Deborah Smith (translator)

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Deborah Smith FRSL (born 15 December 1987) is a British translator of Korean fiction. She translated The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang, for which she and the author were co-winners of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.[1][2]

After graduating from the University of Cambridge,[3] Smith began learning Korean in 2009, after discovering that there were few translations into English of Korean literature.[4][5] In 2015, Smith founded Tilted Axis Press, a non-profit publishing house devoted to books that "might not otherwise make it into English."[6] She has been a research fellow at SOAS.[7]

In June 2018 Smith was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in its "40 Under 40" initiative.[8]

Debate over translation[edit]

In an article published in 2017, writer and academic Charse Yun reported on criticisms in the Korean media of the English translation of The Vegetarian because of its omissions, embellishments, and mistranslations. After reading the translation against the original, Yun wonders,

Did the translation take things too far? One distinguished translator told me he felt the context and style were so different that it was more reasonable to speak of Smith’s work as an adaptation, not a translation.

While Yun calls the translation "a stunning achievement," he acknowledges that for some readers who are familiar with the original "the translation has deviated so far ... that the disparity strains their eyes and ruins their enjoyment."[9] Smith has defended her translation, stating

To say that my English translation of The Vegetarian is a “completely different book” from the Korean original is, of course, in one sense, entirely correct. Since there is no such thing as a truly literal translation — no two languages’ grammars match, their vocabularies diverge, even punctuation has a different weight — there can be no such thing as a translation that is not “creative.” And while most of us translators think of ourselves as “faithful,” definitions of faithfulness can differ. Because languages function differently, much of translation is about achieving a similar effect by different means; not only are difference, change, and interpretation completely normal, but they are in fact an integral part of faithfulness.[10]

The author Han Kang has stood by Smith's translation.[11]


  • Han Kang, The Vegetarian (2015)
  • Ahn Do-Hyun, The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher (2015)
  • Han Kang, Human Acts (2016)
  • Bae Suah, A Greater Music (2016)
  • Bandi, The Accusation (2017)
  • Bae Suah, Recitation (2017)
  • Bae Suah, North Station (2017)
  • Han Kang, The White Book (2017)
  • Bae Suah, Untold Day and Night (2020)


  1. ^ "Han Kang's The Vegetarian wins Man Booker International Prize". BBC News. 17 May 2016. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  2. ^ Hannah Furness (16 May 2016). "Briton wins Man Booker International Prize for Korean translation". The Telegraph. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  3. ^ "Deborah Smith: Literary Translation - Winner 2016". Arts Foundation. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  4. ^ "Verfreundungseffekt: A Question Of Humanity – Han Kang & An Interview With Deborah Smith". The Quietus. 26 March 2016.
  5. ^ "Dendrophilia: South Korean novel wins the world's biggest translation award". The Economist. 21 May 2016. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  6. ^ "About". Tilted Axis Press. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  7. ^ "Centre of Korean Studies Members at SOAS: University of London". Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  8. ^ Flood, Alison (28 June 2018). "Royal Society of Literature admits 40 new fellows to address historical biases". the Guardian. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  9. ^ "How the bestseller 'The Vegetarian,' translated from Han Kang's original, caused an uproar in South Korea". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 22 September 2017. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  10. ^ Smith, Deborah. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 27 June 2020.
  11. ^ Armitstead, Claire (15 January 2018). "Lost in (mis)translation? English take on Korean novel has critics up in arms". the Guardian. Retrieved 23 April 2018.

External links[edit]

Website for Tilted Axis Press