South Korean author Han Kang was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for fiction for her dark novel The Vegetarian at a London ceremony on Monday.
The novel, Han’s first to be translated into English, is about a woman who decides to stop eating meat and wants to become a tree. Her decision has devastating consequences and raises concerns among family members that she is mentally ill.
The Associated Press reports, “Literary critic Boyd Tonkin, chairman of the judging panel, said Han’s ‘compact, exquisite and disturbing’ novel displayed an ‘uncanny blend of beauty and horror.’ “
The prize, worth $72,000, will be split between Han, 45, and her translator, Deborah Smith, a 28-year-old Briton, who started teaching herself Korean in 2010.
“Smith, whose only language was English until she was 21, decided to become a translator on finishing her English Literature degree having noticed the lack of English-Korean translators.
“She said she was ‘certainly not a born Korean speaker’ and still spoke Korean ‘very much like somebody who learned it from a textbook.’
” ‘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.’ “
Han’s book was on the shortlist to win the prize.
Also on that list were Italian author Elena Ferrante for The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and concluding volume of her Neapolitan Novels; Angola-born author José Eduardo Agualusa for A General Theory of Oblivion, written in Portuguese; Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for A Strangeness in My Mind; Austrian Robert Seethaler for A Whole Life; and Chinese author Yan Lianke for The Four Books.
The Man Booker International Prize, according to its website, was created in 2005 to highlight “one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.” It was awarded every two years “to a living author who published fiction either originally in English or whose work was generally available in translation in the English language.”
Beginning with this year’s prize, the Man Booker International Prize “is awarded annually for a single work of fiction, translated into English and published in the UK.”
The Man Booker International Prize is counterpart to the better-known Man Booker Prize, which describes itself as “the leading literary award in the English-speaking world.” This year’s winner will be announced in October.