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Translation diary: 6 - Who is the reader?

  • By Daniel Hahn
  • 26th November 2013
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Daniel Hahn is translating a novel, and blogging about it for us along the way. This week, readers: who are they? Where are they? And what do they want?

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 never get very far with a translation before I have to ask myself this very basic question: who am I translating for? It’s an annoying question, and it gets in the way, and I do try to ignore it while I’m working, but sometimes that’s just not possible. This paragraph is one such moment. (It’s from the first section describing the man who receives and reads the letters.) A little girl – Manuela – shows her dad a picture she’s just drawn.


“Dad, look.”

“How lovely, sweetie. Is it me?”

“No, it’s Felipe.”

“Oh, Felipe – yes, it’s really good. Really, it’s beautiful.”

He felt just a touch of jealousy, yes, of course, Felipe, even the cat was more important than her own father, that was what occurred to him. Then right away he felt ridiculous, comparing himself to the cat. The girl came closer and held out her hand.

“Give it to me.”

“What do you want, the picture?”


He handed the piece of paper back to her. He was still thinking about Felipe, the cat she had been given right after the separation, a goggle-eyed black cat. His ex-wife, hoping to compensate for any trauma and maybe even to distract the girl, had got her the animal, a cat with a person’s name. It was her, the girl, who’d chosen the name herself, where she’d got Felipe from he would never know, just one of those kid things, his ex-wife explained with an ironic smile. Well, fine. Felipe.


Straightforward, right? Except that my translation has been commissioned by an American publisher rather than a British one, and when it comes back from the copy-editor it’s going to say “His ex-wife… had gotten her the animal… where she’d gotten Felipe from he would never know…” And it will bother me.

“Gotten” isn’t a word we use in the UK nowadays – we certainly used to (hence things surviving like “ill-gotten gains”) but we don’t any more. In the US, it’s still the correct usage for the verb in these instances. It’s not – of course – that one is right and one is wrong, or that one is better and the other worse, merely that one is conventional usage in one place and the other in the other. But this still presents a problem. To me, using “gotten” makes the character sound American, and he is not, he’s Brazilian. My American readers simply won’t notice the word at all; whereas I’m assuming that any readers of this blog who are British when reading the passage above won’t have noticed my passing uses of “got” at all – but to my publisher they will leap out and make the character sound unmistakeably British. And, no, he’s not that, either.

Examples of the problem are countless in any piece of writing. In theory that first word in the above passage could just as easily be rendered as “pop”, or “da”; and the way he addresses the little girl could be one of a hundred terms of parental endearment in the place of my chosen “sweetie” – but finding things that don’t carry a particular local charge buzzing round them is key. If I want my readers to believe they’re reading the voice of a Brazilian (even to believe, on some level, that they’re reading Portuguese) then everything that locates the novel somewhere else is an obstacle, a distraction. “Gotten” is distractingly particularly American for me, enough to bring me up short when I read it; “got” will jar just as distractingly for my editor, and our American readers.

The problem, of course, is that my language, the working one in which I’m the second author of this book, is my own English, which just happens to be an English in which “got” and “pavement” seem entirely neutral, inconspicuous, culturally inert, and “gotten” and “sidewalk” seem culturally loaded.

In one sense I needn’t worry; I’m sure my publishers won’t be too appalled if accidentally I let a “bloke” slip through and they need to change him to a “guy” in the edit, if they have to replace the occasional “mum” with a “mom”; but I know when that edit happens I’m going to have to keep resisting the temptation to argue with every Americanisation. (Or, indeed, every Americanization.) For the book to convince, it has to speak to my readers without an inappropriate accent – which simply means, then, speaking in my readers’ own, even if it’s slightly bothersome to my ear.

At some point in this blog I’ll have to tackle the question of how to handle dialogue, where this concern is of course particularly acute. A Californian has to hear Carola’s characters speak as though they were speaking to them “normally”, not as foreigners. How weird it would be for them if these fictional Brazilians all sounded like they were from Glasgow. To the Glaswegian reader, of course, a  “neutral” Glasgow accent is fine, because the characters can only be believably Brazilian if there aren’t specific linguistic markers to make you think they’re in California – or Baltimore, or Sydney. The aim is to be natural, but not natural from anywhere in particular – language that’s geographically inert, but still plausibly alive. “Non-specific demotic,” I think that’s what Anthea Bell calls it. We translators are constantly striving for that, tuning our sensitivities to anything that might jar for specifically whomever we imagine our readers to be. After many years working on both sides of the pond, I do feel I’ve gotten better at that kind of thing. Though something is always bound to slip through, of course…

Read Danny's next post here.

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  • Catherine Hammond

    I am finding your blog fascinating. Thanks for doing it. I had a few thought as an American about your got/gotten dilemma. I grew up in Ohio in a middle class household using gotten. At some point, after a couple of college degrees, I came to understand that many considered either word substandard. Gotten was archaic. I try in writing never to use either, but especially not gotten, I live in the Soutwest now, but the prejudice against both words still seems strong. I do use them both in speech, gotten only with close friends or family when I am relaxed.

  • Daniel Hahn

    Thanks, Catherine – I hadn’t realised (or even realized) there was any sense in which “gotten” in some US contexts might be seen as an inferior option somehow, with whatever negative associations it might bring with it – or indeed that there might be a prejudice against *both*. Interesting. Since writing this post I’ve also been told that there are places here in the UK where “gotten” has remained the more common form, too. Turns out it’s never quite as simple as it looks. Glad you’re enjoying the blog!

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