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No writer's block for translator

Deborah Smith, who shared the Man Booker Prize with South Korean writer Han Kang, learnt the language for three years before translating the novel

Deborah Smith looks weary - and slightly wary. It is partly because of jetlag, as she would later reveal. But also because she much prefers writing to speaking.

At the Seoul International Book Fair, which opened last Wednesday, the Man Booker International Prize-winning translator for South Korean writer Han Kang's The Vegetarian tells Korean journalists at a press conference: "Like many writers, I am happiest on my own with a book or working on my computer. And I'm not very comfortable as a spokesman."

Quoting senior translator Brother Anthony of the ecumenical monastic order Taize in her opening remarks that "translation is humble service, not self-promotion", she adds: "I don't pretend to know better than anyone else about translation or Korean literature simply because I won a prize. Prizes are subjective."

Smith, 28, and Han Kang, 45, shared the £50,000 (S$96,000) Man Booker prize equally, after it was announced last month.

Save for a few days of answering a lot of e-mail, her life has not changed much since the win, the British translator says. "Until I came here, I didn't notice any difference. And I'm very happy with that. I became a translator not out of any desire for worth or fame, but out of a desire to share with a wider audience the books which I've fallen in love with."

She describes The Vegetarian as a "stunning technical accomplishment and a bravely humane work of art", praising its "meticulous construction" and "powerful images".

It is about dutiful wife Yeong Hye who, after struggling with gruesome recurring nightmares, rebels against societal norms, forsaking meat and sparking concern among her family that she is mentally ill.

Smith finished translating The Vegetarian in 2013, after learning Korean for three years.

In an interview with The Guardian last month, she said she went ahead and translated the book before sending a list of questions to Han and starting an e-mail exchange.

"It is widely accepted that translating a work of literature means creatively re-writing it in another language, a process which involves varying degrees of interpretation and editorial decisions," she says.

"The translator must be unfaithful to some aspect of the original work in order to be faithful to others. I aim always to be faithful to the spirit of the original work. I will only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of greater fidelity."

Translating The Vegetarian, she concentrated most on bringing across Han's style, which was "so controlled and restrained, without being cold or indifferent".

She says: "If you thought of it in terms of specific strategies, it wouldn't work. You just write it and know when it doesn't work and when it does. The more you go on, the easier it is to fall into that voice."

She is also sensitive to "issues of representation" when translating for British readers, checking with a Korean friend or looking technical things up on the Internet and books.

"In the United Kingdom, Korean culture is still very little known and, so, for a lot of people reading these translations, it might be their first encounter with Korean culture.

"When I started translating, I would be using terms such as soju, manhwa or seonsaengnim, and the editors would not know what this was," she says, referring to Korean rice wine, comics and a term of respectful address. "They would suggest, why don't we call it Korean vodka or Korean manga, or just manga, and I would explain that it's not a good thing to make one culture sound like it's derivative of another, as though it's sort of borrowing these things or that it's a lesser version."

She has translated two novels by another South Korean writer, Bae Suah, that will be published in the coming months: one in October and the other in January next year.

Having set up a publishing company, Tilted Axis, in London last year, to promote contemporary literature in translation, Smith has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, set up by the South Korean government.

The MOU will help Tilted Axis publish at least one work of South Korean literature in translation each year. The translator-publisher is looking to sign other South Korean writers at the book fair.

She has no desire to be a novelist. "When you're translating, you are a writer of sentences and you're creating rhythm and style, which I enjoy and which I thought I could do well," she says. "But I appreciated the fact that I didn't have to think of story, characters and setting. The nicest thing about translation is that you don't get writer's block."

Ask which language she would like to learn to translate its books, she says Vietnamese. "At the moment, there are almost no Vietnamese translations, published in the UK at least. It is relatively little known. And it's a country that has modernised a lot recently, developed a lot.

"And I like the food."

• The Vegetarian ($29.95) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'No writer's block for translator'. Print Edition | Subscribe