With Charlotte Collins, Daniel Hahn and Deborah Smith.
2016 heralds the relaunch of the Man Booker International Prize: now annual and with the £50,000 prize split equally between novelist and translator. To celebrate, three of the shortlisted translators discuss the key role of translation in bringing international fiction to an English-speaking audience. Charlotte Collins is translator of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life; Daniel Hahn translated José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion; and Deborah Smith is translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.
”Different books demand different things.”
From over 155 finalists, these three were at the top, with Han Kang’s novel winning in the end. The Vegetarian began life as three novellas that functioned as a novel together – it’s odd, not so much about her actions but how she’s read by others. A Whole Life is set in the Austrian Alps – it’s the whole life of a simple man in a mountain valley who only really left to go to War. A General Theory of Oblivion is set in Angola at a moment of independence – it’s a tapestry of different stories that come together in a mysterious way.
Each of the three has translated more than one book for their respective authors – does that familiarity impact the process at all? For Daniel, “what’s happened is José has developed a voice in English and I can recognise it. I feel like I know what he sounds like already; I’m writing into a certain English.” It’s a literary DNA that’s been shaped.
For Charlotte it’s been interesting finding the recurring words. She believes Robert’s use of those words is deliberate, and has found this to become more prominent a feeling the more she works with him. “Being a film actor, he thinks very visually,” Charlotte explains. “You see the picture and then describe it.”
Deborah is incredibly envious of people who translate poetry – they seem to do so for decades on end with the same poet. “I would love to do that,” she explains, noting that through working on multiple books with Han Kang, she feels, “I am better qualified to translate this book.” If there’s repetition, she no longer sees it as a crutch that writing in English typically could, but instead has grown to understand how visual the work is meant to be.
Historical context can be familiar to those in the corresponding area, but how do you work with a nation who may not know the implied backdrop? Across the board they agree that light context can be fitted in, but anything too extensive dulls the writing and changes the effect of the book to cram in history. Some of their books are timeless, but an interesting point is that in some cases it simply doesn’t matter, or as Daniel says, “Different books demand different things.”
“The reason we translate is because we want people to read these books.”
If he can read the book without the context and enjoy it, he assumes others can too. There’s also the opportunity to get translated literature into people’s hands, so that they come back, and you can leave gradually more of the culture and phrases in there, assuming a slight knowledge from their past dalliance with the author.
The hour looks at the relationships with authors, the impact of the Man Booker prize and, indeed, what is a good translation, anyway? They conclude the translation is almost irrelevant – it’s about the story being told and how it’s presented. Few read these books differently than they do any other. The joy is knowing that this book is created by two people in two parts with one vision, and a good translation is probably knowing that, but not being sure where one’s input ends and the other begins. Seamless.
“The most impressive thing about the prize and reception was getting beyond the circle we all know,” notes Deborah. Beyond translators and publishing. It was much broader, and what that did was move translation as a whole. There was a distinct shift towards more outward-looking practices.
It’s more high profile. Charlotte notes that people who were previously ambivalent about her role as a translator are now mightily impressed – it’s these subtle differences that help you gauge just how far-reaching the impact can be.
“For most of us, the reason we translate is because we want people to read these books,” explains Daniel. A lot of what translators do is driven by impulse. The shortlisting for the Man Booker did the same thing as they do in a way: it gave these books more visibility. And what’s better than bringing brilliant books to new people all over the world?