Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Either I’m being a parasite on their work, or they’re being a parasite on mine—but either way, it’s potentially a delicate, complex relationship.

Once again, award-winning writer, editor, and translator Daniel Hahn is here to respond to reader queries about anything and everything relating to literary translation! This month, Daniel responds to a question from reader Marius Surleac:

How often do you discuss a translation with the author?

You can see why the whole business could make an author nervous. Imagine approaching pretty much any writer and saying, “Look, here’s the plan, we’re going to change lots of things in your book—no, I really mean lots of things, like all the words—then we’re going to publish it all over the world in your name, but you won’t get to see what it actually says… Sound OK?” They’d be within their rights to feel more than a little uneasy about it. A book over which they have absolutely no control, going out as though it were theirs, allowing all the world’s readers and critics to judge them, based on… what?

Sure, we may not really phrase the question quite like this, for obvious reasons (mostly because I’m guessing nobody would ever say yes), but this is essentially what a writer is signing up for every time she or he agrees to have a book published in translation. Translators have been known to grumble about their authors wanting to meddle in their translations, but I’m not one of those translators (OK, except that one time—you know who you are…), because I do understand the anxiety. Frankly, I’m rather surprised anyone lets translation happen at all.

I’ve done book-length literary translations of more than twenty different writers, and I have always sought to involve the writer in my process. (Well, the only exception was dead and, I assumed, probably past caring.) And they almost always express an eagerness to help. (Same single exception.) For various reasons, writers being translated into English tend to be far more involved in the process than writers being translated out of it, which suits me.

Sometimes I have a number of specific questions for them. (One novelist recently sent me the list of questions he’d already answered for his German translator, to save time. It ran to thirty-two pages.) These fall into four categories:

1) What on earth did you mean by that? Something in the original is entirely baffling. I’ve looked it up, asked everybody I know, and I’ve asked the whole internet, and it’s still entirely baffling. Help me now.

2) Can I have your permission to do this? I want to change something sufficiently dramatically that I need an author’s blessing. In one novel I desperately wanted to carpet the flat where the main character lived. The interior decoration of a fictional space usually falls under the purview of the original writer, so I felt I ought to check if he was happy with my makeover. Another time I thought rewriting a prose book in verse probably needed approval, too. (You know, only in case she noticed.)

3) Surely some mistake? In your novel a diver descends to a depth of five hundred miles—I’m guessing it’s metres? And your main character’s name changes twice within a page—presumably that’s not deliberate? And that bit where your character is on the pavement of a one-way street, with the traffic coming from his right; then he crosses over to the other pavement and the traffic is still coming from his right. Really? (These questions can all be paraphrased as Why the hell does nobody in your country ever edit?)

4) I hate translating ambiguity, and I need you to pretend to be omniscient and help me choose. Please. An author may keep things unspecified in the original, but in English I do need to make a choice. Is the character who espères for something to happen hoping for it or merely waiting? Is this a tarde of the mid-afternoon or the early-evening variety? Is that nobio she refers to her boyfriend or her fiancé? This fourth category of question is unusual, because these are questions I could always answer for myself—after all, the original doesn’t specify, so I can simply make a choice based on what I think works best for the book and I can’t get it “wrong”. But why not get input from an eager author? If we’re forced to lose their—often intentional—original ambiguity, it can’t hurt to invite them to express an opinion over which side of the fence we come down on.

Usually, though, my authors do more than just answering a few discrete questions. I’ll often send them a full draft of the book to read through and comment on. They might e-mail some thoughts, or we might talk on Skype; or I might meet up with them, maybe visit them for a day or two. That’s my ideal option. (Almost all my authors live in places sunnier than I do.) I once spent an intense day in a room with an author reading my whole 55,000-word draft aloud to her. That was unusual for both of us.

What I get is—hopefully—a sensitive and sympathetic read, a little help untangling problems from someone who knows exactly what the book is supposed to be. And them? They get—hopefully—something like reassurance. (Either I’m being a parasite on their work, or they’re being a parasite on mine—but either way, it’s potentially a delicate, complex relationship, unlike any other I can think of. Reassurance helps.)

On very rare occasions, things do need tactful negotiating when I feel an author is overreaching, but on the whole I’ve been lucky, with writers who understand what translation is and so aren’t precious about their work, and who therefore also recognise my stake in ownership, or authorship, and understand why it makes sense for me to have the last word in any linguistic disputes. They are the author of the original, but I am the author of the translation, and there’s a reason I’ve been hired to write this English book and they haven’t.

My fellow translators have far worse horror stories than I do. Like I say, I’m one of the lucky ones, so my writers and I have managed to remain friends. That clarity about “ownership” is important, though. I’m always delighted when writers offer suggestions, queries; and I’d estimate that nine times out of ten I’m happy to accommodate them. But just as I don’t always understand what they’re doing, they don’t always understand what I’m doing either. And their English is sometimes not quite as good as they think it is. (Or at least I hope it’s typically less good than mine, otherwise I might as well pack the whole thing in.) While I want them to be reassured, I’m the person who signs things off for the publisher, and I have to be happy with the English text—my name’s on it, too, and if something sounds funny that will end up being my fault. (Incidentally, if you’re not a translator, you might not know that my translations are my copyright, too.)

Curiously, I think I work less and less closely with writers as I become more and more friendly with them; if only because I find it easier to second-guess their intentions without having to ask, and I know their imaginative world pretty well; and because they increasingly trust me to make them look good, and to do things for the right reasons. (If they still don’t trust me after five books, there’s something really wrong with one of us.) The only exception to this is my one experience on the other side of the relationship; as I’m currently in the process of doing a detailed read and edit of a Portuguese translation of a book I wrote some years ago. It’s odd and chastening being the victim of a translation, rather than the perpetrator, for a change. Fortunately I know my translator well, and trust her completely. That’s just one of the many benefits of being translated by your own grandmother. I’d recommend it. That’s not normal, admittedly—but I’m not sure an author-translator relationship ever is.

What is it you’ve always wanted to know about the art of literary translation, but have been afraid to ask? Send your questions for Daniel to and set your mind at ease!

  • Dried Peanuts

    Sadly your article does not address what I call “my two cents” syndrome, seemingly pointless alteration for the sake of it, or to show off e.g, Scott- Moncrieff’s substitution of shakespearean titles for Proust’s, or the guy(Mannheim?)who retitled Celine’s Mort a Credit “Death on the Installment Plan” (cute).

    • Daniel Hahn

      It’s a fair question, and I recognise the phenomenon you describe. I don’t think it’s something that related particularly to the question I was answering here (except insofar as any attempts I made to do such things would in my case be contingent on authorial approval), but it may well come up in future columns if people ask about it!