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The transformative power of words

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Translation diary: 2 - The trouble with openings

By Daniel Hahn on 4/11/13

Letter writing

Daniel Hahn is translating a novel. Over the next few months he'll be using this blog to trace his progress from cover to cover, sharing the delights and frustrations he encounters along the way. This week, openings: the simple start of a letter presents a multitude of unexpected choices.

If you've missed Danny's blog up till now, you can catch the first installment here, and the whole series to date here.

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There are two things I know for sure about translating the openings of books. The first is that you have to work very hard to get them right. The second is that even once you’ve got them right, they’re probably still wrong.

This particular book opens with a letter, so we begin, simply enough, with a date, January 19th (or 19th January?) and a salutation: “Meu querido, …”

Working out what is meant by those two Portuguese words is hardly a problem. The trouble is in knowing what to do with them in English. Translation, after all, is about reading/understanding one text and then writing another, and the latter always seems the harder undertaking of the two. “Meu querido, …” is no more complicated than “My dear, …” or perhaps “My darling, …”. It’s an easy, versatile little phrase. It can be used for all kinds of relationships; but what we seem to have here is specifically a letter between lovers – in fact, I’d venture that “My love, …” might do well? Or maybe our letter-writer might simply address the object of affection as “Darling, …” – or some other term of endearment. Sweetheart? Honey? 

But how, then, to choose? The question isn’t merely a semantic one, as the basic intended meaning is in no way mysterious; it’s also about how I, as a reader, interpret the character who’s talking. Do I think this person is being affectionate? Civil? What do I think are the undercurrents in the relationship at this moment? What does the author want me to read into this person through this choice of two seemingly innocuous words? Does our Brazilian letter-writer, now morphing into an Anglophone letter-writer, sound like this: “Hello, my love, …”? Or like this: “Dearest one, …”? Or something quite different?

In my opening post last week, there was one brief word I mentioned just in passing, inconspicuously, but which is really what all good translating – and, I think, writing – is about. It’s all about voice. “My love, …” rings true for me as an opening to this letter. Having read the book, I feel I know the character a little, and I can see them using these words.

On the other hand, the author has chosen “Meu querido, …” rather than “Meu amor, …”, which would be more obviously “my love” – and I can’t help wondering why. I have to assume, when translating a writer who’s very good, that there is always a reason. Every word choice in the original has some explanation, some justification (whether or not it was conscious and deliberate on the part of the author is beside the point), which I have to tease out in order to inform my own choice.

So. Hmm. 

I’ll stick with “My love, …” for now. Though now that I think about it, I’ve already lost something else that’s important. In the Portuguese, we know that the recipient is male (otherwise the letter would be addressed to “Minha querida, …”) – and I can’t think how to do that in English. In Portuguese, nouns and adjectives are gendered, whereas in English they mostly aren’t. I’ll just have to find a way to fix this later. But these two words do sound right, at least for now.

The trouble is, voice is hard to pin down perfectly from the very start, because you just don’t know your source well enough. As you venture into a book, you start getting a sense of its contours: you start finding a way of mapping your own rhythm onto the rhythm of your author, your register onto theirs, and the voice slowly, slowly emerges – but it’s hard to do that when you’re just embarking on that first line. So you struggle, sometimes with every word. And then when you get to the end of the book – weary and scarred but rather wiser, one hopes – you take a look back at the opening and realise: God, that’s awful, that’s not how it should sound at all. And at that point, looking back, it’s the first chapter that inevitably gets the biggest overhaul of anything in the book. However attentive you may have tried to be, you’re starting from a position of debilitating ignorance, and it takes time to learn what you need to learn.

So “My love, …” is how my first draft will open, even while I know already what’s wrong with it, and that I’ll almost certainly hate it by the time I return to it, and will probably need to change it. But it’s a start.

Two words done. Hmm. Got to keep moving.

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Daniel's next post looks at first drafts - read it here.

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Daniel Hahn is a British writer, editor and translator. He has translated works by José Eduardo Agualusa, José Luís Peixoto, Philippe Claudel, María Dueñas, José Saramago, Eduardo Halfon, Gonçalo M. Tavares and others. He is the national programme director of the British Centre of Literary Translation and is a trustee of English PEN.

Your comments (4 so far)

1 wrote on 6/11/13 at 7:31 AM:

In view of how tough it is to get the opening just right, would it make sense to begin translating from somewhere else, even just a few pages in, to build some momentum and find the right tone, which of course you want to be as near a match as possible in English to the original), and then come back to the all-important opening?
I’ve just started my first - amateur, unplanned/unfunded - translation of a quirky Japanese detective short story and thought about working on the complicated middle sections first, though partly due to lack of experience and partly due to the fact that I’m working on it in my breaks at work/on the way home etc I opted to just get going from the opening too.
But I figured there must be some benefits to a slightly different approach when setting out on a translation, just as the writer him/herself may not actually begin right at the beginning.

2 wrote on 6/11/13 at 5:59 PM:

May I risk confusing you a little, with the best of intention (that is, to help you?).

Why didn’t the author use “Meu amor”? perhaps to postpone a little bit giving away that the one the love letter is addresses is the sender’s “amor”?

There is something else… Now I’m the one struggling with the English language to try to say what I so clearly see in Portuguese… “Meu querido” somehow carries inside itself the ideia of “meu querer”, that is, “the one I want”.

The sender of the letters don’t have her loved one with her anymore, he’s away, that’s why she’s writing. Somehow, “meu querido"also embodies that idea, no matter how discreetly.  Maybe you should consider this.

Thanks a lot for the blog, I’m sure it will be very interesting.

3 wrote on 7/11/13 at 4:42 AM:

@kitakatakilburn - funnily enough, the first thing I translated in this book was a little extract from the second chapter; and I started a French novel last year from the second chapter, too; not for the reason you suggest, tho’ that certainly makes sense. I’ll write something about the case of this book in an upcoming post, certainly - unfortunately I don’t think it will have helped me, as the second chapter introduces a new voice (they’ll alternate throughout the book), so they’re both openings of sorts…

4 wrote on 7/11/13 at 4:50 AM:

Yes, @David, I think both of these are good points. You’ll see in my next post that the fact that this is specifically a love letter is made clear in the very first paragraph, but it’s certainly not explicit in the salutation, so I’m preempting a little in my choice. This may be one of the cases where I end up asking Carola whether she feels we’d be losing something we shouldn’t.

Your other point is excellent, tho’ I’m rather stumped by what I can do about it in the English. Even tho’ I don’t think many people think about the origins when they see a really common word like “querido”, the link is still there - literally someone who is wanted, desired (and so by implication someone you don’t in fact currently have). Just as we use the word “dear” in English quite thoughtlessly without bothering to remember that it’s referring to someone who is “dear to us”. Anything I could do in English to keep this specific association, tho’, would I think have to be quite complicated and explained, where the Portuguese is absolutely natural and inconspicuous; using anything other than simply dear/darling/love/etc. would draw attention to the word while the Portuguese is very much lighter and less intrusive. Suggestions always welcome!

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