Man Booker International 2016: Han Kang and British translator share £50,000 prize for The Vegetarian

The South Korean writer beat José Eduardo Agualusa and Elena Ferrante to scoop the award for foreign works translated into English

Caroline Mortimer
Monday 16 May 2016 22:20 BST
Han Kang (right) and her British translator, Deborah Smith, with the winning book, The Vegetarian
Han Kang (right) and her British translator, Deborah Smith, with the winning book, The Vegetarian

South Korean author Han Kang has won the new-style Man Booker International prize for her book The Vegetarian, sharing the £50,000 prize with her British translator.

The Vegetarian is a dark and occasionally shocking novel about a woman who turns vegetarian - something that is extremely uncommon in South Korean society - and the way this affects her relationships with the people around her, including her sister and her brother-in-law, an artist who becomes obsessed with her.

This is the first year that The Man Booker International prize is awarded for a single book, rather than for a body of work. It follows the prize's joining together with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

The prize follows the recent success of several acclaimed foreign works by authors - such as Norway's Karl Ove Knausgaard and Italy's Elena Ferrante - published in English.

Ms Han beat out Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa with his novel A General Theory of Oblivion and Elena Ferrante's final Neapolitan novel The Story of a Lost Child.

The chair of the judging panel, former Independent Literary Editor Boyd Tonkin, described Ms Han's work as a "novel of tenderness and terror" and said it was "unforgettably powerful and original".

He said it was the unanimous choice of the six judges.

Ms Han's translator, Deborah Smith, shares the award for her translation despite only having learnt Korean herself in 2010.

The novel fought out off a strong shortlist of translated works

Ms Smith said she had only spoken English until the age of 21 but decided to move to Korea after completing her English Literature degree to immerse herself in the language after she noticed there were few English-Korean translators.

She said she still speaks Korean like "very much like somebody who learned it from a textbook".

She said: "I had no connection with Korean culture - I don't think I had even met a Korean person - but I wanted to become a translator because it combined reading and writing and I wanted to learn a language.

"Korean seemed like a strangely obvious choice, because it is a language which practically nobody in this country studies or knows."

The Vegetarian was her first success attempt to translate a Korean work into English after she was commissioned on Twitter.

She has since gone on to publish several other Korean texts and recently founded a not-for-profit publishing house dedicated to Asian and African literature.

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