Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with thirty-something books to his name. He is currently compiling the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature and translating a contemporary Brazilian novel.
Why is literature in translation important?
Literature in translation is important if literature is important—it’s as simple as that. If you don’t think literature is important at all, well, that’s another argument altogether, but assuming you believe that it is, then the question kind of answers itself. Unless you think people brought up speaking German can and should appreciate the value of literature without reading Flaubert or Shakespeare; or people who speak French can and should explore the importance of literature without Kafka or Cervantes? And for us—how to understand even our own, English-language literature, without the Bible, without classical tragedy, without the nineteenth-century Russian novel? How to understand the English-language writers of the twentieth century without reading the European writers of the nineteenth? Whichever language or languages you can read, you still won’t be able to get unmediated, untranslated access to overwhelmingly most of literature; and to decide that that huge, rich majority is somehow arbitrarily less important than the little sliver with which you happen randomly to share a language is preposterous. If an English-speaker were to tell me that he’s passionate about literature but doesn’t really like literature in translation, I’d find it hard to understand how serious that passion can really be.
What do you think is the most important aspect of a good translation?
It’s hard to offer one answer for this, as we translate different things in different circumstances for different purposes. But most commonly, it’s about allowing a reader access to something to which a linguistic barrier would normally deprive him/her of access. You can’t read Portuguese? I want to make it possible for you to read this Portuguese-language book anyway. I want you to get from it all the things you would get from it if you could read it in Portuguese. To come away from your reading having experienced the same sensations, the same flavours, rhythms, effects, voices as if you really were reading the story in its ‘real’ language.
How would you describe your relationship with the author after you get involved with the translation?
Any writer I translate will need to trust me—if their English isn’t perfect, they need to believe that I know what I’m doing and this book that appears under their name will do them proud—and I have to earn that trust. Now, as a translator into English, I’m lucky, in that most writers are happy to get involved with their English translations and for commercial reasons will value them highly, so they’re always ready to answer questions, to discuss, to read, to argue, to offer opinions. I don’t think I’ve ever yet had a writer who didn’t make him/herself available to me. (You don’t usually get this kind of attention if you translate Anglophone writers outwards, incidentally…) And there are some writers I’ve worked with over a number of books, and we’ve become good friends in that time, too.
Is there any kind of literary work you wouldn’t translate?
To be absolutely honest, that would depend, quite pragmatically, on how much I needed the work. I’m fortunate in that nowadays I get offered more translation work than I have time to do, so I’m in a position to turn down things that may not appeal; but in a fallow period, if necessary, I’d certainly translate things that aren’t to my taste or that I don’t consider especially great pieces of writing. (I’ve done that, I can’t pretend I haven’t.) And there’s an argument to be made that we should be translating more mediocrity, actually. Now, I suppose there might be cases of principle where for reasons of moral judgment I might not want to help a book I thought repellant to reach more readers, but I’m glad not to have been offered such a thing as yet.
What is your reaction to the term ‘untranslatable’?
It’s not very useful, to my mind—nor very thoughtful. The truth is, if you believe that translation is about more than merely conveying individual units of discrete data, well, in that case everything is untranslatable. There is no word in one language that maps exactly onto a word in any other language, exactly replicating not only the sense but also the precise sound, the resonances, the cultural freight; if such a thing were possible, well, they’d be one and the same language. So while some things may seem particularly untranslatable—an instance of wordplay, say—any thoughtful consideration of translation (literary translation, I should say) would quickly demonstrate how in fact there is nothing that can really be translated. In that sense every tiny part of it is truly impossible. But we do it anyway, of course. It’s all sleight of hand…