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Translation diary: 1 - An introduction

  • By Daniel Hahn
  • 28th October 2013
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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 is the first in a series of blogs exploring the translation process from cover to cover – read the whole series here.

I’m about to start translating a novel.

It’s written in Portuguese, and it needs to be written in English. There is a Brazilian novelist at one end, and an American publisher at the other, and there’s me in the middle, tasked with giving the publisher exactly the same book the novelist has written, keeping it identical in absolutely every conceivable respect, except that I’ve got to change all the words.

The novel is Blue Flowers, by Carola Saavedra. Or to be more accurate, the novel is still Flores Azuis, for now. Blue Flowers is what it’s got to be when I’m done with it, ready for Riverhead Books to publish sometime in 2014. So between now and early in the New Year, I have to immerse myself in Carola’s book, in Portuguese, and write it again for the publishers in English. The process is both simple and impossible, and I’m going to be describing it on this blog as I go along.

So over these next couple of months I’m going to try to articulate what for me are the delights and frustrations of the work of translating a novel. I’m going to try to give an insight into the processes that go into that work. I’m going to try to convey what it actually feels like to live inside someone else’s writing so completely and so attentively that in time you feel capable of faking it yourself, and faking it so well – with all its joys and idiosyncrasies – that your writing voice ends up seeming somehow identical to your author’s, and that you seem to be performing a magical transformation whose magic lies in the very fact that nothing is changed at all. (Except – yes, of course – along the way every individual word has been removed and replaced.)

I’m sure wide and general issues will emerge and need to be explored on our travels, but this blog is not intended to be random abstract musings on translation – everything I write here will be anchored in this specific text, in the particular challenges that it poses, the journey it takes. Mostly it should, I hope, be fun. There will be problems to solve along the way, and I imagine I’ll be asking you for help as they arise, too. But be reassured, no Portuguese will be needed to understand any of this, nor any translation experience at all. I suspect most professional translators won’t be surprised by much I have to say here, but I know they’ll share the enthusiasm I’m trying to convey. And if you’ve never translated before, well, I hope the account on this blog will give you a sense of it, not just of how we do it, but also why.

So, here goes. Chapter one.

The book opens with a letter, dated January 19th. The recipient is unnamed. It’s a love letter.

Next up: Daniel comes a cropper on the first two words. Read the next post here.

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  • I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. You go, Danny!

  • Daniel Hahn

    Thanks, @Kymm. Hope you enjoy it! Do share your thoughts BTL as we go along – will be interested to know what you make of it all!

  • Lovely to see you do this again. I closely followed your translation blog when you were translating Estação das Chuvas. It was very helpful because I was then translating a Bangla novel. I did finish that project and the book, “Black Ice”, was published by HarperCollins India in January 2012. Though I am not currently translating another novel, I’m delighted to read your new posts.

  • Daniel Hahn

    Thanks, @Mahmud. Good to hear from you again. (Last time around you were on the same side as me in the vehement anti-footnote brigade, so you’ll approve of the post that went up yesterday!) And congratulations on “Black Ice” – hope you’ll be translating more before too long.

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