Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Translation is really something other than a striving for vague perfection.

Our resident translation expert, writer, and jack-of-all-trades, Daniel Hahn, is back to respond to reader questions on the fine art of translation. Today’s question comes from Lin Chia Wei, a reader in Taiwan. Anddon’t miss our first-ever “Ask a Translator” live event with Daniel Hahn in London on Wednesday, July 20 (RSVP at or invite your friends to the Facebook event page here).

Is there anything that is completely untranslatable, in your opinion?

Everything is untranslatable, that’s what I think.

Or alternatively, I think that nothing is.

And honestly, I’m perfectly comfortable with either of those ideas; both make sense to me. I’m not altogether comfortable, however, with the idea behind the question itself.

There are certain components to a text that are likely to present particular challenges to a translator (I talked about these in last month’s column), things that feel like absolute impossibilities. And conversely there are moments when you’re translating and a clever solution presents itself, or when a new voice you’re creating comes into focus, and the sheer rightness seems miraculous, the fact of it being so very possible feels exhilarating. But these experiences, and the question, would seem to suggest a simple binarytranslatable / not translatablewhich is misleading. Translation is all failure, because it’s never “perfect”; and it is all also, simultaneously, a triumph, because however imperfectly something living has been created out of the most unlikely circumstances.

Now, I used the word perfect. But I used it rather nervously, and in “scare quotes” to protect myself, because I don’t know what it means, I don’t know what perfection in a translation would even look like. My aim when translating isn’t perfection, my aim is to use English to make a piece of writing that does the same things another writer has done before me in some other language; my aim is to take one superb piece of writing, and make another superb piece of writing that can stand in for it with a new set of readers.

That description is quite abstract, I know; but it’s describing a process that is itself approximate. The translation won’t be the same as the original (it will be in a different language, for one thing, so all of the words will be different, which is no small change…), but it will closely resemble it in whichever ways I feel are the most important. It will differ from it, of course, in others.

Last week I translated a short story from Portuguese for Words Without Borders, which began with this phrase: “Escolhia as músicas do filme Lua Cambará, quando achei…”. There’s nothing particularly tricksy about it. My translation will begin something like this: “I was selecting the songs to put on the soundtrack of Lua Cambará when I came across…” It’s a serviceable translation, and one that palpably existsthe original is not, then, “untranslatable”.

My translation conveys what I think is most important about the original. But the versions differ significantly, too. In the Portuguese, you don’t know who the subject of the verb is until the second phrase; in the English I’ve got a pronoun as my very first word. The Portuguese narrator is choosing music for the “filme”; in English both “movie” and “film” would have seemed to locate the story too specifically somewhere that wasn’t Brazil, so my translation does without either and I’ve been a bit more specific, using “soundtrack” instead. The Portuguese has one word (escolhia) where I have three (I was choosing); though I’m proud that despite this change the rhythm of my version is identical to the author’s original word. What else? Overall the English has fully twice as many words as the Portuguese. The Portuguese word for “songs” has mostly nice soft consonants (the way “song” does), but it has three syllables instead of one. And so on. Does that matter? Yes and no, of course.

Every word has all sorts of inherent properties that go beyond the simplest functional meaning. Even if we all pictured the same thing when we heard the word dog, or chien, or Hund, or perro (which of course we don’t), those words are all different. You might use them all to label the same animal in a children’s picture-book, and dictionaries will tell you that these words mean one another, but they are not, they cannot be, identical. They have different echoes in their own languages, different idiomatic uses, they sound different and weigh different and taste different in the mouth.

And literary translation demands more of its practitioners than just a transfer of basic meaning, it demands a new text that maintains the original’s register and diction, its rhythms and resonances, too. There is no word in English that does all the things “chien” does in French; no word in French that does all the things “dog” does in English. Does that mean even this simple word is untranslatable?

So yes, maybe everything really is untranslatable. If you think “perfection” is the measurethe absence of any loss, the absence of any change—then yes, it is. Translation is trying to retain inherently linguistic things, to maintain absolutely all those properties that are by definition rooted in language, while carrying out a process of detaching a text from its languageso of course it’s impossible!

And yet we do keep translating, because we understand that translation is really something other than a striving for vague perfection; translation aims for comprehension, interpretation and expression, it aims for particulars of effect, even if by different and sometimes even roundabout means. Its success is not measured merely in degrees of loss but in what new thing is created to replace, to re-present what came before it. Sure, wordplay is untranslatablebut if you can use your ingenuity to create something that has the same effect (a new piece of wordplay, which is clever in just the same way and also makes a reader laugh in just the same way), then you have managed, however implausibly, to produce a translation. Everything is fundamentally untranslatable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t translate it anyway.

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