LONDON • South Korean author Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize on Monday, sharing the £50,000 (S$99,148) award with her translator, who had taught herself Korean only three years before she started the translation.
Han, 45, who teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, is the first South Korean to win the prize.
"I'm so honoured," she said. "The work features a protagonist who wants to become a plant and to leave the human race to save herself from the dark side of human nature. Through this extreme narrative, I felt I could question... the difficult question of being human."
In The Vegetarian, after struggling with gruesome recurring nightmares, Yeong Hye, a dutiful wife, rebels against societal norms, forsaking meat and stirring concern among her family that she is mentally ill.
Described as "lyrical and lacerating" by chairman of the judges Boyd Tonkin, the tale traces the story of an ordinary woman's rejection of convention from three different perspectives.
It was picked unanimously by the panel of five judges, beating six other novels, including The Story Of The Lost Child by Italian sensation Elena Ferrante and A Strangeness In My Mind by Turkey's Orhan Pamuk.
"This is a book of tenderness and terror," Boyd told guests at the award ceremony dinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Han's first book to appear in English, The Vegetarian was described by The Guardian newspaper as a shock to the system. "Across the three parts, we are pressed up against a society's most inflexible structures - expectations of behaviour, the workings of institutions - and we watch them fail one by one," Mr Daniel Hahn wrote in a review.
For the first time this year, the award went jointly to the translator, Briton Deborah Smith, 28, who started learning Korean only three years before she embarked on the translation.
"This was the first book that I ever translated and the best possible thing that can happen to a translator has just happened to me," she said.
She added: "When I was 22, I decided to teach myself Korean. I felt that I was limited by being able to speak only English. I'd always read a lot of translations and you get the sense of this whole world being out there, very different perspectives, different stories.
"It felt as though I looked up almost every other word in the dictionary. It felt a bit like climbing a mountain. But at the same time just falling into this world that was so atmospheric and disturbing and moving - it was a wonderful experience."
She and Han will split the prize money equally, according to the Booker Foundation, which administers the prize as well as the original Man Booker Prize for sworks in English and published in the United Kingdom, a prestigious award that typically leads to a surge in sales for its winner.
The international edition of Britain's Man Booker Prize has, until now, been awarded in recognition of a body of work by a living author whose work was written or available in English. From this year, it is given annually for a single work of fiction that has been translated into English and published in Britain.
Literary merits aside, the success of The Vegetarian was aided by factors that have coincided with South Korea's emergence as an increasingly prominent player on the global cultural stage.
For long, a dearth of capable translators, coupled with an equally limited number of works suitable for foreign readers, had long stymied efforts to find a wider audience for Korea's literary output.
Mr Charles Montgomery, who runs the website Korean Literature In Translation, said picking works for translation used to be done by government officials who favoured classic, representative fiction that fitted a national narrative, but had little to no appeal for foreign readers.
This changed with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, which was set up in 1996 but came into its own only in the past 10 to 15 years, with an annual budget of US$10 million (S$13.7 million) and 80 employees. Although still a government body, the institute has championed new writers and, crucially, allowed translators to choose the books they would like to work on.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS