Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with more than forty books to his name. His translations (from Portuguese, Spanish and French) include fiction from Europe, Africa and the Americas and non-fiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. Recently published books include the new Oxford Companion to Children's Literature and a translation of an Angolan novel. He is a past chair of the Translators Association and the Society of Authors.
When and what made you decide to be a translator?
I didn’t decide to, honestly. About fifteen years ago a publisher friend asked me to translate a book for her (I’d read it for her and told her it was great), and I said yes, and translated it, just as a one-off. Several years later, she acquired another book by the same author and asked if I’d like to do that, too. That second book – The Book of Chameleons – won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and suddenly I was a proper translator, and I have been ever since. So it’s the fault of that first publisher, Daniela de Groote, and that first author, José Eduardo Agualusa. I became a translator because of them. I’m slowly moving towards a point in my life where I might consider forgiving them.
What do you enjoy most about being a translator?
Oh, almost all of it. The translating itself is usually a joy – it’s part professional reader, part professional writer, and to be paid to do both those things is an immense good fortune. I like the other things around the translating, too – talking about translation, teaching translation, writing translation. But perhaps more than anything, it’s the translation community that makes it special for me – the translators and publishers and writers and bloggers and booksellers; they’re the most extraordinarily generous, collegial, optimistic, dynamic group of people I know. If Daniela and Agualusa were the reason I became a translator in the first place, this community is why I’ve stayed.
You translate from Portuguese, Spanish and French. What language do you find most challenging/enjoyable to translate into English and why?
I can’t really answer that; the differences between the challenges of book and book aren’t really to do with the original language so much as an individual author’s idiosyncrasies. Portuguese is probably of the three the language I read in the most, and French the least, so translating French is probably the one where I find myself needing more help unpacking a text I’m translating, where it comes less instinctively. But for me most of the challenges whichever the source language are aspects of the writing process – writing the translation, rather than reading the original. English, in other words, is the language that causes me the most trouble! (But I can say that of the three source languages I’d particularly like to do more from French; I’ve done very little, actually, and I feel there’s an awful lot for me to discover.)
Which is the most difficult author that you have ever translated and why?
I wrote a column last week for Asymptote about the myriad ways a book can be difficult to translate. Wordplay is difficult (but fun), ambiguity is difficult (and annoying), and so on. And bad writing is always hard to do – but I’m not naming any names.
Literary translations in the UK are known to be low compared to those of continental Europe. Are you optimistic about the future of translations in the UK market?
Extremely. The numbers are going up, for one thing, both the proportions we’re publishing and the amount it’s selling (that second statistic is much more interesting, much more meaningful, I think). But more importantly perhaps we’re seeing a lot of imaginative new publishers, a generation of dynamic new translators, ever more blogs and public events discussing both translated literature and literary translation, and a profile for our profession and our books that seems only to be on the rise. Naturally, none of this is easy – publishing of almost every kind is struggling at the moment, and with the exception of the thriving children’s market it’s mostly undergoing a slight contracting – but for translations things are certainly moving in the right direction.
You edited the new Oxford Companion to Children's Literature covering all the major developments in children’s publishing since 1983. What criteria did you use when considering what should go into the book?
I had to choose the writers and books (and characters, genres, concepts, etc.) I thought were “important”. That can be defined in lots of ways, of course, and all of them could be valid for my decisions. I wanted to include those writers I thought were exceptionally good, whose work will be read for generations and will influence the writers who come after them. I also wanted to include some other writers or books, even if I think them terrible, if they sold a zillion copies and had a substantial impact on the market (whatever my own feelings about the quality of the prose in the vampire romance or whatever). I did privilege those with a track record of quality (and critical acclaim, prizes, etc.) but also cover a few people quite early in their careers in whose futures I had confidence. There’s no single criterion, and besides, ultimately all the decisions are inevitably based on personal tastes and hunches – it’s bound to be a picture seen from my particular perspective, my own personal failed attempt at objectivity. I’m sure some of my decisions will look pretty odd to posterity, and I’m resigned to that…
Is translating fiction for children any different to translating for adults? What are their specific challenges?
In part it depends on the book. In the most basic sense, no, when you’re translating a piece of prose you’re trying to figure out what it’s doing and you’re trying to recreate all those effects identically with a new piece of writing, and that doesn’t change depending on who you think your reader will be. Sure, if you’re translating an illustrated book, as I am now, that brings in new constraints (and pleasures); and yes, you might think differently about how much cultural explaining a child needs in their translations compared to an adult reader; but for the most part the fundamentals don’t change, I think.
What are the steps of your working process?
It varies a bit from project to project, but typically I don’t read the text before I start translating it, if I can help it. I’ll then do a very quick first draft, discovering it as I go – and I do mean very quick, maybe 5000 words a day – which will be terrible but will give me something to work with. Then editing and editing and editing. Quite soon I’ll have put the original text aside and will just be concentrating on the workings on the new piece of English. Very often the author is involved in the latter stages, too. (In practice the stages are not always quite as clearly defined as this, since I rarely have whole days to devote exclusively to one piece of work, so it ends up happening in a much more piecemeal fashion, but that’s the aim, at least.)
You have a busy schedule as apart from translating you attend conferences, talks, literary festivals, prizes and panels. How do you find time to read?
Yes, I do too many “other” things, I think. A hundred public events last year, and endless boards and committees, in addition to the actual work I’m supposed to be doing, the deadlines I’m supposed to be meeting. So yes, it’s hard to find time to do anything at all (including meeting those deadlines), and there’s always a risk that reading will suffer. But while I don’t read nearly as much or as widely as I’d like (who does?), I do still read an awful lot, because I find ways of building it into the work itself. I judge book prizes, and I catch up on a lot that way; if there’s a book I really want to read, I’ll try and interview the writer or pitch a review to a newspaper as a way of justifying the reading as work. (Or I might agree to do a report on it for NSB, as I’ve done in the past…) Finding an excuse is surprisingly easy. But the TBR pile does of course grow and grow. I get many books in the post every day, and most of them won’t even get opened, sorry to say. One day, perhaps.
What advice would you give to other aspiring literary translators?
Go into it because you love it, not because you think it’s easy or the money is good. But once you’re in, be professional – treat it like a job as serious as any other. Also… read as widely in your target language as you can. And come along to events (the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair, International Translation Day at the British Library and so on), find the translation crowd, and come over and say hi. We’ll be glad to meet you, and will help any way we can.