Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Daniel Hahn is translator of Phenotypes.

Previously shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize with A General Theory of Oblivion, here, Daniel Hahn discusses the complexities of translation and reveals how he came to reading late as a child. 

Daniel Hahn

Written by Daniel Hahn

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker – an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win?

I’m delighted, as I’m sure all of us on the list must be. There are many motivations for translating, but one of them is an urge to bring a book to new readers. Phenotypes is definitely one of those for me – I think it’s a truly astonishing work, not just important for its subject and how that subject is handled, but also incredibly original and sophisticated as a work of literature – and so anything that helps it to the attention of more readers is so welcome.

What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find translating fiction in particular?

I came to translation accidentally, which used to be more common as an origin story than it is now; and it still surprises me a little that it’s occupied so much of the past fifteen years of my life. Much of what I translate is fiction, but not all – but I think it’s fair to say that, of the areas in which I work regularly, fiction is probably the kind of writing I’d be least able to do for myself (I write non-fiction, I’ve done books for children), and that’s part of its unique pleasure. On some level I get to be an occasional writer of real masterpieces despite being entirely unequipped to write them.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

I have relatively few memories from early childhood, but I do remember being read to, and having stories told to me, by my parents, if not actually reading them myself. I remember some of the books I loved at the time, too. But my own memories as a reader myself become more intense rather later. I did not master independent reading particularly early, which apparently was a source of some irritation to me at the time.

José Eduardo Agualusa and Daniel Hahn 2016

On some level I get to be an occasional writer of real masterpieces despite being entirely unequipped to write them

What did you enjoy most about translating Phenotypes?  What did you find most challenging?

Often the answer to these questions is the same – if the challenges weren’t themselves a big part of the enjoyment, I wouldn’t be doing this job. And in the case of this book in particular, the challenges were considerable. There are so many stylistically and formally bold aspects to this thing that Paulo [Scott, author of Phenotypes] has crafted, and they all need to be intact, they need to confront and challenge our new readers as boldly as the source text did its Portuguese-language readers. There are sentences that need to maintain real complexity, and shift in tone along the way, all the while maintaining some real readerly propulsion; the book is at least in part about language, or rather, about terminology, and obviously such matters are inherently tricky to recast in an entirely different linguistic world; there are big ideas, and important ones, threaded through the whole book, but it has to feel at least substantially driven by character and voice, rather than like a treatise of some kind; and, oh, many other things…

What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?

However you define ‘literal translation’ – a phrase I avoid at all costs – it’s always going to suggest a diminished version of the work, a version whose sole purpose, I suppose, is the preservation of nuance-less meaning. But this is a novel with a very particular culture underlying it; shaped by very particular experiences, on behalf of the characters but also the author; and crafted into a reading experience that I think would be entirely absent from any translation that was not highly alert to rhythm and shifting diction and cultural particularity. This is one of the hardest books I’ve translated (and one of the best, I think), but not because it’s hard to grasp anything as simple as the surface meaning of the words. Translating something like this requires research, and listening, and humility and all manner of other things that aren’t to do with a simple interchange of word A with word B.

What is a classic translated book you’d recommend & a translated book from the past 10 years?

I grew up on Asterix, so I can’t not give that as my answer, I think. I’m sure it formed my sense of humour as a child (and taught me quite a lot), and it’s also a delightfully enabling thing for a grown-up translator to return to. Technically it’s a whole series rather than a book, of course, but that also means it obligingly spans classic to recent all in one answer…

Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.

Somewhere, in some cardboard box or other, there exists an audio recording of a famous scene from Macbeth, in which I am reading the part of Macbeth and Judi Dench is playing the Lady. (She was very good.)