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Essay on Literary Translation


Translation has always been a very important aspect of culture and individuals interact. Being the channel through which different communities and cultures interact to engage in socially beneficial projects such as trade or inventions, a translation should be treated with the utmost respect and the sacredness that it deserves. A poor translation is costly as it can lead to misinformation which in turn may bring forth severe consequences to the parties involved. This paper is going to focus on the literary translation field specifically on the translator. What are the rights and duties of a responsible translator? A translator of a literary work is usually bombarded with a lot of challenges, especially those that arise from the pressure they get from negative reviews of their work. These reviews are usually coming from critics and the media and they tend to mainly focus on the negative side of a translation. These criticisms are usually made for the right reasons of improving the quality of translation by pointing out mistakes made by the translator. The side effects of these criticisms, however, vary depending on the individuals to whom they are directed with some taking the criticisms personally and eventually ending up hurting themselves and their loved ones deeply. A poor translation will harm its target readers. There is however a huge number of readers that would positively gain from a translation that is slightly mistranslated. In addition to looking at various problems and solutions associated with “creative” translation, this paper will also try to answer the question “should the media and critics tone down their criticisms for cases of poor translations in a work that is potentially helpful to many to avoid stigmatization to the translator and the readers?” And where should the line be drawn between the mental and the moral aspect of a translation?

Background Information

Wook-Dong Kim critically analyses the creative work of Deborah Smith’s English translation of the book “Vegetarian” by Han Kang. The book is originally written in Korean and translated into several other languages before being translated by Smith. This translation has however attracted negative reviews in the media with many citing mistranslation and misinformation from the English version of the book. Trusted research found that almost 11% of the translation was mistranslated and close to 6% of the original work was omitted (Kim, 2019). These figures are arguably very high and the level of error should be unacceptable especially since the original work received a major award that boosted its popularity. With it being reported that the Korean government reportedly funded most of the foreign language translations except the English translation (Kim, 2019), some might cite political interference or negligence per se as a factor that led to these results.

Among the major translation shortcomings reported in the book is the inversion of meaning from the source language, deviation of the meaning of complex terms, omission, and addition of some words as well as modification of certain terms. Smith demonstrates the small vocabulary of the Korean language she possesses which can be attributed to the fact that she had had not learned Korean for a long period when she started translating the book (Kim, 2019). Just like most other languages, Korean possesses a rich collection of homonyms. One word is used to mean many different things and when a translator’s vocabulary or scope of language is limited, they may be prone to committing fatal translation errors. There are also many cases of under translation and over translation in the book as reported by Wook-Dong Kim. Over-translation occurs when there is an increase in details that leads to a loss of meaning while under-translation occurs when there is a generalization of a term in translation that leads to a loss in meaning. In cases where there is a vast cultural and linguistical difference between two languages, like English and Korean, these type of errors is almost unavoidable. Kim also points out an influx of words and phrases that are tied to culturally specific features in the Korean language which makes it hard for Smith to translate since Korean culture is far different from her western culture. According to Kim, Smith’s inadequacy in the Korean language was mostly exposed by the errors that she made on the syntactical level.

Challenges and Solutions

Creatively translating a language from the mother tongue to another whole different language is essential as it has been identified as the best way to translate two distinct languages and Deborah Smith tried to maximize this in her translation of “The Vegetarian” (at least according to Kim). The numbers of her inadequacy have however proven that it is not always easy and it can sometimes be a very fatal mistake especially when a translator is short in one of the languages they are translating. When dealing with creative translation, one must always beware of not crossing the thin line that divides creativity and betrayal (misinformation) in the name of free translation. The translation however received many positive reviews from the west with some going ahead and labeling it excellent (Kim, 2019). The Koreans were however left unimpressed and many were disgusted by the work done by the translation. The positive reviews given by the western critics are highly debatable as the question as to whether they did this knowing or not knowing about the mistranslation is not clear. It however begs the question of the essence of a translation.

A translation needs to convey the whole original message from the source language but as we all know this is an almost impossible feat to achieve. Various reasons make it hard for a translation to be perfect. The first reason is the difference in structures between languages. Different languages come with different structures which makes it hard for a translator, who is most of the time well adverted to one of the languages involved in the translation. A good example of this is the difference in the order of speech witnessed between the English and the French languages where in English the adjective always comes before a noun whereas vice versa is true in French (Pym, 2020). A translator is sometimes over-ambitious or so self-driven with the desire to learn more languages and thereby fails to limit their expertise to maximize their efficiency in a couple of languages. They become, as the saying goes, Jack of all trades masters of none. Looking closely at our case, there is a huge structural difference between Korean and English that might give more reasons as to why tolerance of minimal translation errors would be considered in translation.

Cultural differences are yet another reason that can be associated with translations difficulty. When a language is spoken across a very large geographical area it is usually likely to have many dialects and in turn many colloquial words (Borg, 2017). Some languages are vulgar in a way to bring about humor. This becomes a problem when translating some of the words to another language as it may sound rude or offensive. Another difficulty may arise when translating compound words. Compound words are usually made up of two or more words. A word such as “deadline” may be very difficult to translate to another language without losing the original intended meaning. Some words are also non-existent in certain languages which might create a barrier to a translator. This can specifically be difficult to handle since it may need a very fluent and adept reader to understand the original meaning of the word in cases where a substitute word, which is thought to be close in meaning to the intended is used. There is also a case of lack of technical knowledge from the translator. A translator may be very professional and adept in their work but they may encounter a field that they are not fluently accustomed to. A translator translating the culture of a certain community may be well adverted to their language and general vocabulary but may come short when it comes to translating the community’s spiritual or medicinal fields which might come with jargon and complex explanations. Time is of essence arguably in almost every aspect of our lives. In the source material this paper is based upon, Kim points out that Deborah Smith had not studied Korean for enough time to satisfactory translate the language. Translators are every day faced with the challenge of limited time. Some works may end up obsolete within a period and this may force translators to rush in their process of translating thereby increasing the likelihood of a mistranslation or a poor translation. Personal challenges are also another major factor that may limit the quality of translation. This may be brought about by; the material and clients accessing the translator having competition from other translators and machine translators. This is arguably a very sensitive challenge as it may create yet another challenge where there may have been none. An example is pressure that makes a translator shorten their time limit to be able to beat their competitors. A translator is also faced with the dilemma of pricing their works appropriately.

Finally, there is a question of quality over expense or expense over quality. The balance between the cost of translation and the expense can be attributed to several reasons all of which might differ greatly from one another. This is arguably the biggest challenge one might face during translation. This is evident when it comes to translations that usually deal with matters of court, hospital, or other technical fields where there is literary no room for error. In these cases, it is usually better for a translator to leave without attempting rather than attempting a course they are not completely sure of what they are going to encounter. Failure to which many people will get harmed including the reputation of the translator consequently leading to moral and most of the time mental breakdown. In our case of the Korean to English mistranslation, one might ask if the mistake the translator made warrants the treatment she receives. Does the misinterpretation of the words affect people in a way that it should warrant a public humiliation which will serve as a lesson to future translators who are short in a particular field to cease partaking in the work? Is it fair and just for her to publish shoddy work to the whole world in the name of cultural differences or limited vocabulary? The fundamental thing to do is draw a well-defined line across various fields of translation so that translators can categorically tell the field and the degree of repercussions they expect to meet. These constitutions should be drafted ethically and for everyone’s rights and mental wellbeing.


All people need to understand that we are all humans and that no one knows everything. As the saying goes; man is to error, and through these errors, perfection is born. No one should be a victim of their own mistakes unless the mistakes are no mistakes but rather negligence and being inconsiderate. A translator is not a machine and even so, some machines are still not perfect enough. The translator should however be on top of things and treat the original language as sacred. They should make their jobs about giving as best quality translation as it could be and avoid unnecessary mistakes that we have seen could end up catastrophically.

In addition to that, translators also have a duty to the people. They should tackle the challenge of different cultures by doing thorough research and investigation before they embark on their projects. They should also limit their expertise in a specific set of languages to counter problems brought about by structural differences between languages. Translators should also not be shy to ask for help from experts or the internet whenever they encounter difficulties. Lastly, the translators should know themselves and avoid being pressured by internal or external conflicts


Alfaori, N.A.D.M., 2017. Equivalence problems in translation. Sino-US English Teaching14(2), pp.86-97.

Borg, C., 2017. Decision-making and alternative translation solutions in the literary translation process: A case study. Across Languages and Cultures18(2), pp.279-304.

Kim, W.D., 2019. The “Creative” English translation of the vegetarian by Han Kang. In Translations in Korea (pp. 133-153). Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

Nabokov, V., 2021. Problems of translation: Onegin in English. In The translation studies reader (pp. 143-155). Routledge.

Pym, A., 2018. A typology of translation solutions.

Pym, A., 2020. Translation Solutions for many languages.


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