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Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

2016/3/15 — 10:25

【Text by Daniel Hahn】

Either I’m being a parasite on their work, or they’re being a parasite on mine—but either way, it’s potentially a delicate, complex relationship.

Once again, award-winning writer, editor, and translator Daniel Hahnis here to respond to reader queries about anything and everything relating to literary translation! This month, Daniel responds to a question from reader Marius Surleac:

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How often do you discuss a translation with the author?

You can see why the whole business could make an author nervous. Imagine approaching pretty much any writer and saying, “Look, here’s the plan, we’re going to change lots of things in your book—no, I really meanlots of things, like all the words—then we’re going to publish it all over the world in your name, but you won’t get to see what it actually says… Sound OK?” They’d be within their rights to feel more than a little uneasy about it. A book over which they have absolutely no control, going out as though it were theirs, allowing all the world’s readers and critics to judge them, based on… what?

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Sure, we may not really phrase the question quite like this, for obvious reasons (mostly because I’m guessing nobody would ever say yes), but this is essentially what a writer is signing up for every time she or he agrees to have a book published in translation. Translators have been known to grumble about their authors wanting to meddle in their translations, but I’m not one of those translators (OK, except that one time—you know who you are…), because I do understand the anxiety. Frankly, I’m rather surprised anyone lets translation happen at all.

I’ve done book-length literary translations of more than twenty different writers, and I have always sought to involve the writer in my process. (Well, the only exception was dead and, I assumed, probably past caring.) And they almost always express an eagerness to help. (Same single exception.) For various reasons, writers being translated into English tend to be far more involved in the process than writers being translated out of it, which suits me.

Sometimes I have a number of specific questions for them. (One novelist recently sent me the list of questions he’d already answered for his German translator, to save time. It ran to thirty-two pages.) These fall into four categories:

 

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