A Korean Man Booker Winner Waiting in the Wings?

Per an article in The Irish Times, “The Vegetarian towers over Man Booker International Prize long list.”

Who the what the…where the France?

Why is this a 핫이슈 (“hot issue”), you ask? Because the author of The Vegetarian, Han Kang, is a South Korean writer. Why, again, is this a wide-load deal? Because unlike their Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Korean writers still remain completely unknown to the outside world. Even for the most voracious bibliophile, South Korean authors might as well be North Korean. This is the unfortunate reality for three main reasons:

1) There is a dearth of Korean fiction that appeals to English readers.

2) The bar for Korean-to-English translations has been set so low that it’s usually painful (think of all four molars being yanked out of your mouth at the same time) to read the slim pickings that are already out there.

3) There is no vocal/famous writer or publisher championing the nation’s literature.

This year marks  the inaugural award that will combine two gargantuan literary prizes, the Man Booker International Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. So kudos to the Han River (Ms. Kang’s name is also the name of the body of water that bisects Seoul) for this remarkable achievement. Just making it to the long list of the International Booker will certainly have scores of readers curious enough to see what all the hype is about, me thinks.

If you’d like a sneak peek, you can read an excerpt from The Vegetarian here. Interestingly enough, this tidbit has a remarkably similar feel to it as Murakami Haruki’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

However, the really, really interesting back story to this story about a story is how it got to English in the first place. A British translator by the name of Deborah Smith took it upon herself to translate the first 20 pages of The Vegetarian and submitted it to a renowned publisher in the U.K., Portobello Books. Editors there were so impressed by the sample that they inked a contract before the translation was even completed!

Good luck to Ms. Kang. I know that I, for one, will be waiting with bated breath for the decision from the jury this coming May.



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