on the idea of a Japanese soldier: he is evil, the one who hurts “our women,” and, more importantly, he is “not me.” No matter what happens, I can be content in the fact that at least I am not him. It is precisely this logic behind the fantasy that shields him from the guilt and horrors of his actions. What Mr. Cheong misses, however, is that the domestic “inner patriarchal oppression,” as Herr puts it, can also cause “our women” added injury.
This repressed truth returns via the surface of Yeong-hye’s face, as Mr. Cheong notes: “I couldn’t stand the way her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many hardships niggled at my conscience” (31). In his worldview, Yeong-hye is “ordinary,” which is to say that she is not a woman with an exceptionally bitter experience. The reason he can’t stand the accusation implied by her face is that his instant initial reaction is to think of it as unfair. However, he is not completely unaware of the possibilities that, as a man who is also quite ordinary and “always inclined towards the middle course of life” (4), he can also make his wife suffer those “many hardships”; this is the reason his conscience, albeit slightly, is pricked in the moment. Through his wife’s face, which both Mr. Cheong and Yeong-hye recognize as familiar and foreign at the same time, the safe distance that is imperative in preserving a certain sense of self radically collapses for everyone involved.
This happens to others when, for example, Mr. Cheong takes Yeong-hye to an important dinner with his boss, his wife, and a selected few of his coworkers. As soon as they find out that Yeong-hye does not eat meat, they react instantly by pointing out how “unnatural” vegetarianism is according to history and medicine, or how being a vegetarian reflects a flaw in her character as being “picky” and “narrow-minded” (23). Picking up that the crowd would never forgive Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism unless it matched the discourse they hold to be undisputed and true, Mr. Cheong quickly “speaks over” Yeong-hye to point out that it was her dietitian who recommended that she become a vegetarian. Only then do the others nod in understanding, approval, and forgiveness.
Even so, as Yeong-hye gazes back at everyone else, without anything remotely resembling a polite smile, “it was clear that they were all uncomfortable” (24). This discomfort comes from the fact that her gaze, which refuses to share their common ground, strips away the fantasy that their behaviors, actions, and thoughts are “natural,” not only enabling but forcing them to see themselves under a new light: “Well, I must say, I’m glad I’ve still never sat down with a proper vegetarian. I’d hate to share a meal with someone who considers eating meat repulsive, just because that’s how they themselves personally feel . . . don’t you agree?” (24).13 The reason they do not like the idea of dining with a “proper” or a “true” (진짜) vegetarian is that they do not want themselves to be perceived as someone committing a repulsive act that is exceptionally crude or out of the ordinary. They may at times accept or even respect to a certain extent how vegetarians “personally feel” toward eating meat, but they do not want the same judgment to be extended to themselves, especially since they are content and comfortable in believing how “natural” their habits are. Besides, even if eating meat can be seen as a violent act, that same violence is socially accepted, agreed upon as “normal.” Under such an alibi, carnivorism does not appear more violent than any other social convention. Yet for this same reason, vegetarianism has a much more laden meaning than a simple preference, for it renders suspect what is unquestionably accepted as ordinary by many, and it exposes the authoritarian tendency that underlies many social conventions that, when threatened, are asserted as an indisputable “truth.” This, in effect, shakes up and cracks open the arbitrariness of what many feel to be comfortable, natural, normal, and safe. Yeong-hye and her vegetarianism has, then, a fundamentally “violent” impact on the seamless existence of people around her.14
This is why Yeong-hye’s father, a man “with strongly fixed ideas” (29), cannot tolerate her vegetarianism at all. Yeong-hye’s father thinks of her vegetarianism as “preposterous” because in his world “everyone eats meat,” so there is something wrong with those who do not (39). This is also why his “fatherly affections” get expressed through force-feeding his daughter meat; he has no doubt that “if she eats once, she’ll eat it again” (39). Eventually, his attempts to “fix” or “cure” Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism are manifested in violent form:
“Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, you eat!”
I expected an answer from my wife along the lines of “I’m sorry, Father, but I just can’t eat it,” but all she said was “I do not eat meat”—clearly enunciated, and seemingly not the least bit apologetic. . . .
“Eat it! Listen to what your father’s telling you and eat. Everything I say is for your own good. . . .
“Father, I don’t eat meat.”
In an instant, his flat palm cleaved the empty space. My wife cupped her cheeks in her hand. (38)
The situation escalates rapidly because Yeong-hye’s attitude, responding to the reproachful glares of her whole family, is far from being apologetic; she simply states that she does not eat meat, and that is the person she is. Her demeanor, combined with her matter-of-fact declaration of herself, is sufficient to be taken as evidence of subversion. Feeling as if his authority is in question, Yeong-hye’s father is enraged at her defiance: “You think your father’s words are not words?” (“이 애비 말이 말 같지 않아?”; 48). Her brother Yeong-ho, who seizes Yeong-hye by the arm to assist his father to thrust a piece of pork down her throat, also disapproves of the way she is making a scene “in front of Father,” while she could have at least pretended to “just behave” to appease him (39).
Yeong-hye’s voice here is muffled and silenced—she is literally “unable to say even a single word in case, when she opened her mouth to speak, the meat found its way in” (39). Cornered both physically and psychologically, Yeong-hye growls, spits out the meat her father succeeded in putting in her mouth, and starts howling “an animal cry of distress” (40); and, as if either to run away from the situation or to make a statement that would finally be heard, or perhaps as a result of becoming the “wild” that she found inside herself in her dreams, she picks up a fruit knife and slits her wrist.
Hospitalized, Yeong-hye survives—but she has lost all connections to her family, and to a certain extent, reality. Time passes and Yeong-hye begins to retreat deeper into herself, moving from being a vegetarian to becoming a vegetable, a plant, a tree. What this means is that Yeong-hye, left alone in the psychiatric hospital, refuses to eat, sleep, and speak, and thereby slowly embraces a certain passive death. The questions she raised so far, or the pain and suffering that she hints at through the characters as well as the readers, are still left unresolved. In what way can we open up a “safe” discourse for those who are traumatized and have suffered such immense hardships that they are unable to speak? What can we do to prevent the problematic reactions to the “threats” they impose on the existing order?
Yeong-hye’s older sister In-hye’s final remarks seem to offer a potential solution, especially when we read the final scene of The Vegetarian in its original and translated form—side by side, together. At the end of the novel, In-hye gets in an ambulance to take her injured sister to a hospital in Seoul. As they leave the psychiatric hospital in the woods, In-hye whispers to Yeong-hye about dreams: “I have dreams too, you know. Dreams . . . and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over . . . but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because . . . because then . . . ” (182). Here, in Smith’s translation, what is highlighted is how In-hye claims that she has dreams too—nightmares that deeply affect her, that force her to discover a dark, violent side in the life she perceives around her as well as within herself; how these horrifying insights bring about insomnia; and how that fatigue can lead to a “death drive” in the most literal sense. In this way, In-hye expresses solidarity with her sister through sharing how she too suffered from a similar experience of being dissolved and taken over by her own nightmares. It is in this sense that the word we is emphasized in the translation, through “we have to wake up,” along with the question that asks for confirmation, “don’t we?” Furthermore, the final “because then” seems to gesture toward an action as well as an explanation of the significance of waking up. In-hye here seems, via the talk of dreams, to be demonstrating her willingness to act, to reach out and take action for, as well as with, her sister.
In Han’s original version, the emphasis is on an ontological level and follows the pattern of reconfiguring the relation between dreams and reality expressed throughout the novel. In-hye tells Yeong-hye that the whole situation happening in reality may also be a dream as well:
This may also be a dream . . . in dreams, it seems as though that’s everything there is. But after one wakes up, she gets to know that what was in the dream is not everything . . . so once we wake up from this, then, let’s . . .
(이건 말이야 . . . 어쩌면 꿈인지 몰라 . . . 꿈속에선, 꿈이 전부인 것 같잖아. 하지만 깨고 나면 그게 전부가 아니란 걸 알지. . . . . .그러니까, 언젠가 우리가 깨어나면, 그때는. . . . . .; 221).
What In-hye evokes here is as follows: the foreignness she experiences within herself, the violence and self-destructive impulses that both she and Yeong-hye discover in their respective dreams might reveal truths that had been repressed, which could foster new insight on the violence that goes unquestioned in the everyday; however, such a revelation would also be partial and by no means a final or definitive version of self or reality. Such an insight would have to be properly situated: terrible as they were, the abuses that she and her sister suffered were not indelible stains that marked the entire horizon of their existence as women. According to In-hye, “everything there is” is closer to a particular sensation of something than a totalizing view of how things are, and even that dissipates once the dream is over. Taking a step further, In-hye suggests that what they perceive as “reality” may also “be a dream” in the sense that what they believe to be “everything there is” might not be true once they “wake up” from it. It is in this context of waking up that In-hye envisions a day when the traumas they’ve experienced will no longer feel like “everything there is,” that is, when they would no longer have to shoulder the despair of their current predicament or remain perpetual victims.
It is in this ending scene especially that the original and translation unravel together the question of how to respond, ethically and responsibly, to Yeong-hye and the set of difficult problems that unfold in the course of the novel. For many, the difference in the case of The Vegetarian between the original and translation signifies only one of two things—either the excellence of the translator who accordingly deserves all the credit for the international recognition and for winning prestigious awards, or the failure of the translator on account of the fact that he or she distorted and violated the purity of the original text because of a lack of skill and knowledge. As readers of The Vegetarian, one should not submit to the very behavior that ultimately threatens Yeong-hye’s very existence, but think beyond such a rigid, Manichean viewpoint as is exemplified by nationalist reductions of the novel. Between채식주의자 and The Vegetarian, what gets “lost” in translation reemerges in a feminist solidarity that not only gives voice to what was silenced but finds a way of waking up from the nightmare of history.
Throughout this text I follow the convention of citing the last name of Korean authors followed by a comma and the first name.
This scandal is heated whenever Smith visits South Korea. When she does, press conferences and academic conferences are held, wherein the debate is once again revived.
Throughout the body of this text, all translations from Korean are the author’s own, unless otherwise indicated.
This is why a critic like Kim, Wook-Dong takes extreme caution when he takes issue with the translation. He feels that such extra consideration is warranted because the Man Booker Prize is awarded both to the translation as well as the original. As if to assure his audience that he is not insulting the “pure” original text, the source of national pride, he emphasizes that he thinks the original novel is without a doubt a great work of art on its own (“English Scholar” 2018).
Speaking on the translation controversy, for example, Han rejects the claim that Smith’s translation had more than one hundred errors, insisting that those numbers are factually wrong (“[Exclusive]” 2018).
Smith (2016: 17) says that she encounters this assumption frequently in Korea, but she disagrees that it is actually the case. At the Seoul International Book Fair 2016, she argues that when Western readers want to read more of, for example, Haruki Murakami’s novels, they are not seeking them to read something quintessentially Japanese. She believes that both readers and publishers are drawn into literature around the world because of the singularity of the author’s vision, not because it is a “window” to another culture.
In Intimate Empire, Nayoung Aimee Kwon (2015) writes about this particular vector of relations between colonial Korea and metropolitan Japan. As Japan colonized a proximate neighbor who was “already closely affiliated—long before the fact of colonial penetration,” there was always a lurking sense of an “unstable divide between the colonizers and the colonized” (7).
To list a few: the royal palace Changgyeonggung was converted into a zoo that also featured botanical gardens and museums. In 1911, a year after the occupation, the colonial government degraded the place even more by taking out the word gung, meaning “palace,” from its name. The new name, Changgyeongwon, indicated that there was no Changgyeonggung Palace anymore—what remained was merely an attraction, or a won, a theme park. Then in 1922 Japanese cherry blossoms were planted throughout the place, not simply for the enjoyment of the Japanese people but to make the place look more “Japanese.”
Religions other than Japanese Zen Buddhism or Shinto were condemned as illegitimate. Christianity in Korea was no exception; in fact, by 1938 when “The Policy to Obliterate the Korean Nation” was enforced, Christian churches had to incorporate Shinto rituals by law. The significance of Shinto worshipping for the colonial government was how these rituals signified submission to the Japanese emperor—those who refused to participate were accused of “treason” and subsequently imprisoned (qtd. in Kern 2009: 295).
Then, when the Second Sino-Japanese War started to put pressure on the empire from 1937, the colonial government reacted by intensifying their assimilation policies in Korea. During this period, Koreans were forced to change their names to Japanese; those who refused could not register for school or work, and packages with Korean names on them were not delivered by the post office. Children and young adults did not learn anything about Korea in school and were forbidden to speak Korean in classrooms, even during recess. Soon, newspapers and periodicals published in Korean were discontinued, as virtually any cultural activity in Korean became illegal.
It is important to note that such contestation of moral authorities always had the “gaze of the global community” in mind (Shin and Robinson 1999: 3).
According to Lee, Sang-kyung (2012: 416), such a viewpoint was not limited to the New Women. Traditional “Old Women” were also condemned as self-serving or shallow if their actions were perceived as demonstrating insufficient commitment to serving the Korean nation.
It seems that this is the question Smith emphasizes the most in her work. When Smith confesses that she at times permits herself “an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity” (qtd. in Fan 2018) in translating The Vegetarian, for example, what she seems to be referring to as a “greater fidelity” is conveying those undiscussed female experiences. She states: “I’m glad to have brought the work of a brilliant writer to an international audience, in sufficiently faithful a way for a qualitatively . . . similar reception.” What Smith is highlighting here is that her translation of The Vegetarian did not “betray” the original, insofar as international readers ended up having a similar reaction to those who had read of Yeong-hye’s suffering in Korean.
As for Smith (2018), this is par for the course: “To praise the translation is not to devalue the original. Finally, no translation is definitive—it’s simply a way to ‘Fail again. Fail better.’ I think I failed okay.” Here Smith addresses two points: first, the “praise” of the English version of The Vegetarian need not be considered a threat to the greatness of the original, or the “greatness of Korea” for that matter. Second, translation, by definition, is what fails—a flawless translation of language cannot exist in the first place, as even a word-for-word translation would completely lose its ability to convey any meaning. In other words, the premise of the accusation that there could be a successful translation was, to begin with, false.
The original Korean of this sentence reveals a much more “narrow” mindset than the translation: it does not excuse the hypothetical vegetarian for feeling disgust in the first place. Instead, it states that if someone becomes a vegetarian for psychological reasons, that person is “committing hate” toward meat eaters (“정신적인 이유로 채식을 한다는 건, 어찌됐든 육식을 혐오한다는 거 아녜요?”; 32). If the translation, by inserting a certain acceptance of how a vegetarian might feel about eating meat, fosters in effect a somewhat sympathetic attitude toward the viewpoint of the group, the section that follows immediately afterward radically overturns such a sentiment: “Imagine you were snatching up a wriggling baby octopus with your chopsticks and chomping it to death—and the woman across from you glared like you were some kind of animal. That must be how it feels to sit down and eat with a vegetarian!” (24). Since eating a live octopus is not uncommon in Korea, the shock and intensity of the image cannot be identical between Korean readers and readers in English. Perhaps the earlier section was adjusted to balance out the reception of the following scene, thereby leveling the aesthetic distance to match it with the Korean text as much as possible.
This mingled image of tenderness and violence is presented as a tableau at the end of section 1. Under the sunlight in the hallway of the hospital, Yeong-hye, pushed to a state where her husband claims not to know her anymore, is found exposing her naked breast—and in her clenched right hand there is a bird “which had been crushed in her grip” (52).