The International Booker Prize celebrates global works of translated fiction and highlights the symbiotic relationship between translators and authors. But how do translators work? We asked three of them…

Written by Gazelle Mba

Publication date and time: Published

Every text contains within itself the possibility of its translation. When we pick up a book by an author writing in our native language, there is a tendency to think of the work as definitive and closed. But when we read in translation it reveals to us an alternative vision of that work formed from an entirely distinct linguistic system. Language is never static, a book can always be otherwise.  

The late, great literary translator Anthea Bell, who brought the works of Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald – as well as the French Asterix comics – to the English-speaking world, once wrote: ‘[translators] are in the business of spinning an illusion: the illusion that what the reader is reading is not a translation but the real thing.’ She suggests that translators are trickster figures, they take the conceit of fiction one step further. I would add that they also chip away at the discrete notion of single authorship, causing us as readers to reflect on writing as a collaborative process through which we can and do regularly speak through others.  

The International Booker Prize celebrates works of translated fiction from around the world and highlights the symbiotic relationship between translators and their authors. But how exactly do translators work? We’ve spoken to three translators: Daniel Hahn, Aaron Robertson and Polly Barton, who work primarily on translations from Portuguese, Italian and Japanese into English respectively.

Daniel Hahn OBE is a prolific translator, writer and editor who has translated the novels of José Luís Peixoto, Philippe Claudel, María Dueñas, José Saramago, Eduardo Halfon, Gonçalo M. Tavares, and others, as well as sitting on the Booker Prize Foundation’s advisory committee. He won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 with A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa.

Aaron Robertson is a translator and writer, as well as an editor at Spiegel & Grau; his translation of Igiaba Scego’s novel Beyond Babylon was shortlisted for the 2020 PEN Translation Prize, The National Translation Award and more.

Finally, Polly Barton won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize and her debut book Fifty Sounds, a personal dictionary of the Japanese language, was published in 2021. Fifty Sounds was shortlisted for the 2022 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. Her translations have appeared in The White Review, Words Without Borders and Granta.

Here, these translators take us deeper into their work, talking us through the ethical, aesthetic and political considerations involved in literary translation. 

Daniel Hahn

How do you start? Do you tackle the book in the order in which it’s written, or do you divide it into sections?   

Polly Barton: Definitely in the order it’s written, to begin. I have almost always read the text before I start working on it, but I always try with my first very scrappy draft to approximate, in some way, the feeling and the pacing of the first readthrough.    

Daniel Hahn: My process is a sort of iterative one. I tackle the entire text in multiple drafts. I start at the beginning, but I also come back to the beginning many, many times. I don’t just get to the end and then it’s finished. My first drafts are produced very quickly, they’re always very bad, but that isn’t a worry, because I know there are going to be lots of drafts to come. In some cases, I will start without having read the book in its entirety. I typically find doing the first drafts a little bit boring, and I love doing that editing and revising. Trying to get it from a bad draft to a good draft is what I really enjoy. So I get something on the page as quickly as I can, so that I can then start. I know people who do work the other way who may start at the beginning, but who are really refined. You don’t do chapter two until chapter one is ready, and then once chapter two is completed you move on to chapter three. That’s not me at all. I’m very impatient to complete the first draft. And then for me, the fun bit is going over and over and over again until suddenly it clicks into shape.  

Aaron Robertson: Each project is approached differently. The first book that I translated, I read the original a couple of times. After that I just went page by page, but there have been other projects that I just started translating before even finishing a first read of the book. And that was just because I wanted to switch up the process and see what the act of discovery was like as a translator. I wanted to not know where the story was going or what kind of linguistic shift would happen. I think I prefer to have an overview of the story because there are still plenty of opportunities to be surprised. But I definitely know of other translators who just open the book and start translating.   

Aaron Robertson

How do you ensure you capture the tone of the original?   

Polly Barton: In a way, that question feels a lot like saying, how do you ensure that you’re a good translator? Capturing the tone is for me what it’s all about, and it’s quite hard to unpick wherein that lies; taking tone very seriously, but not so seriously that it blocks off your access to creative solutions. Acknowledging that sometimes taking the longer route – veering away from the translation that seems, prima facie, the most ‘faithful’ – actually takes you closest to the voice, the tone, the spirit.    

Aaron Robertson: Tone is definitely important for me. For instance, I have worked on projects that attempt to balance humour and tragedy in really fascinating ways. I worked on a memoir by a woman called Martha Nassibou; she wrote the book Memories of an Ethiopian Princess. She was a young woman in the Ethiopian aristocracy when the fascists invaded in the 1930s. She and her family were ousted. They fled their country and lived elsewhere for several years. Martha wrote this book decades later, when she was an older woman and the book has this anthropological tone. It was part memoir of course, but she was also memorialising this lost aristocratic Ethiopian class. It had an academic, formal quality to it. When I was translating it was super important to me that I maintained that sense of anthropological decorum. This was not a vision that she had explicitly laid out. She did not say this is a work of ethnography, but I guess that another part of the task of the translator is to interpret what kind of work it is, to ask: what tone is the author putting forward? And perhaps that means you have to be attuned to the author’s history. You’ve got to know where a project is coming from. It’s important to the task of translation to go outside the text and understand its context.    

Daniel Hahn: It requires intuition. It doesn’t just require knowing loads of vocabulary, there is a suppleness to translation and the way we think about our own language we are writing in. I’m always surprised how difficult translation is, which is quite nice in a way. It is fairly rare that I get to the end of a text and go, there was nothing much to that. It is a process of discovering the complexity and subtlety of a piece of writing. It is not a direct thing. You don’t just take one word and replace it with another word until you get to 85,000 words and then you have a novel. Even the simplest thing, the number of different ways a character might say hello to another character, is weighted with choice. There are always lots and lots of possibilities. There is almost nothing that doesn’t have a choice involved, which might be an aesthetic choice, or it might be an ethical choice, about what precisely you are choosing to represent, about the character, about the text, and you’re not necessarily making all of those choices deliberately or consciously.   

Polly Barton

To what extent is the author involved and consulted?   

Daniel Hahn: You do have a responsibility to someone who is not just yourself. There’s always someone else whose name will be associated with the book. I am very, very fortunate that most of my writers are happy to be included in the process and I love having them involved. And because most of the writers I translate are able to read English, I will send them a full draft quite near the end and ask if they would like to read the novel in its entirety or if they have specific questions. Fairly often they will read the whole thing and not only answer questions but also make observations. They will even make suggestions which I can choose to follow or not. I think like any piece of work, the translation benefits from other people reflecting on it and other people telling you what their experience of it was.   

Polly Barton: It really depends on the text and author in question, but these days I would say not all that much – and if they are, then usually right at the end of the process. I start off with a ton of questions that I think I want to ask the author, and then find I resolve many of them by myself or through talking with others during the translation process – in other words, I discover that they’re questions about either translation quandaries or understanding of the Japanese language, rather than pertaining specifically to the author’s intentions. But I don’t rule out that there might come a text and a time when I bombard the author with questions. 

Have you ever been defeated, or almost defeated, by a phrase or passage that feels untranslatable?   

Aaron Robertson: The project that I’m working on now is the first novel by an author named Giullia Caminito, a young literary star in Italy. Titled La Grande A, it is set in the late 1930s in Fascist Italy – just before the Second World War. It tells the story of a young mother who leaves her children with their aunt and uncle in Lombardy to travel to Eritrea in East Africa where she opens a cafe and works odd jobs. It looks at the communities of white Italians who live in Africa during World War Two, who moved there to be a part of Mussolini’s great empire. The book is in a large way about interrogating what it means to belong to a nation. It asks, who is a citizen and why? And so a large part of the book is concerned with linguistic nationalism; the role language plays in regulating who belongs and who doesn’t. There’s a lot of dialect in the book and I would just say that while it hasn’t defeated me, it’s been very challenging. When I came across the passage that had to be dialect, I tried to do a lot of research on my own, but luckily I have friends and professors who help me out.   

Polly Barton: Constantly almost defeated! I feel like that’s an integral part of translation, for me. Although, actually, the last novel I worked on, Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai, that almost-defeat felt more intense. There was a period of time when I had this sick feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But then you go about solving the individual conundrums one by one, and gradually the balance shifts. Consulting other people often helps. I think it helps to remind myself that I experience that almost-defeat in other pursuits too – my writing, for instance. In an odd way, it helps to know that you just have to do it, you have to put something – and so then the question just becomes ‘how can I do the best I can with this, while knowing that a perfect solution is impossible?’ Which ultimately should be the question from the start, I think. Allowing the impossibility to free you, rather than constrain you, is the trick – although that definitely doesn’t and shouldn’t mean then abnegating all responsibility.    

Daniel Hahn: There are always going to be things in a language that seem untranslatable. I am of the belief that it is still possible to do pretty much anything with pretty much any language. But the way you do it might be different. It might be that you replace a word with a phrase. It might be that you don’t have a word at all, that you can’t make a character say one thing that conveys exactly what it conveys in Portuguese, but you can indicate that with something else like an action. There are two ways of looking at this. Either everything is untranslatable because languages are never identical, or nothing is untranslatable. And I think both of those things are true and that there isn’t one word in a language, in any language, that maps exactly onto one word in another. There will always be some difference, if only because it will sound different. I also think nothing is untranslatable because there is always some way of expressing what the original text conveys. You might replace a phrase with a paragraph, remove it entirely and draw a picture.   

Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai, translated by Polly Barton

What made you want to be a literary translator in the first place? What was your path to becoming one?   

Daniel Hahn: I was always interested in reading and writing. I loved those things at school, I did a literature degree at university; English literature mostly. I didn’t think about becoming a translator; I didn’t know it was common until relatively recently that people became translators. But I happened to have a number of languages, partly through my family and partly through study. I surprised myself by going from being someone who read in lots of languages and wrote in English, to becoming someone who translates other books. It happened by accident.  

Aaron Robertson: I did not really expect to end up in the world of literary translation. It was never really a goal of mine until it sort of happened. I got into translation when I was in college. I had come across the Somali Italian writer Igiaba Scego. She is a prolific author who also worked as a journalist on the migrant crisis in Italy. When I was studying in Bologna as a junior in college, I came across a novel she’d written called Beyond Babylon. I read it not knowing what to expect. She reminded me of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison in her cosmopolitanism. So, when I was a senior in college, I proposed to my advisor that I do a translation of the book because I just wanted to talk to my friends about her work. Time passed and I was able to publish the book.   

Polly Barton: I came relatively late to Japanese, and for what felt like so long, my aim was to read a whole book in Japanese. Once I’d done that, I needed a new goal, and translating a whole book felt like a natural next stage. As someone who loves books and words, and who also wanted to spend as much time as possible engaging with Japanese on a deep level, translation was a relatively natural choice.    

Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego translated by Aaron Robertson