Translator Spotlights: An Interview with Daniel Hahn
“I think there are a lot of ways in which this is a great time to enter the profession.”
Welcome to the last interview in our Translator Spotlights series! Our series aimed to shine a light on translation and demystify certain aspects of the craft by asking several translators to share their unique insights and perspectives on the field of translation today. Translating from French, German, Portuguese and Spanish (by way of Latin America), all these translators are veritable bridge builders of literary paths that allow us to travel through space and time.
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator with about seventy books to his name. His work has won him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the International Dublin Literary Award and the Blue Peter Book Award, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, among others. He is a past chair of the UK's Translators Association and the Society of Authors.
What do you like most about translating?
I love reading, and I love writing. And that’s basically the job: reading books, and then (re-)writing them. As a bonus, by writing other people’s books rather than my own, I get to write much better books than I otherwise could. Almost every book I have re-written in English goes far beyond my own skills, but I get to discover what it’s like to make them anyway!
What do you think are the unique challenges faced by young translators who are now entering the field?
I think there are a lot of ways in which this is a great time to enter the profession – the best time I’ve known, certainly. But it’s still the case that even while the number of people wanting to become translators continues to increase pretty fast (good news!), there isn’t nearly enough demand, and there simply isn’t enough work to go around.
So while, in many respects, the conditions, pay, etc. are looking relatively good, it’s really hard to get enough work to make a living, especially if you’re just starting out. How do you persuade a publisher to give you the gig rather than giving it to one of the fifty other translators who work in your language, most of them more experienced, some of them people who’ve worked successfully with this publisher before?
What language do you wish you could translate?
Am I allowed to say English? There are loads of other languages I wish I could read (I mean, all of them, really – the list of top choices varies from moment to moment), but not specially so that I can translate them. I do, however, occasionally find myself loving an English-language book so immensely that I really regret the fact that, as an into-English translator, I’ll never be able to translate it. I’ll never be able to do Shakespeare! I’ll never be able to do Where the Wild Things Are! That seems quite unfair…
Are there any works you wish you had gotten the opportunity to translate first?
Oh, so many. I’m not going to name them because we translators tend to know each other, and I don’t want my friends to know which of them I secretly glare at with seething envy (might as well keep them all guessing), but of course, there are bound to be some. Books I auditioned for but where the job went to someone else, writers I knew nothing about until they were discovered by a friend of mine, so many others. I’m hugely lucky in the writers I do translate, many of whom I’ve been attached to for years, and I’m sure I get offered more great new writers than I deserve, but I can’t pretend I don’t regret the ones that got away! (The good news is that for the ones that are out of copyright, there’s always a chance of doing something I missed the first time around. Later this year, I’m doing a retranslation of a classic author, which will be the first time I’ve translated somebody who’s been done before, and I’m curious to experience that).
Do you feel collaborations such as your brilliant translation diary for Charco Press (where you document in diary form the process of translating a Chilean novel) can improve people’s understanding of the mechanics of translation?
I certainly hope so – I’ve done a couple of translation diaries before, as well as other things in a similar spirit (translator’s notes in books, detailed Twitter threads dismantling individual sentences, etc.), and the purpose is just as you suggest – helping people to understand what the process actually entails. In a sense, I want two things to happen, which might seem contradictory but I don’t think are – I want people to realise that translation is more complex than they might have imagined, but also that it’s more possible than they might have imagined. Though I hope it’s of interest to translators, too – of course, all I’m describing is my own particular process, and I make no claims for generality, and people seem to enjoy the differences/similarities to their own practice.