Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Translation, like any kind of writing, depends on instinct, you mustn’t forget that. But remember, too, that even instinct can be trained.

We’ve been hungry for more since Daniel Hahn made an appearance at the Asymptote Literary Salon in London two weeks ago. This week, we’re back with translation advice from the author, translator, and editor answering the following question from Singapore-based Asymptote reader Michelle Loh.

What can a translator do to improve?

I’m writing this answer from a mid-week lull at the British Centre for Literary Translation summer school. It’s an intensive, six-day residential course for literary translators and would-be literary translators, which I’ve taken part in annually since more or less the start of my own career. (Alarmed to discover, upon quick calculation, that this is my tenth… Hmm…) The BCLT summer school is mainly structured around language-specific workshop groups, but this year I’m leading one of a pair of unusual “multilingual” workshops; the nine participants in my group for the week are all excellent literary translators into English, but from a wide and wonderful range of source languages. (Between them, my lot speak Polish, Italian, French, Spanish, Latvian, Hungarian, German, Armenian, Russian, Portuguese, Dutch, and probably one or two others I’ve forgotten.) So how do you examine the translation process all together if you can never look at a single common source? To put it another way, what the hell was I supposed to do all week?

Well, it turns out there’s a lot that can be done. Reading and writing are a translator’s fundamental skills, and self-editing, too, and all these can be honed in many kinds of ways. We’ve been doing various pieces of work that exercise the more creative of the translating muscles, such as devising punning captions to fit the illustrations in a playful children’s book, or collaborating to produce a consensus translation of a collectively unreadable text using a kind of crib (after several sessions we’ve finally agreed—almost—on our nine-word opening line: “When the world ended, we went to the sky.”). These activities emphasise the invention and effect and minuscule detail that the successful work of translation-writing demands. We’ve compared and evaluated eighteen rival English translations of one short Italian paragraph, and attempted to reconstruct a few lines of Harry Potter by close attention to ten different non-English translations, exercises in this case which are about sharpening our reading rather than flexing our own writing, but which, in fact, emphasise the importance of attending to those very same things. Invention, effect, detail.

Most of the time, though, has been spent on reading of a more demandingly editorial nature, as each participant has presented a short translation of her/his own for our discussing. The original may be in Italian or Armenian or Polish or Hungarian, but that original is mostly out of sight and mind; what the translators are sharing with us is their new piece of English. They read it aloud to the rest of us, just once, and we follow it on the page, and then we ask them questions. Broad conversations about principles of translation are invariably extrapolated, but the questions really are attentive to the English text on the smallest possible scale. We ask about a slight ambiguity, about what just seems like an unlikely word choice, a sudden register shift, an image that could perhaps be just slightly sharper-focus if it had one word fewer; we ask whether that repetition is deliberately conspicuous and what its effect is meant to be, whether that line ending is really supposed to sound like that—and, um, what’s that comma doing there?

On the whole, the rest of us have no way of accessing our friends’ originals, and yet the questions invariably go straight to the texts’ trouble-spots. Question by question, the translator explains her decisions (usually prefaced by a “yeah, I struggled with that bit…”). Sometimes a new solution presents itself, and if it doesn’t the very fact of a group of clever readers-of-translation having asked the question is a useful start, a flag to alert them to something they had missed, or perhaps had hoped their readers mightn’t notice.

But as one of our group pointed out after today’s session, while the particular translator under the spotlight in each session gets some detailed help from her peers, the rest of the group probably benefits even more. For all the rest of us it’s an exercise in disciplined reading, in listening open-eared to a text; it’s an exercise in micro-scale editing, sensitive but rigorous and freed from any of the usual anxiety that comes from the tyranny of the original. And it’s an exercise in articulating a detailed response to writing, too—commenting that “it kind of sounds a bit funny” isn’t precise enough to be helpful, so what exactly is happening here that disturbed our ear when we heard it?

(Yes, that last sentence of mine “sounds funny”. But if you wondered why, it’s all those repeated vowel-sounds and breathy consonants—“here … disturbed our ear when we heard”; and so now we know what needs fixing, so that the reader of the next draft won’t need to be distracted by these things.)

So, your question: what can a translator do to improve? Read. Read a lot, and with care. Work out—and importantly, try to articulate—what makes good writing work, and why bad writing stumbles. This week our group are sharing work as part of a formal course, and there are other opportunities to do that (if I might be permitted a brief advertisement, Maureen Freely and I are running this Arvon course on a similar basis in November, which will surely be a delight…); but if you can’t take part in one of these studio-like courses it’s easy enough for a small group of translators to meet and do this informally. Share your work. Trust others to read it—regardless of their access to the original—and bring all the care you can draw upon to a reading of theirs. Now, this is absolutely not to say that you have to be aware of the process while it’s happening—you probably don’t count syllables while you’re writing a sentence, and you needn’t articulate (or even consciously formulate) decisions as you go. Translation, like any kind of writing, depends on instinct, you mustn’t forget that. But remember, too, that even instinct can be trained.

I’ve never formally studied translation. And I don’t know how to teach it—I never have. (It’s OK, this column won’t get published till our course here is over, so my group will never find out till it’s too late. Though yeah, I guess by now they must suspect…) But I do know that translators can improve by practice, but also by attentiveness to that practice—to theirs or anyone else’s. Translation isn’t a single act or a single skill, it’s a curious composite of reading-things and writing-things and editing-things, which can seem somehow magical or mysterious in combination. But they aren’t magical or mysterious, really. And they are all things translators can teach themselves and one another, as my group have been demonstrating all week. Turns out they didn’t need me at all, of course. Apart from occasionally asking awkward questions (yes, but why this word rather than that?) I’ve mostly just sat back and watched them work. I’ve had the chance to listen in to their intelligent, generous conversations, and had my attention drawn to little textual details, and been forced to think about the things they’ve noticed, and why things work or don’t—so all this time I’ve been improving, too.

For more insights from Daniel, check out this compilation of our favorite bits of translation wisdom from his past columns. Send us any questions you have for Daniel about language, translation, or the ‘curious composite’ of world literature to!


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