16th March 2022
We were treated to a fascinating conversation between Daniel Hahn, writer, editor and translator, author of over 80 books (see Janet Bayliss's summary below*), and our chair, Keith Jones. I’m sure many in the audience, having done a bit of homework, were wondering why Daniel translated mainly from Portuguese and Spanish. The answer was very straightforward, his mother was from Brazil and his father from Argentina. He grew up with the two languages ‘always around’ and often visited South America, particularly Brazil. He did admit, however, that although reading in these languages comes naturally to him, speaking them is not so easy.
Hahn talked enthusiastically about his craft. He described how some people might think a translator just sits in a cupboard quietly producing a translation but for him it is a very collaborative process. Many conversations happen between him and the original author and others, particularly other translators in the publishing world. ‘It would be very difficult if my work was done just in isolation’ he said, ‘professional relationships are very important’.
He described how a rapport with the writers he works with is as important as the rapport with what they write. One such writer, where close collaboration has led to particular success, is with the Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa. Hahn referred to his translation of The Book of Chameleons by Agualusa which won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 and more recently, in 2017, his translation of Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion helped the book win the International Dublin Literary Award. Modestly he didn’t refer to the fact that he donated half of his €25,000 winnings for the latter to set up the TA First Translation Prize which is awarded annually to a debut literary translation and shared equally between the first-time translator and their editor.
Hahn described his method of work as a ‘slightly delinquent process’. He initially translates without reading which produces a very fast first draft, and then he refines it by reading it aloud, fine tuning it as a writer not as a linguist where sometimes tone and pace might be more important than accuracy.
There is not enough space here to detail the ‘problems and pleasures of conveying literature into another language’ which Daniel Hahn delightfully recounted during the evening. Luckily I can refer you to the author’s new book Catching Fire: a Translation Diary (Charco Press: 2022) which describes this process in real time as he translated Never Did The Fire (Charco Press: 2022), a novel by the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit.
Books by Daniel Hahn
Daniel Hahn is a phenomenon: author, editor and translator (he had been known to write literary reviews too). In terms of translations, these are mostly literary fiction and translated from Portuguese, Spanish and French. Some of the translations are prize winners including The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. Ten years later in 2017 Hahn’s translation of another book by Agualusa: A General Theory of Oblivion scooped the International Dublin Literary Award. Extraordinarily enough, other works of translation include Pelé’s autobiography.
In terms of authoring books, perhaps one of Hahn’s most notable and original creations is The Tower Menagerie: the Amazing True Story of the Royal Collection of Wild Beasts, which came out as long ago as 2003, during a period when there was a vogue for interesting historical stories featuring animals. He has also written various literary non-fiction books including Coleridge (2009), part of a ‘poetic lives’ series. His editing activities in the literary field are also multifarious including the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (2015), hopefully available in all good reference libraries.