Han first got the idea of writing about vegetation or plants when, as a university student, she came across the work of the noted South Korean writer Yi Sang. In particular, she was struck by the quote "I believe that humans should be plants." Han's lifelong exploration of the themes of violence and humanity are also sampled in the book, which primarily deals with human beings' natural and daily choices in terms of food. Talking to Sarah Shin for The White Review, she said, "While writing The Vegetarian, I was harboring questions about human violence and the (im)possibility of innocence. On the reverse side of the protagonist Yeong-hye’s extreme attempt to turn her back on violence by casting off her own human body and transforming into a plant lies a deep despair and doubt about humanity." In February 2016, while talking to Bethanne Patrick of Literary Hub, Han explained, "The idea for the book originally came to me as an image of a woman turning into a plant. I wrote a short story, “The Fruit of My Woman,” in 1997, where a woman literally turns into a plant. After several years (2003–2004) I reworked this image in The Vegetarian, in a darker and fiercer way."
In a February 2016 interview with The Guardian, Han Kang said, "As a teenager I suffered typical questions: why pain, why death? I thought that books held the answers, but curiously I realized they contain only questions. Their writers were weak and vulnerable just like we were." Writing the book was a difficult task, she said, with the main cause being her joint problems which started in her mid-30s. She wrote the entire novella in longhand. Han received help from a video artist and a psychiatric hospital when researching the book. The second part of the book is primarily inspired by Han's experiences with the aforementioned artist whose body of work was extensively studied.
The Vegetarian was first published in Korean in 2007 in South Korea as Chaeshikjueuija by Changbi Publishers. ASIA Publishers subsequently bought the rights to the book and published the English translation for distribution in South Korea. It also published the English versions of Han's short story "Convalescence", and her 2016 novel Human Acts.
- Han, Kang. (2004, Summer). Chaeshikjueuija [The Vegetarian] The Quarterly Changbi, 124(2). [In Korean]
- Han, Kang. (2004, Autumn). Monggobanjeom [Mongolian Mark] Literature & Society, 67(3). [In Korean]
- Han, Kang. (2005, Winter). Namubulkkot [Flaming Trees] MunhakPan, 17(4). [In Korean]
- Han, Kang. (2007). Chaeshikjueuija [The Vegetarian]. Seoul, The Republic of Korea: Changbi Publishers [In Korean]
Chaeshikjueuija [The Vegetarian] published by Changbi Publishers in 2007, while the title is Chaeshikjueuija [The Vegetarian] as the first short story of the novel is the title piece of it, contains all the three short stories each of which was published previously in 3 separate South Korean literary magazines, and it is the original script translated into English by Deborah Smith.
The Vegetarian has been translated into twenty-three languages since its publication in 2007. Following is a list containing information about the translated works.
|Vietnamese||Người Ăn Chay||NXB Trẻ||January 2011||Hoàng Hải Vân|||
|Japanese||『菜食主義者』||Cuon||15 June 2011||Kim Hun-a (金壎我)|||
|Spanish (Argentina)||La vegetariana||Bajo la luna||10 November 2012||Sun-me Yoon|||
|Polish||Wegetarianka||Kwiaty Orientu||27 January 2014||Justyna Najbar-Miller and Choi Jeong In|||
|English||The Vegetarian||Portobello Books||1 January 2015||Deborah Smith|
|Dutch||De vegetariër||Nijgh & Van Ditmar||3 February 2015||Monique Eggermont|||
|French||La Végétarienne||Serpent à plume||21 May 2015||Jacques Batilliot and Jong Eun-Jin|||
|Chinese||《素食者》||Azoth Books (漫遊者文化)||7 April 2016||Qian Ri (千日)|||
|German||Die Vegetarierin||Aufbau-Verlag||15 August 2016||Ki-Hyang Lee|||
|Italian||La vegetariana||Adelphi||13 October 2016||Milena Zemira Ciccimarra|||
|Romanian||Vegetariana||Editura ART||November 2016||Iolanda Prodan|
|Kurdish||ڕووەکی||Ghazalnus||22 December 2016||Hazhar Osman|||
|Ukrainian||Вегетаріанка||KM Books КМ-Букс||2016||Anzhela Asman (Анжела Асман)|||
|Hungarian||Növényevő||Jelenkor||10 February 2017||Kim Bogook and Nikoletta Németh|||
|Catalan||La Vegetariana||Rata||March 2017||Mihwa Jo and Raimon Blancafort|||
|Spanish (Spain)||La vegetariana||Rata||March 2017||Sunme Yoon|||
|Finnish||Vegetaristi||Gummerus||March 2017||Sari Karhulahti|||
|Arabic||النباتية||Dar Altanweer||December 2017||Mahmoud Abdul Ghafar|||
|Hebrew||הצמחונית||סאגה||2017||Sharon Kremner (שרון קרמנר)|||
|Portuguese (Brazil)||A vegetariana||Todavia||October 2018||Jae Hyung Woo|
|Norwegian||Vegetarianeren||Oslo Pax||2018||Vivian Evelina Øverås|||
|Russian||Вегетарианка||AST (АСТ)||2018||Lee Sang-yun (Ли Сан Юн)|||
|Malayalam||Vegetarian (വെജിറ്റേറിയൻ)||Kairali books||2020||C. V. Balakrishnan|
|Nepali||द भेजिटेरियन||Book Hill Publication||2022||Prawin Adhikari|||
The book was translated from Korean into English by Deborah Smith, a British translator, who has been translating Korean into English since 2010. She is the founder of Tilted Axis Press, a non-profit publishing house focusing on contemporary fiction specifically from Asia. Speaking at the Seoul International Book Fair on 15 June 2016, Smith said that a translator "must be unfaithful to some aspects in order to be faithful to others. I try to stay faithful to the spirit, and faithful to the letter as much as I can, without compromising the spirit." Talking about the process, Han said, "Deborah usually sends me the file of her translation after she finishes, with notes and questions. And I send it back to her with my answers and notes. It is just like having a chat endlessly. I truly enjoy this process. I am lucky to have met Deborah, a wonderful translator who can render subtlety and delicacy." Smith has said that her first attempt at Korean translation involved "looking up practically every other word in the dictionary". Smith has translated some of Han's other works, including Human Acts (2016) and The White Book (2017).
Smith's translation was criticized in South Korea for inaccuracies. The Los Angeles Times noted that Smith embellished Han's writing style, quoting a translator who called it an "adaptation" rather than a translation. Writing for The Guardian, Claire Armitstead felt that Smith's "activist" translation helped make South Korean literature more accessible. Smith defended her translation in the Los Angeles Review of Books.