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Interview: Daniel Hahn, translator - “Awards are a statement of what we value”

ByKunal Ray
May 30, 2023 09:56 AM IST

The winner of the Ottaway Award on the importance of children’s literature, his process of translation, and his project with the University of Chicago to translate South Asian literature

Congratulations on the Ottaway Award. Do awards really impact how we read, think, and write as a culture?

Daniel Hahn photographed at the Story Museum in Oxford, UK. (John Lawrence)

In theory more than in practice, I think. I’m not sure in reality there are very many awards that have a broad impact. For me, they’re more important, sort of in the abstract, as a statement of what we value – what is this prize supposed to be rewarding, exactly? – more than any direct impact on sales, for example.

You also write non-fiction. Does that work differently from translation? Do the two intersect or do you approach non-fiction writing differently from translation?

I haven’t done much independent writing lately, though I’m just about to embark on a new book, which, by some measures, is the first book I’ve written since translation took over my life – so while I don’t know how to answer your question, I feel like I’m just about to find out! I’m curious myself – excited about the freedom, but also apprehensive about the quite different demands it will make on me, in terms of ideas, structure, etc.

You are heavily invested in children’s literature. Why is it such a big commitment for you?

I could make the case, I suppose, that children’s literature is especially important because of its formative powers – what children read can influence their sense of the world more easily than what we read when we’re in our forties and quite entrenched – and so the stakes in children’s literature are higher, and the possibilities greater. But the truth is simpler, really: I work with children’s books because I love them.

I want to understand your process of translation. How do you choose a text and then what happens?

It isn’t always a question of “choosing” exactly – it’s a process of negotiation with a publisher. I might suggest something to them that I like and that I think they will, too; or they might ask my opinion of something they’ve been pitched by an agent; but however it begins, it’s usually a long conversation to get to the point where we sign a contract. Then the process, for me, is almost always the same – I’ll do a very quick first draft (if I haven’t read the book before signing the contract, I don’t read it before this draft), with the focus on speed and volume. Then all that’s left are a million hyperdetailed edits.

Is the author of the source text a collaborator in this process? How important is the opinion of the author in the process of translation?

As a translator into English, it’s common for me to have writers who are able to read my translation (and who feel a particular investment in it), so I always invite them along for the ride if I can. I send them a draft which they are welcome to read if they would like to, and I’ll always listen to their comments, and discuss any suggestions. The final say is mine, but it would be silly not to listen to other people’s insights, especially a person who knows the workings of my source book so well.

You have recently set up a project with the University of Chicago to translate South Asian literature. How are you going to choose the texts? Also do you think the recent Booker win for Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell has re-energised translations from/in India?

The SALT (South Asian Literature in Translation) project is structured in such a way that we won’t be choosing the texts ourselves – we’ll be supporting translators and publishers to do their work, to find and translate and publish and promote great books from South Asia. I don’t see the benefit in attempting to impose our tastes with selections made centrally – we want to empower other people to do their best work. And yes, the success of Tomb of Sand at last year’s International Booker will certainly help!

You have travelled in India and spoken at various literary events. What has been your most enduring literary introduction to the country and which books have helped you to understand India?

I’ve been travelling to India for about 25 years. I think it’s nine visits so far, if memory serves. The first few were purely social – an old friend’s wedding, etc. – but since then, I’ve been able to get to know the literary world, too, attending festivals, running workshops, and so on. One of the effects has been to widen my horizons, moving out from great Anglophone Indian writing I knew already, to begin to get a sense of what else there is, in all those rich languages and traditions. And yes, I’m sure everything I’ve read – from Amit Chaudhuri and Salman Rushdie to Geetanjali Shree or Perumal Murugan or whoever – has helped me in some way to understand the place, but I don’t think of it like that really; I’ve been luckier, perhaps, that for me it’s worked mostly the other way: being in the place has exposed me to the books.

Kunal Ray teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.

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