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‘Translation is amazing’ [book review]

Catching Fire: A Translation Diary by Daniel Hahn

Translation is an art quite unlike anything else. For those who work in the field – and probably some who don’t – it is an endless source of fascination, frustration, and a particular kind of delight. Put a group of literary translators together in a room and it won’t be long before the conversation is running along peculiar lines – a debate about the merits of choosing one word over another can lead in all kinds of unexpected directions, taking in a wealth of cultural, social, political, historical and deeply personal considerations. It might be tempting to regard translation as a fairly simple, linear process – A in one language equals B in another – but as Daniel Hahn shows in Catching Fire: A Translation Diary, it really is anything but. A translation is not a straightforward copy of a book funnelled from one language into another, but a creative entity in its own right, the result of close reading, intense thought and strikes of inspiration, a good deal of knotty problem-solving and, as Hahn makes sure to point out, plenty of collaborative input from different quarters.  

Catching Fire cover image

Originally published in serial form on the Charco Press website in 2021, Catching Fire is a chronicle of Hahn’s experience as he translated Chilean author Diamela Eltit’s revolutionary novel Jamás el fuego nunca into its English-language incarnation, Never Did the Fire; both books were released in parallel in April 2022. A memoir of one particular piece of work, Catching Fire is penned in ‘solid, earthbound words’, and sees Hahn – who is one of the most prolific and respected translators working into English today – detail the entire process of translating a book from Spanish into English, from messy first drafts to quirks of grammar, uncertainty around the choice of title to final, painstaking edits (a stage of the diary that offers extra elucidation in the form of an entry by editor Bill Swainson). In doing this, his aim is to demystify literary translation for everyone, whether they have a vested or merely a casual interest in the practice.

Though it sounds like a niche subject – and, if the online comments were anything to go by, the original diary entries were certainly read avidly by experienced and emerging translators alike – as Hahn writes in his introduction to the project, literary translation is ‘not something that should be beyond the understanding, the aspiration or the interest of anybody’. This is an attitude he enthusiastically preserves throughout the book, and one I am more than happy to support; among the reading public at large, translated literature is all too often regarded as somehow difficult or unapproachable, so it seems eminently sensible – necessary, even – to try to elucidate the process, particularly when the attempt is made with such verve and charm as Hahn brings to his writing.

As a writer, editor and translator from Spanish and Portuguese, with an OBE for services to literature and more than eighty titles to his name, it is safe to say that few translators have the wealth of experience that Daniel Hahn does. Few authors, too – especially when writing about a relatively academic topic – could conjure his blend of intelligence, humour and warmth, which is ultimately what makes Catching Fire so wonderful to spend time with. Voice counts for a lot in a book such as this, and Hahn’s comes through strongly, carried not just by his characteristic wit but by the evident respect he has for his work, an ability to be both somewhat pedantic and pleasantly self-effacing, and the sense of artistic appreciation he conveys as he journeys ever deeper into his complex source text. Despite having had many entertaining conversations with translator friends, I never really thought I would find myself laughing out loud at a book about translation. In this, I am very happy to have been proved wrong.

Never Did the Fire, the novel that provided the impetus for Hahn’s translation diary, is, he says, ‘the most difficult book [he’s] ever translated’. For the reader, too, it certainly isn’t easy to grasp – a short but multi-layered novel about the gradual dissolution of relationships, revolutionary movements and social constructs, it relies on symbols and multiple ambiguities to make its point. As a companion piece, Catching Fire does double duty, providing not only insights into the technicalities of the translation process, but also an astute commentary on Eltit’s politically charged writing, certain stylistic quirks and the way she makes language work for her – those aspects of a powerful novel that so often go unremarked. Reading the two books in tandem, understanding how Jamás el fuego nunca became Never Did the Fire, is an unusual and utterly fascinating experience that gives the reader not just a clearer understanding of what translation entails, but a deeper appreciation of the many intricacies of literature, in any form or language.

It is easy to say that language is a living thing, far more rare to see it in action. Particularly when moving from one language to another, but even in the choices we make when speaking or writing in an everyday context, the words we use are laced with meaning – some obvious, some implicit, some hidden or never thought of. Translators perhaps have a heightened awareness of this, but for any keen reader, whether they speak one language or several, Catching Fire is a brilliant demonstration of the fact. Warm, witty, intellectual yet down to earth, Hahn has written a unique book, an enthusiastic and very personal appreciation of a profession that is ‘intricate, and delicate, and multidimensional . . . not, however, magic’, and, at its heart, a love letter to language.

Catching Fire: A Translation Diary by Daniel Hahn is published by Charco Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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