Q&A: Deborah Smith

Hogarth, 2017

Hogarth, 2017

Congrats on your Man Booker International win last year! It’s wonderful that translators are finally being recognized for their work now that the prize awards the author and the translator equally. That said, translators are still the unsung heroes of translated literature. How do you feel about this shift in translated literature where translators are now being properly recognized?

Thank you! It's wonderful to see the change, and I feel very grateful to have benefited so much from the tireless activism on the part of those translators who've been in the business for longer. I'm also encouraged by the fact that readers themselves are responding so well, giving the lie to the idea that 'regular people' find translation scary or off-putting. It's just a matter of normalising it. Prizes are great, of course, but there are only a handful up for grabs each year, which means the majority will go their whole careers without ever having that level of recognition – or award money. Every translator has different circumstances and different priorities, but improvements in both recognition and remuneration for all is the goal, however gradual. As a publisher, Tilted Axis does what it can in terms of publicising our translators, paying them the UK's equivalent of a 'reasonable' wage plus a small royalty, generally making sure that they know how much we value them.

What is one of the biggest challenges you face as a translator? Is there any aspect of the process you particularly enjoy?

Like most literary translators, I'm doing what I do because I love it – I can set my alarm an hour early because I can't wait to start translating again the next day. And the joys are various; the initial code-cracking of figuring out what each sentence means in Korean, the creativity involved in manipulating the English language, the opportunity to spend so much time giving what's essentially the closest, deepest reading possible of a world-class work of literature. The challenges are just the usual boring ones of any freelance work – low pay, irregular work, spending what feels like half of your life chasing invoices. The linguistic challenges of translation itself are another one of its joys, of course.

Hogarth, 2016

Hogarth, 2016

In 2015, you started Tilted Axis Press, which focuses on translating lesser-known foreign language texts into English. What inspired you to start a press specifically for works in translation?

Well, mainly it was because I was a translator myself, so that was my area of expertise – both in terms of knowing other translators, funding bodies, etc, but also personally. I've always read more in translation than not, even before I was aware of the difference. The tiny percentage of what gets through into English means you're looking at the best of the best, plus it made me excited about what else was out there. Plus, I'm with Pound in believing that “every age of great literature is an age of translation”; it gives a shot in the arm to literary cultures that would otherwise become monolithic and stagnant.

August is women in translation month. Who are some of your favorite women in translation?

My favourite three are inseparable from their translators, because these are some of the best translators in the business, and because they've managed to work together on multiple books: Jenny Erpenbeck and Susan Bernofsky, Tove Jansson and Thomas Teal, Marie NDiaye and Jordan Stump. And there's an embarrassment of riches in South Korean lit. Obviously I'm most in love with those I've chosen to translate or publish myself – Han Kang, Bae Suah, Hwang Jungeun, Han Yujoo – but I've also really enjoyed books by O Chung-hui, Shin Kyung-sook and Pyun Hye-young, in English translations by the Fultons and Sora Kim-Russell.

What book have you read most recently and what was your favorite thing about it?

I've actually been getting into theory recently, particularly the kind which grounds theory in lived experience, takes an intersectional perspective, and tends to be written by women – Against Purity by Alexis Shotwell and Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed.

Are you currently working on any projects that you can share with our readers?

Translation is weirdly staggered – you typically submit the manuscript for editing 12 months before the publication date – so I have translations coming out soon of books by Han Kang and Bae Suah, but I haven't been 'working on' those for a while. I'm not translating anything new at the moment, and actually haven't been since last year – because this has been Tilted Axis' first year, I really felt that I needed to give as much of my time and energy to that as possible. Our next book is a fierce, Ferrante-esque novel by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, set in contemporary Kolkata, about the competing demands of motherhood and writing. And I'm now working on our 2018 list; so far we have books from Japan, Uzbekistan, South Korea and Thailand, plus a set of poetry chapbooks on the theme of 'Translating Feminism(s)', which I'm really, really excited about.

Deborah Smith (L) and Han Kang (R)

Deborah Smith (L) and Han Kang (R)

Deborah Smith is a British translator of Korean fiction. She translated The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang, for which she and the author were cowinners of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Smith began learning Korean in 2010. Smith founded Tilted Axis Press, a non-profit publishing house focusing on contemporary fiction specifically from Asia.


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