Ask a Translator: A New Column by Daniel Hahn

"If at all possible, only translate the kind of books that you feel able to understand."

The December debut of “Ask a Translator,” a new column by award-winning writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn responding to reader questions, drew rave reviews from Asymptoters worldwide, so we couldn’t be more excited to bring you another installment! This month, Hahn responds to the following question from reader Marius Surleac:

Is there any genre that you would never translate?

The short answer is no—I’d translate anything. Having said that, however, the short answer is in fact a lie. I wish it were true, but it isn’t.

Why? Well, it all comes down to reading and writing. That’s all translation is, after all.

I think of myself as a pretty open-minded reader; a reader, in other words, with wide sympathies. Yes, I have particular inclinations towards certain kinds of book, of course—who doesn’t?—but I’m able to tune into all sorts without too much trouble. Which for a translator is important! You need to be able to find your way to a sympathetic connection with a book if you are to translate it (well, it helps), so frankly it pays to be flexible in your sympathies.

And I think of myself as a pretty versatile writer; which means I should have the tools to create anew (but now in English) many different kinds of books. This means being able to rely on a suppleness of language and register, a good ear for all sorts of dialogue—stuff like that. Which, for a translator, is also important. You need to know what’s involved in writing a book, you need complete mastery of its operating techniques, of its rhythms and dictions and tricks, if you’re to recreate it.

Now, mostly what I get asked to translate is, for want of a more useful genre label, “literary fiction”. It’s what I most commonly choose to read, too, on the rare occasions when I read just for pleasure, and it’s a mode in which I feel very comfortable working. Which is not to say that I’d ever write a literary novel myself, but it’s a manner of writing in which—as a reader with experience of thousands of these things—I feel comfortable faking it, which is what I do whenever I’m hired to spend 320 pages impersonating a Portuguese novel-writer or a Guatemalan short-story writer or a Québécois children’s writer. (I realise it sounds a little weird, the job, when I describe it like that. But isn’t that what it is? Translation is a confidence trick, in which the reader colludes in the deception, volunteering to be deceived.)

It is much less common for me to be asked to translate, say, the more commercial end of crime writing (or, for that matter, any non-fiction at all); and I’ve never once been offered any sci-fi, or romance fiction, and not a single graphic novel; I’ve never had the option of taking on a literary classic or a cookbook or a horror novel; or many other categories besides. And what would I say if were in fact asked? I’d always accept, of course!

Except when I wouldn’t.


I don’t think, really, in terms of genre, not in the sense of categorising the limits of my experience in that way. When I’m asked by early-career translators whether to consider taking on a book that is well outside their comfort zone, I tend to respond with two pieces of entirely contradictory advice:

(1) If at all possible, only translate the kind of books that you feel able to understand. Don’t pretend to be a crime fiction expert if you don’t read crime fiction yourself, if you have no grasp of its habits or simply don’t understand how the language of a crime novel works. Different genres use stylised language in different ways. So if your job is to write one of these books in English, how can you plausibly write one if you don’t read them?

But also…

(2) If at all possible, translate all kinds of books, whether they’re to your usual taste or not. If you’re going to be a professional in this business, and not just a hobbyist, you probably won’t be able to afford only ever to translate your absolute favourite writers; and even if you fancy yourself as utterly, incorruptibly, vertiginously highbrow, you should try throwing yourself into a fun, pacey detective novel from time to time. Seriously, get over yourself.


To put it another way, then, I think I’d be game for trying any kind of book, if I thought there was a chance I might enjoy its company, being a generally enthusiastic, if perhaps too undiscerning, reader. I’d try any kind of book, whether I thought the process of recreating it was inside my comfort zone or well beyond it—either way, as a multi-skilled writer, that sounds fun to me.

And sometimes I would say no. But if I felt I had to say no, it wouldn’t be because there’s a whole genre, per se, that I’d feel bound to reject out of hand, but because it was a book I couldn’t find my way into enjoying (it’s not essential that you love a book when translating it, but given that you’re likely to have to live inside it for several months, it certainly helps—you should be able to kid yourself that you do, at the very least…); or a case where, with the best will in the world, I simply couldn’t see how I might be able to write it again myself. We all have our weaknesses, and sometimes the particular demands and awkwardnesses of a book will just be beyond me.

Yes is my default answer to a book offer. My job, of course, is to be able to write anything—translators are chameleons, and I’m a professional. So basically no, I won’t categorically rule out any genres.

Oh—but poetry, though… I just don’t understand poetry, the way it creates its effects so often eludes me. So, naturally, I almost always turn down poetry.

But no, basically no, I’d translate anything. Except the stuff I wouldn’t. Though sometimes I might still do that, too, if I feel like it.

Does that help?

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