Earlier this week, author José Eduardo Agualusa received the International Dublin Literary Award for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion. As translator of this book, Daniel Hahn received the award as well, and they split the €100,000 prize money €75,000/€25,000.
Daniel promptly pledged to donate half of his award prize to help endow a new translation prize, the TA First Translation Prize, which awards £2,000 to a first-time translator and their editor.
I reached out to Daniel to find out more about this new award, why he donated his winnings, and what translators can do to break into the business. Below is our conversation.
Scott Esposito: In your remarks after declaring your intention to donate half of your winnings from the International Dublin Literary Award to a new award to honor debut translators, you noted that translation “remains a difficult [field] for newcomers to break into.” What are some of the difficulties of breaking in, and how does this award address them?
Daniel Hahn: At the moment, there are more people who want to translate than there is work to keep us all as busy as we’d like (a problem I’ll come back to later). This means there’s competition for the work (not a bad thing), but also that it’s relatively easier for understandably risk-averse publishers to stick with a handful of translators they already know, rather than expanding the field except in unusual cases. Of course that suits me well enough personally, but it’s problematic, not least because it’s often through new translators that we find new writers, that we manage to diversify to new languages, and so forth.
I was on the Dublin shortlist with another translator who like me was accompanying the author with whom she originally made her debut (Agualusa was my first), and two brilliant translators at the very start of their own careers. So I’m hoping the award will be a little reminder to editors of the possibilities that can come from working with newcomers; and of course help the translators themselves with recognition that will make it easier not just to get into the profession but to stay here – a prize-winning debut translator might find that second or third contract a little more readily.
SE: Do you feel like more awards will help strengthen the place of translations in the UK literary field? What other things beyond awards are needed to give translated literature a stronger presence and to make it a more vital force in the UK literary world?
Strangely perhaps, I don’t think a lack of awards is the problem. We have so, so many of them. For published and unpublished work, for poetry and prose and children’s books, for work originating in a whole range of particular languages, etc. Too many prizes can be as problematic as too few. (Most prizes depend for their functioning on publicity, on recognition, and there’s only so much oxygen to go around.) But prizes that are targeted quite strategically, to help to fix a particular problem or rectify a particular imbalance, can undoubtedly help – albeit often in a time-limited way. I think translated literature in the UK is significantly more vital these days already, and yes, there are some prizes that have helped that; but some of the prizes I think do us the greatest service are those (like the Dublin) that don’t in fact single out a book’s “translatedness” as a criterion. On the one hand, yes, we’ve benefited from translation itself – the practice of it – being more visible, more discussed, more understood, but we benefit from being in the mainstream, too.
SE: You also noted that you’re “as broke as the next translator,” a characterization of the monetary realities of the profession that probably won’t receive too many rebuttals. But you’re also one of the most in-demand, hardest working translators out there, so I’m curious to hear your insight on how translators can make translation a workable profession (or at least a non-bankrupting passion project). What advice would you give to newcomers out there?
DH: I really don’t think literary translation has to doom you to a life of penury. My rates vary but on average I’d say I’m paid about £95 / $140 per thousand words. And as an average I think that’s fine. Needless to say, some books are much harder than others, and the rates don’t vary to reflect that, which means I have to make sure I translate some easy (ie. quick) books to offset the harder, slower ones. I have no problem with that, either. (If you’re on £95 per thousand words and you stubbornly only ever translate the kind of book that requires crawling through at a pace of four words a day, then yes, you’re in trouble.) I’d like to see rates vary more depending on a book’s challenges (which is unlikely to happen), but otherwise I don’t think our average by-the-yard rate is generally so terrible. I do lots of other kinds of work, too, and it’s the translating that I depend on to pay my rent. (And yes, I know not everybody commands the same rates as I do, but plenty – including newcomers – do.)
The main difficulty is – as I mentioned earlier – that there just isn’t enough work for those who want it. If you can translate, say, four or five decent-length books a year, you can make a living – not riches unimaginable, but something reasonable; only there aren’t enough books for everyone who wants to be a translator to get that much work, hence the trouble making ends meet without other sources of income.
The good news, of course, is that translation is perfectly compatible with other work – if you’re a newcomer who wants to be a translator (hooray!), don’t expect there to be a steady stream of work from the moment you start, four or five books a year forever; eventually you’ll get that thrilling first contract, then there’ll be a wait for the second and third, then maybe a looong wait till the fourth, so you need to fill those gaps with other paid work. Which is fine, too. It’s hard to think of any line of work where you get to do only the best bits of the job from your very first entry-level moment…
SE: As someone who’s been remarkably successful in this field, you’re definitely a leader of the profession in many ways, and so I think it’s important that you’ve chosen to visibly give back to the field that has nourished your career. Is there a responsibility on people in our line of work—the translators, the publishers, the editors, the writers, the journalists, the critics, etc—to give back to the field?
DH: Hmm, I wouldn’t presume to say that people should give back, and particularly not that there should be any expectation to do so with money. (One thing I did worry about with this new prize was whether it would make other translators uncomfortably pressured if they won things and chose not to give any away…) We’re all blessed with different circumstances: I’m not rolling in money, but I’m confident that I can make a living from one year to the next, and I don’t have dependents, and so parting with a bit of unexpected money really isn’t a big deal or a great sacrifice. If others are in a position to give back, then great; if not, that’s none of my business.
But while I don’t want to pronounce on whether people should give back to the community, I do want to celebrate just how often they do. The world of people who translate books and publish translations and champion international writing is the most extraordinarily collegial, optimistic, generous tribe I’ve been a part of; every person I know does much more than they’re paid for, everyone is driven by a sense of mission, or a feeling of community, or a drive towards a common good. Every experienced translator I’ve ever met puts a lot of work into helping out those following after them. (When I set up our mentoring programme six years ago, it was prompted in part by the fact that translator mentoring was actually happening every day of the week already, only rather informal, and unpredictable, and unpaid…) Many of my closest friends are translators or workers in the translation world, and we’ve become friends not by translating together but because we met on the board of one charity or another, on someone’s grant committee, when plotting an event for the community, setting up a scheme, throwing around ideas for a new project – unpaid, “for the general good”, if you like – giving time or expertise or solidarity or whatever we can. My contribution to this new prize will also depend on other people being prepared to promote it, and to be on my judging panel, and to organise a celebratory event, and to help recruit other sponsors… – I know it will be a team effort, as all such things are; I just fired the starting-gun.
SE: Notably, this prize goes both to translators and their editor, the latter being an often overlooked part of the world of publishing. Why include editors? What is the editor’s role and responsibility in bringing outstanding new works in translation to the market?
DH: Editors are crucial for bringing work to market, in the most obvious ways; translators can advise or recommend or help to assemble a case for a book, but it’s the editor who has to make the decision, and/or to persuade their sales teams, and get the book past whatever hurdles their particular publishing house requires to reach the point where they’re commissioning it for translation at all. For a new writer, the hurdles are higher still, of course. And then it takes a certain nerve to commission a translator with no track record (even if they are, perhaps, the person who helped you to discover/acquire the book in the first place); and it takes work to magic a good manuscript into a great one. Even the most confident new translators need nurturing, even the best get better with good editing, and learn from it – just as we all do, however experienced and arrogant we’ve become… – but the editor’s critical role is almost always invisible (far more than ours, complain though we do), noticed only when there’s something wrong. I hope the TA prize will help to remind people – not least us translators ourselves – what the benefits of this vital collaboration can be.
SE: What do you see as the prospects for translation in the UK? I mean with rising xenophobia, the looming Brexit, not to mention ongoing budget cuts and slow economic growth in the UK, how has this (largely) esoteric literature by foreigners been doing on the market, and what do you expect in the next few years?
I mostly think we’re heading towards catastrophe of various kinds – political and social – of which Brexit is both a symptom and a cause. I think it’s a disaster. The whole thing appals me and makes me feel ashamed and frightens me by turns.
One thing it doesn’t do, however, is make me fear for the fate of translated literature. Yes, I think publishing in general will be hit (exports are good as our currency collapses, but a slow economy is a problem more generally – retail will struggle, cultural funding and sponsorship will shrink…), and other ancillary areas will suffer, too (reduced critical coverage in a shrinking print media, etc.), but I don’t think the foreign stuff is going to fare any worse than anything else. Mostly I don’t think translated literature is “esoteric”, to use your word – which I think is good. And the split in our country, as in yours, is such that, well, those who were going to read international literary fiction or poetry will be disproportionately “remain-voting” / anti-Trump anyway. I don’t think there are millions of people who had been going to read Krasnahorkai before and now because of Brexit are suddenly going to change their diet to nothing but British novelists and the Daily Mail; but I do worry about Brexit as a symptom – is it telling us something about a culturally protectionist, ungenerous, uncurious strand in my society that I haven’t had to think about before? Is there something those of us who deal daily in enabling cultural transit should be doing about that?
SE: Why are you a translator? What does this world bring to your life, and why should people read translations?
DH: At the Dublin Award dinner last night I described the process of my becoming a translator, when Daniela de Groote and Gary Pulsifer commissioned me to translate my first Agualusa novel; I’d had no intention of being a translator before that debut was thrust upon me, but it turned out to be fun, and something I could do, more or less. I became a translator because of them.
But I also said something about the extraordinary community you and I are a part of – that collegial, generous, energetic group I mentioned before; if Daniela and Gary and Agualusa are why I became a translator, this community is why I’ve stayed. I do enjoy the work itself, and I do think I’m basically pretty good at it (if not as consistent as I’d like), and – yes – I absolutely unashamedly do it for the money, too; but most of all because of all these people around me, who share this slightly odd but totally compelling mission.
But I’m slightly nervous about that last question – “why should people read translations?” For the most part, I think the answer is no different to “why should people read?”. The translatedness of a book doesn’t endow it with special powers.
SE: What projects do you have upcoming?
DH: I’ve just finished translating the first book in a huge French YA sci-fi trilogy by Victor Dixen, so I’m embarking next on book two, and thereafter on book three. When those are done – 1100 pages from now – I have my third Eduardo Halfon book (co-translating with Lisa Dillman) to deliver in October, and I’ve just signed for Agualusa Six for the winter. Those are the next books on the conveyor belt. Then there are all those things that are recently done but not yet out in the world, in various stages of cooking: a Michel Laub novel for Harvill Secker, a José Luís Peixoto novel (co-translated with Robin Patterson) for a Portuguese publisher, a Portuguese novel for Oneworld, Carola Saavedra for Riverhead, and three children’s picture-books. Have I forgotten something? Then there’s the non-translating work, as my translating is only very part-time, and there’s so much else I want to do. Between translations and other things I’m about fifty books into my career, but I feel like I’m only just getting started myself…