Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Imagine, a future in which we translators get to translate books that someone has actually bothered to edit already!

This week marks the final posting in our ever-captivating series with writer and translator Daniel Hahn. The question for this last column comes from Asymptote Editor-in-Chief, Lee Yew Leong, who also explains how he invited Daniel Hahn to be our columnist, a year ago:

When I asked this very specific favor of him over Michelin-starred dimsum last year, I expected Daniel to say he’d think about it and get back to me. This was our first meeting in person, after all. But he agreed immediately to do it for us—for free (we can’t afford to pay ourselves at Asymptote, let alone others). That’s how he came to field wide-ranging questions about the art of translation, from whether a code of ethics exists, to how a translator can improve—questions that came from Asymptote readers the world over.

Having submitted a column every month without fail since December 2015, Daniel now contributes his final essay, making it one full year as our agony uncle in residence. This time, he takes a question from me. I thought I’d try an ambitious one, make it a bit more difficult for him, you know? So I ask him to peer into the proverbial crystal ball. Scroll down below to read his nuanced, optimistic answer, acknowledging post-Brexit uncertainty. Whatever you make of his thrilling column (not to mention his Oulipian, or shall I say, Hahn-like, attempt to make a connection to all previous eleven essays), the future of translation is certainly a better one for Daniel’s advocacy, and willingness to shine the way ahead, that’s an inspiration to all of us working in world lit. Cheers, Danny, and thanks so much for this past year from all of us at Asymptote!

You’ve just returned from your nth Writers Festival this year—where you no doubt had the chance to observe the ‘state of translation’ (in a different country, on a different continent) up close. In fact, I can’t think of anyone more suitable to pose this question to: What does the future of literary translation hold for editors, translators, and readers, say, ten years from now?

Thanks, Yew Leong—like the other questions weren’t big and challenging enough already! How am I supposed to answer this?

Actually, though… Maybe it’s not so hard as all that? Because I’m not convinced that ten years from now things will be wildly different—not the things that matter, anyway.

For one thing, principles and values shouldn’t change just because context changes. We may well be entering a pretty dark time in political / social / economic terms—from the particular (western, Anglophone) place where I’m sitting, at least; but that doesn’t change the importance of what my colleagues do. On the contrary. Back in March I wrote about the translator’s responsibility and power in today’s too-divided world—and that sure as hell isn’t going away anytime soon; we just need to know that we can keep responding to challenges not with surrender but with defiance. (We will.)

I’m an optimist, as I think most translators naturally are. On what is my optimism founded? Well, among other things… I’m spending these few months reading through a very, very large pile of translated novels—as I’ve mentioned before, I’m judging the Man Booker International Prize—and everything about this massive pile suggests that in the Anglophone world things are looking up for translated fiction. There isn’t enough linguistic diversity, to be sure, but there’s more than there was; there should be more submissions, but there are more than there used to be (and as the guy who has to read them all, well, it feels like plenty as is, thank you very much…); no, there still aren’t enough publishers taking a risk on certain kinds of foreign books, but here again, there are more than they were, and I think most are doing it better (both the limited number of corporate imprints and the ever-growing army of intrepid small indies). And most fundamentally quality of the work is exceptionally high, both the originals being acquired and the translation work brought to bear on them (insofar as I can assess these things separately at all). So many good writers, so many good translators—and they aren’t going away anytime soon, either.

Sure, exactly how much gets translated, and what kinds of things are translated, and how they’re received, all these things will shift over time like tides; the swell of Scandinavian crime might subside and something else will rise, a different language might produce an unexpected bestseller. And when that happens, just as, say, Swedish-to-English translators recently did, the rest of us translators will just have to think slightly differently about what exactly we’re comfortable translating. (I’ve long been keen to get more children’s books translated into English, for example, a trend that hasn’t yet caught. If that does change, it’ll mean a lot of translators who’ve never done these things before will have to learn. Excellent.) And yes, some of the things we’re asked to do will still be difficult, which is always fun. And yes, some will still be downright impossible, and we will of course do those, too.

Translators will become increasingly influential in the decisions about what does get published, I’m certain of that. But recent shifts towards self-publishing will affect our part of the business less than the rest, or at least more gradually, so even a decade hence we’ll still be working with professional publishers, our expert partners in the mission of getting books from over there into the hands of readers over here. And as relationships with publishers have improved over the years, as we’ve understood each other better, so that improvement will only continue. (OK, except just occasionally when it doesn’t.) I suspect there are some areas in which publishing habits in different cultures will begin to converge, which I sincerely hope includes editorial practices—the more inter-national the business becomes, and the more publishers all over the world have to fight to justify their presence to their writers, the easier it is to imagine that particular bit of progress. Imagine, a future in which we translators get to translate books that someone has actually bothered to edit already! A brave new world!

And talking of brave new worlds, I wonder if one of the loaded questions ticking away quietly behind yours is a technological one—it’s hard to think of the future of translation without acknowledging the presence of machine translators, after all. They’ll make more of a difference—it’s hard to dispute that, I think—but I also think that’s fine: they excite me more than they alarm me. (I’ve already got into trouble in this column with some of my distinguished colleagues for suggesting that title credits for translators aren’t vital, so I might as well keep making myself unpopular…) Corpus-based machine translators are (by definition) getting rapidly better, and certainly more quickly than any of us humans are improving, try as we might. We know that the development of these programmes varies dramatically depending on language pair; but as someone who translates Spanish, Portuguese and French into English (i.e. the popular and easy ones), I have no doubt at all my work will be impacted sooner rather than later.

I don’t mean that I’ll be replaced outright—it’ll be well over ten years before there’s nothing we humans can do that computer programmes can’t do better, not least because one of pleasures of literary translation is precisely its humanness, the fact that each new translation is a personal interpretation and a personal re-expression, a mass of different personal priorities and influences and choices, so no two translators will produce the same work, no one translation ever definitive or neutral. But it seems silly to deny that our machine competition is gaining ground. Literary translation in particular has been pretty isolated from the threats of that competition so far, but that’ll change. I’m pretty sure that as long as we continue to behave, authors will still want to work with us (we’ll still be better company than the machines, some of us have a better sense of humour, etc.), but we have to recognise that we’ll increasingly need to justify our work to clients and readers who are more and more readily persuaded of the benefits of competition which is, let’s face it, infinitely faster, infinitely cheaper. And it wouldn’t surprise me if those of us from the better-served languages come to use the mechanical versions more ourselves, just as a preliminary time-saver. I fear anyone looking at my first drafts would feel very warmly towards Google even today…

Technologies and societies and markets change, but literary impulses don’t. The different-but-related impulses to write stories, or to disseminate stories, or to read others’ stories, these things don’t disappear just because we happen to be stuck in a divided country, or because we happen to be living under a philistine government, or because we happen to be in thrall to a challenging market. Ten years from now, the growth of ebooks in certain sectors may have accelerated again or slowed to a halt; ten years from now, we may have more books translated from Chinese and fewer from French, or more from Arabic and fewer from Spanish; Amazon’s place in the non-retail parts of the book world may be consolidated ten years from now, and copyright law might find itself under further threat, and…—but honestly, these things are mostly incidental. I don’t mean that they’re unimportant, and they will require lobbying interventions from anyone who can make them, but they’re incidental to what I think is the fundamental question that does not change over time: Why is literary translation interesting, and why does it matter? I hope my columns over this past year have gone some small way towards answering this. Thanks for reading.

For more insights from Daniel, check out this compilation of our favorite bits of translation wisdom from his past columns. 


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