In conversation with... Daniel Hahn

Hi Daniel! Thank you for joining me today. I have just finished reading Ascension, which you translated from the French to English, and I’d like to ask you a few questions both on this specific book and more generally on translation. So let’s begin…

How did you get started in literary translation?

A: Hi Silvia. Like a lot of people (especially those who started more than a few years ago), I started more or less by accident. A publisher friend asked me to read a book she was considering for publication and tell her what I thought of it; I read it, and told her it was brilliant, and she asked me to translate it, and I said yes. It seemed like a sensible idea at the time, tho’ I’m not so sure now…

What did you think when you were first approached to work on Dixen’s first book in the Phobos trilogy? Is this a genre you enjoy translating?

A: I haven’t translated anything like this before, but I do read and work with a lot of YA writing (not specifically speculative stuff, just more generally), so it’s a part of the writing/publishing worlds I know pretty well. I hadn’t read Victor’s work before being offered this, so I went into it more or less blind; but around the time we signed our contract there was also, by serendipity, another opportunity, when he was selected for the Hay Festival “Aarhus 39” list; I had a short story of his to translate for that, by way of warming up for the 1600 pages of Phobos, though a very different kind of writing.

Can you describe the process of translating Ascension

A: My translation process is usually pretty much the same: I start translating without having read the book in advance, so I discover it as I go along. My first drafts are done really, really quickly – without any real care for how good they are, without looking stuff up in the dictionary or trying to solve any tricky problems. Then I look stuff up to fill in the gaps and spend the rest of my time working on the English – in other words, not worrying about the translation from another language to English, but the transition from a bad piece of English writing to a good one. That’s the measure of success.

Did you have any contact with the author? In general, how do you find that having access to the author impacts on the translating process?

A: Yes, Victor worked closely on the translation. His English is excellent, so he read through drafts of both books (as I expect he will for book three when I’ve finished it), not only to answer my questions but to make specific suggestions of his own, which are invariably perceptive and useful. He’s also been very involved in the whole editorial process – answering questions from editors and copy-editors, agreeing a few cuts with the team at HotKey, that kind of thing. He and I are right now concurrently reading the proofs for book 2, and we’ll be agreeing some little changes between us over the coming days. I’ve been lucky to work with many writers who have both good English and a willingness to get involved in their translation process, which is useful and fun for me!

Without giving too much away, can you please describe a scene that you loved translating or that was particularly difficult to render in English?

A: Oh, it’s all fun, really – and not immensely difficult; there’s some technical language that has to be either learned or invented, but you only have to do that once and then you’ve got it for the whole series, so things get faster as you go along! The books I’ve been working on alongside Phobos have been much more troublesome, so it’s always a pleasure to come back to these!

What are you working on at the moment? 

A: There are always a lot of things at different stages – this week will include: signing off final proofs of a Portuguese novel, signing off first proofs of Phobos 2, going through edits of a Brazilian novel (while waiting for edits on a Portuguese novel), finishing translating a fiendishly tricky picture book, writing the script for a little radio programme I’m presenting, reading a book to interview a writer at a festival, writing an essay on literary prizes . . . All kinds of things all jumbled together! (This is also a week I’m on holiday, so I need to find time for eating ice cream in there, too.)

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I’m just finishing a brilliant debut novel called Raising Sparks, by Ariel Kahn. It’s out later this week and I can’t wait for readers to discover it. After that, my reading for the next few months will be a mixture of prepping for events (a lot of festivals coming up) and judging a children’s book prize. Lots of nice treats to look forward to over the summer.

Is there one type of fiction that you prefer translating? Does this reflect your preference as a reader?

A: I like the variety more than anything, really. I like translating writers whose books I love, writers I admire immensely – I get the opportunity to write this extraordinary books I wouldn’t be able to otherwise – and I’ve been lucky to have recurring projects with quite a few of them. I translate more for children these days than I used to, though a lot of it is picture books rather than long fiction; as well as fiction of various kinds for adults but also non-fiction – and I have a couple of plays coming up, which bring their own challenges and pleasures. Translating things I like reading is infinitely more fun that things I don’t; but fortunately my reading tastes are pretty wide and strange!

Many thanks for your time!

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