Daniel Hahn on translating Paulo Scott's Nowhere People

Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories, 2014)

Different books present different challenges to a translator. That much is probably obvious. And these difficulties fall into two broad categories: for some books, the problem is, essentially, figuring out what's going on in the original; for others, it's—having done that—recreating the effect in the new language. Translation is both a reading and a writing, and each of these processes can be more or less tricky. So what made my latest translation, Paulo Scott's Nowhere People (Habitante irreal in the original), such a challenge? Well, in this case, it was everything. All of it. The reading, the writing. The syntax. The words, the punctuation. Even the title. There was nothing about it that was straightforward. And so being a translator—and therefore vocationally predisposed to like anything resembling an attempt at the impossible—I loved it.

I first read Nowhere People at the urging of my publisher friend, Stefan Tobler from And Other Stories, who was considering acquiring it. I read it in a hotel room in Korea, rather memorably, and was stunned by it. It was the first time I'd read this brilliant writer, and the first time I'd read a story like it, and I was eager to see it find its way into English, into the hands of Anglophone readers. (This is a common motivation for translators, I think: I've read a great book, I'd like other people to be able to read it who currently cannot.) If I could be a part of that transit myself, so much the better. And then Stefan bought the book, and he asked me to translate it; there followed the typical translator's response: yikes, that would be really, really difficult—yes, please! (I know, it's just the way we are.)

One of the first things to say about this book is that it's not, for the most part, difficult to read. It has a great clarity to it, it's all told in very sharp focus, the writing is not obscure or elusive or digressive or obstructive. And yet, and yet.

Let me talk you through the first sentence, and see if I can explain one of my recurring troubles. The book opens, in fact, with an eight-page kind of footnote, providing something like a back-story, which ends with the protagonist, Paulo, driving along the BR-116 highway in the pouring rain, spotting a girl huddled on the verge, but driving on. Only then do we have the first chapter, opening thus:

A few kilometres further down the road and refusing to admit that, for a moment, his nerve had failed him and that the sight of the girl had struck him like almost nothing else in his life, Paulo imagines that some lorry (even though not a single vehicle has passed him going in the opposite direction) must have stopped already and offered her a lift.

Some things to point out, then. There is no comma after "down the road," despite the abrupt change in direction that follows. The "refusing to admit that . . . " construction means that the main verb—"imagines"—is severely delayed. The parenthesis comes at a really peculiar place in the sentence (it makes sense as a train of thought—the word "lorry" prompts an aside that there haven't been any vehicles) but it's simply not where we would normally break a line. These things are all tricky—and this, remember, is properly speaking the first sentence in the book. We don't get eased into this style at all. And yet is it really difficult to follow? I don't think it is, not really. There are ways it might have been rephrased, restructured, reordered to make it closer to more common usage, but even now it's not difficult to follow the sense, I think.

Which is exactly the trouble. I needed to create sentences to match Paulo's, which can break or shift direction in surprising places, shift tense or perspective, and yet read as though there's always a clear thread leading you through them. And I had to resist the temptation to simplify, which would be cheating. Yes, I could in theory tidy up a sentence like this (move a phrase, add an obliging comma), but with an uncompromising piece of prose like Paulo's, who am I to start compromising in my English version of it?

I spent so long tinkering with that first sentence. And with many, many other sprawling, springy sentences like it. Though to be fair to the original, they certainly aren't all that awkward. (By which I mean, also, good.)

Writing the translation may not be the least of my worries, but it is certainly the last; before it comes the process of reading the original and figuring out what the hell is going on (before working out how to write the damn thing again in my language). My usual practice, when I have the choice, is not to read a book before I start translating it—I prefer just to launch myself at the first page and discover it as I go—but in this case I had done a full read already and somehow not noticed what was going to be difficult about it. It's only when you're doing the translating that the devilish detail makes itself known, and a sentence which you sort-of basically kind-of more-or-less understood (to all intents and purposes), becomes intransigent when you want to pin it down exactly, to splay it out on your workbench and pick it apart to discover its mysteries, in order that you might attempt to create an identical living thing of your own.

Paulo Scott has—and his characters have—a slightly different Portuguese to mine; different in local terms (for one thing, he and they are from Porto Alegre, in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, where I have never been), with the occasional unfamiliar idiom, and so on. This is a common enough problem. Added to this, there's his occasional use of somewhat eccentric phrasing to potent effect. But to recreate the meanings of the idioms and the effects of the phrasing in your translation, you first have to understand them, not approximately but precisely, in the original. I spend quite a lot of my first drafts feeling pretty stupid. Maybe I shouldn't be a translator if I can't even understand what this damn thing means!

What else? Well, there are cultural sensitivities to rethink for my readers, which will transform Paulo's "índia" slightly anxiously into my "indigenous girl." Then there are all the cultural references I don't know. It's generally assumed that a translator is supposed to know the culture of the language he translates from, but in practice you often have to fake it, especially if you're translating from widely spread languages like mine. In the past two years I've translated books from Brazil, Spain, Angola, France, Guatemala, Canada, Portugal—I'm supposed to know every aspect of all of them intimately? No, when you become a translator you just learn pretty quickly to befriend your nearest search engine and never to stray too far from it. For this book, a combination of judicious Googling and Wikipedia-ing helped me to understand exactly what colour "durepoxi" grey is. And what the characteristics of "farroupilha" sandwiches are. And what are "cajazeiras," or "michês"? My editors and I learned some surprising skateboarding terminology, too. An online dictionary of gaúcho (that is, Rio Grande do Sul) slang was duly bookmarked. I now know what "bombachas" are, I know what it means to call someone "chiru." (Don't bother asking Google this one, it'll tell you the answer is "Tibetan antelope," which it isn't.) Next time I translate a book from Porto Alegre I'll have a head-start and it will all be really easy. Honest.

When you reach the point in your quest for answers where you discover that the all-knowing Internet does not, in fact, know everything, there is only one thing to be done. You ask your mother. I have, very conveniently, a Brazilian mother, and she is used to being drafted in to rescue me when I'm adrift in a scrappy draft and floundering to put things into order. (And when she doesn't know the answer, at least that reassures me that my failure to understand the writer's phrasing isn't just my own inadequacy with the language, that there might be something unusual at play this time.) And then, when it becomes clear to you that even your mother is not infallible—it's one of those traumatic growing-up moments—and there are still doubts in your mind which even She cannot settle, it's then that you have recourse to the ultimate authority, and you ask God. Or, to put it another way, the Author.

Only the Author can tell you really how big He means the girl's "barraca" to be—is it a kind of hut? A shack? Or just a tent? (This example is recurring, and significant.)

The first thing Paulo did when I wrote to him saying, "Help!"—not in quite that tone, because you have to avoid any risk of the author losing all confidence in you—was to send me an attachment with all the questions one of his other translators had asked him, with the answers he'd provided. In here, he said, I might find the answers to some of mine. The document ran to thirty-two pages.

(It's not just me! Hooray!)

About half of my queries were answered there. (Ah, so "Mister Faiado" is just an accented play on "falhado"—I see!) But there were things she'd asked that seemed entirely obvious to me and I wasn't sure why she needed help (maybe she didn't have a Brazilian mother?); others she didn't ask and I couldn't understand why. How could she have known these things? How could she have understood that sentence whose workings seemed so mysterious? Was I just being stupid again? There's one thing about taking on a task you know by definition to be impossible: it can engender a certain amount of self-doubt.

(Or maybe that is just me?)

Because all translation is impossible, we know that. We have to pretend it isn't, that it's possible for an Anglophone who writes in English (an Angloscribe?) to write exactly the same book as a Lusophone writer (erm, Lusoscribe . . . )—exactly the same—while using none of the same words, and while keeping the entire process of transition invisible. And yet we pretend, and we expect our readers to do the same. I expected you to read that quoted opening line as though you were reading Paulo's writing, not mine. I expect you to read this novel—about a young law student in Porto Alegre and an indigenous girl he meets by the side of the road, in a world I know nothing of (though there's a phase set in London, which made it easier for a Londoner like me)—and believe that you are reading Habitante irreal, and not Nowhere People.

Which reminds me—that title. "Unreal Inhabitant" would be a closer translation of the original title. This is a book about dispossession, about people struggling to put down new roots after their old ones have been yanked up, so the title suits. But it just sounds wrong in English, doesn't it? The replacement we finally went with—after much e-mail traffic between Paulo and Stefan and Sophie at And Other Stories—was Nowhere People. I liked it, and still do. I have a bit of previous with changing my mind about titles, but I think this one's a keeper. My friend Catherine would later make the wry observation that it's not a bad way of describing the lot of the invisible translator, either.

I wrote my translation of Habitante irreal—sorry, Nowhere People—slowly and carefully. After a quick first draft, this meant many slow-and-careful re-reads and re-edits, wrangling all the many trouble-spots. There's that famous Oscar Wilde quote: "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."—it was a bit like that. One draft had a comma after that seventh word, when I couldn't resist the temptation to over-clarify; then I'd repent and tell myself to trust the author and took it out again for the next. Then put it back, then took it out. In again; out again. (I suspect you could track this havering all the way through the process—even-numbered drafts with a comma, odd-numbered drafts without . . . ) At a certain moment—a moment quite some time after my deadline, I confess—I gave up, stopped tinkering, and sent it in to the publishers. And then the edit began.

Like most writers I know—translators and other kind of writers, too—I love being well-edited. It's like, I don't know, getting a window cleaned, perhaps. The view afterwards isn't a different view to the one before, it's just a little brighter somehow. Free of those slight smudges you hadn't really noticed were there, but now, suddenly—just look! Hardly different and yet somehow it's all so sharp, everything is just more clearly itself. Beautiful. The job of cleaning up this particular translation fell to Ana Fletcher, who happens also to speak Portuguese. So Ana was able not only to bring a new eye (and occasionally a figurative scouring brush) to my English writing, but also from time to time to refer back to the Portuguese when something sounded funny. "How about X as a solution, instead? Or do you think it's moving too far away?" "Y isn't quite how I understood this phrase—what do you think?" And on one occasion: "I'm pretty sure that's not what this phrase means, [you idiot. What a stupid, careless, thoughtless mistake!], I think it's more likely to mean Z." She is too nice to have actually said the bit in square brackets, though she probably should have. Because in the middle of all my worrying about odd commas and syllables, I had set aside all common sense and used the phrase "she didn't even telephone" instead of "she didn't even notice," which is a legitimate translation of the same verb but in the context made no sense at all. It's annoying being fallible.

(A distinguished author on stage with one of his translators years ago commented that it was unsurprising that a translation will always be a compromised thing, because "translators are human." His implication, I suspect, was that originals do not suffer this essential, inevitable failure because novelists are omnipotent and infallible.)

Nowhere People is, I think, an exceptional book. It's a clever, thoughtful, beautifully written, perceptive telling of a story that hasn't been told before. (I hope you'll read it when it's out and I hope you'll agree.) Well, actually it was told once before, when it was called Habitante irreal, and written by Paulo Scott, and for different readers. Now it's a joint endeavour, still by Paulo but also by me and Stefan and Ana and Sophie—a book with all different words, but the same in every other way that matters. So if Paulo can get away without resorting to a comma in that first sentence, so can I. Indeed, so must I, because that's the translator's job. And that challenge, well, that's the fun of it, too.