Judge for Foreign Fiction Prize: English-Language Readers Becoming More Open to Translation

Daniel Hahn—literary translator, judge for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010 and chairman of the Translators Association— spoke with The National on the topic of “foreign fiction,” which he says is becoming more and more popular in the English-speaking world.

He enthused about non-literary translations like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which helps bring translation out of the “literary” or high-brow ghetto. He also enthused about Syrian author Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love, which was on the shortlist for the Independent’s 2010 foreign fiction prize. I can agree with him about its readability, although I had other problems with the book.

The most interesting part of the interview was when The National’s Ben East asked Hahn what he does if he happens across a passage in a book he’s translating that “he really doesn’t like”?

“Oh, it happens all the time,” he laughs. “E-mail has made it very easy to say to a writer, for example: ‘This joke at the end of chapter two is very funny, but it’s not funny in English.’ And in that case I would always suggest changing it in a specific way rather than leaving it out. Because the original author has two choices: either I persevere with the original, in which case no one will laugh, or we change the joke and keep the laugh.

“The job, essentially, is to recreate the experience of reading the book, not the specific sentences of the original. One of the advantages of working with most of the authors is that you get the permission to do just that – they trust you. And it’s genuinely a lovely job: you’re getting your head completely inside a book, and if that’s a place it’s exciting to be, that’s a fantastic feeling. You’re getting to write a great book even if you’re not a great writer yourself.”