Deborah Smith's top Korean books in translation for 2017
We're proud to be publishing Bandi's The Accusation this month, the only known fiction to have left North Korea's totalitarian regime. Translated by the brilliant Deborah Smith, who also translated Han Kang's Man Booker International award winning The Vegetarian, the stories give a fascinating and moving insight into life in North Korea. We asked Deborah to share her top tips for Korean literature in 2017.
Right now, translations of Korean literature are flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic – and from both sides of the border, with this month's publication of The Accusation, written in secret by pseudonymous North Korean author Bandi, which I translated for Serpent's Tail. Here's some personal highlights from the current crop, necessarily subjective and biased:
One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun (Tilted Axis): An obliquely fantastical, hard-edged novel set in a slum electronics market in central Seoul where the tentative relationship between two young college drop-outs is threatened by a strange development – the shadows of the slum's inhabitants have started to 'rise'. This award-winning debut came highly recommended by Han Kang, who kindly gave us an introduction, and was translated with great poise by Jung Yewon.
I'm Okay, I'm Pig! by Kim Hyesoon (Bloodaxe): With her radical embodiment of the 'female grotesque', bursting at the seams with violence, decay and death, Kim is at the forefront of the feminist project to oppose the literary and linguistic conventions through which men have dominated Korean poetry. Don Mee Choi is the perfect match as her translator, an equally skilled and daring poet in her own right.
Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong (Scribe): Hwang Sok-yong is one of South Korea's foremost writers, a powerful voice for society's marginalised, and Sora Kim-Russell's translations never falter. This novel, set on a landfill site on the outskirts of Seoul and told through the perspective of fourteen year old Bugeye, is an attempt to recall and rescue what the 'progress' of modernity discards.
The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo (Tilted Axis): This dark, disturbing tale of classroom cruelty shifts into a metafictional examination of authorial – and thereby societal – responsibility, its wordplay impressively rendered by translator Janet Hong. A Thomas Bernhard aficionado who translates Geoff Dyer and Michael Ondaatje into Korean alongside running her own micropress, Han is an exciting talent – I couldn't wait to snap this up for publication.
Recitation by Bae Suah (Deep Vellum): Han Kang's only rival for my affections, the list of authors Bae translates into Korean gives you an idea of her affinities: Sebald, Pessoa, Lispector. Recitation is her masterpiece, the story of a ‘recitation actor’ turned nomadic wanderer told to a chorus of Korean emigrants, interspersed with riffs on mother tongues, shamanism, and statelessness, with cultural references ranging from Apuleius to Total Recall.
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