Translation diary: 2 - The trouble with openings
By Daniel Hahn on 4/11/13
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.
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.
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.
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.