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Translation diary: 3 - First drafts

  • By Daniel Hahn
  • 7th November 2013
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Daniel Hahn continues his blog tracking the delights and frustrations of translating a novel from cover to cover. This week, he reflects on first drafts, sharing a sneak peek at his heavily-annotated first few pages.

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

So, in Monday’s post I basically failed to decide on an adequate translation of the first two words (!) of this book, Blue Flowers, by Carola Saavedra. After this rather tentative beginning, I’ve positively hurtled ahead (well, relatively speaking), with a first draft of the opening thousand words or so. Now, however you imagine an initial draft to look, I can assure you that this one will be worse. But that’s fine – it's no cause for concern.

For me, a first draft has three purposes: 

  1. It gives me something on which to base the second draft. A something, however scrappy, is better than nothing. It’s better than a blank page, and much, much better than a looming deadline with no visible indication of any progress. My first 1000 words are bad, but even a bad start can be a good start.
  2. It’s my way of mapping my doubts. I tend to draft at speed – more or less my typing speed – and I don’t go to too much trouble to resolve ambiguities or to look things up in dictionaries: I give barely any thought to solving even slightly intractable problems. So my first drafts have notes-to-self and words left untranslated and variant choices and asterisks and slashes and question marks and every kind of mess. All of which will comprise my to-do list when the draft is done.
  3. Finally, the first draft is how I get to know the book. Where possible I prefer to start translating a novel without having read it first, and the first draft is my journey of discovery, comparable to any other reader’s first, fresh experience. For Blue Flowers I happened to have read the book before I was offered the translation, but in preference I usually choose not to. I start translating the first line, first paragraph, first chapter, and turn the pages not knowing what I’m going to find next.

In short, my first drafts are altogether undignified things. What they are not for, then, is being read. God forbid – no, definitely not that. And yet, foolishly, I’m about to share a paragraph with you anyway. You’ll see what I mean. Here goes: chapter one, para one, draft one:

My love [*],

They say that separation is never UM NÚCLEO, [add “it’s never”?] UMA URGÊNGIA. They say it starts EM SEU AVESSO. And that it’s precisely at the MAIS SUAVE [softest/mildest/gentlest] moment, the [or “that”?] first meeting, the [that?] first look/glance, that [X] separation [or “the separation”?] begins to exist. I prefer to believe that [the?] separation never ends, and that the last/final day, the last/final night, is a moment that is repeated [add “again and again”?] with every waiting, with every return, every time I feel your absence [or I miss you?], every time I speak your name. I believe that, when I call you [call out to you?], a strategy, an enchantment, I should be able to make you turn and look, and, without realizing it, extend between us a ATALHO, a bridge [rev.?].

My doubts here are not, mostly, to do with the meaning of the original. As I suggested in my last post, things get interesting for me when I’m past that point and the translation has become mostly an act of writing. Whether or not I add an extra “it’s never” in that first sentence, or whether I add “again and again” to the verb “repeat” in the fourth, is nothing to do with meaning, and everything to do with rhythm. It’s about sound; it’s about the cadence and momentum that a sentence has, or ought to have if I can get it right. When I come to read it all through again later, I might decide to replace all those uses of “every” with “each” – just because the monosyllable might sound better. At some point I have to decide whether “feel your absence” should just be simplified to the natural “miss you”, but I can’t make that call just yet.

And – hmm – what about that last line? “… I should be able to make you turn and look, and, without realising it, extend between us a ATALHO, a bridge.” (An “atalho” is a byway, a shortcut. I can’t think of an English word that sounds sensible in this context, so will keep contemplating.) To me it seems better poised if I reverse the order of the English ending, to conclude the paragraph thus: “… I should be able to make you turn and look, and, without realising it, extend a ATALHO, a bridge, between us.” But I'm not 100% sure – read the two alternatives aloud and see if you agree.

Carola’s original is a wonderful, beautiful, careful thing; I know that my first draft will be none of those. But I have to trust that it will come to be, in due course. I know translators who will work on a sentence carefully, who will resolve all the dilemmas it throws up and get it as right as possible before moving onto the next sentence, and work through methodically until they have a complete first draft which isn’t too far from what the final draft will be. My first drafts are not like that. They are the rawest of raw material: they are about possibility, I think, and about process. Pleasing results come later.

Daniel's next post looks at a translator's fidelity – read it here.

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