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Translation diary: 5 - Structure

  • By Daniel Hahn
  • 25th November 2013
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Daniel Hahn continues to blog his way through translating a novel from cover to cover. This week: he unpicks the book's structure, and the implications it might have on his approach.

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

I think I need to do a bit of structural explanation before I move on, so please excuse my stepping away from the text for just this one post. It should be useful, I hope, for making sense of what will follow.

Blue Flowers is written in two quite different modes, and they alternate. We have the letters: the book opens with the letter of January 19th, and then there are eight further letters in the same voice, dated daily the 20th, the 21st etc. But in between these, we read the story of a man who’s sitting in his apartment, as he receives each of these letters and reads them – though they aren’t, in fact, meant for him. So, we have odd-numbered parts in this first-person voice of the woman writing her letters (we know she’s a woman now, don’t we?), and even-numbered parts in the third person featuring the man reading them. I referred earlier to voice – but clearly what I’ll really need is two principle voices, internally consistent but distinct. One for the letters, and one for – as it were – their B-sides, the narrative voice that’s watching them being received. 

When the publishers and I first discussed the idea of taking on this book, I did – as is quite common in these circumstances – a sample. Just 2,000 words or so, to give them a sense of whether I was the right translator for the job, and so I could figure out how I felt about it myself. (Also to be able to estimate how long it would take, etc.). For this, I translated the second little section – that is, the man receiving the first letter. So as I now produce my quick-and-dirty preliminary version of the whole book, I do already have a tidy, readable version of pages 17-24. Begging a question: before I jump in my first-drafting process from letter number one into letter number two, should I first read over the intervening section, translated and polished all those months ago? Yes, surely! It would seem strange not to; and yet…

And yet is there any reason why it should help me? The letters are unanswered, after all, so the account of the receipt of the first letter in no way influences what happens in the second; and it can only slow me down having got into a rhythm for that voice to disrupt it by spending time in another. Best to move straight from the end of letter one into letter two. Which begs another question – which only occurs to me as I write this now – why should I translate this book in sequence? Why not do all the letters, the bits in A’s voice first, which she wrote in isolation; and then all the parts in between, the man’s responsive story, afterwards? Seems kind of radical, but also suddenly quite sensible, perhaps? I’ll think.

Of course, the momentum that gathered as the opening picked up speed has been more than disrupted already. I’m always working on several books at a time, and each will make different demands at different stages in their processes of development. I spent today going through the final edits of Nowhere People, a brilliant novel by Paulo Scott, which And Other Stories publish next summer; and putting the finishing touches to my translation of Socorro Acioli’s The Head of the Saint, which I delivered to publishers Hot Key Books at lunchtime (finishing touches included figuring out how to make all the chapter heads start with the letter “C” – oh, don’t ask…); and finalising contractual terms for another novel I’ve just started; besides doing the non-translation work that makes up part of most translators’ time. So the truth is, Blue Flowers didn’t get a look-in at all today. Tomorrow and Saturday will be the same. I’ll get back to it on Sunday.

I like jumping between jobs, even if it means that on Sunday, when I return to Blue Flowers, there will be a bit of retuning required. (Like any reader who has put a book aside for a time, and needs to find a way back into rhythm of the story.) I need to avoid too much bleeding from one venture into another. So why would I add to that by working on the quite different alternating parts of this one book if I don’t have to?

It occurs to me, too, that I must pick up the pace one of these days. I’m still at the earliest stage of the first draft of the beginning of the book, and while I have some time ahead – my deadline to deliver is January 15th – it’ll pass in a flash, I know that much from experience.

In my next post I’m going to complain about a word I know my publishers are going to make me use and which I don’t want to use. I am absolutely certain that when the time comes I will lose the argument. Read that next post here.

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