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Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

2016/11/3 — 11:30

【Text by Daniel Hahn】

We look for what works as a piece of excellent English writing on its own terms

Acclaimed author, editor, and translator Daniel Hahn is back again with an insider’s perspective on all things related to translation. This week, he responds to a question from Belgian reader Karel Caals and reveals the inner workings of judging translation contests, grants, and prizes. 


Have you ever judged a translation for a contest or a grant? If so, what was the process like; what do you look for, especially, to separate the wheat from the chaff?

One day I’m going to write one of these columns that won’t just say, essentially, “it depends”.


But since you ask: It depends.

Yes, I’ve been on judging panels for translated fiction (such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for adult fiction, the Marsh Award for children’s); or for fiction in English for which translations are eligible alongside originally Anglophone work (the IMPAC Dublin Award for adults, the UKLA Book Awards for children); as well as grant-making committees for organisations like English PEN, which for some years has supported the translation of international literature and the promotion of translated work in the UK. And, yes, each is looking for something subtly or drastically different, and each has quite distinct criteria, and so it depends.

In most cases, the aim is to find a really good translation (I’ll pretend for a moment that we’d all agree what that is), though not infrequently the translations are judged in such a way that the act of translation per se, and the translator her/himself, aren’t mentioned in the evaluation process at all.

That’s because in almost all the examples I’ve mentioned above—and likewise for the Man Booker International Prize, which I’m judging at the moment—the assessment of the work is being carried out without reference to the original. We aren’t comparing the original and the translation and evaluating the process (the decisions, the ingenuities, the slips…) of going from the one to the other. For one thing, there’s no way we could do that, what with submissions translated from dozens of different languages; and for another, that’s simply not what the prize is seeking to reward. Just as most readers and most reviewers will approach a book translated into English without detailed knowledge of the source and will nonetheless be able to evaluate the finished English-language work on their own terms, so it is with these prize juries. We judges/assessors are reading literary works in English, and choosing the one we believe to be the best. Which of these English-language novels is the best English-language novel. The assumption we make—and I think it’s a safe one—is that a supremely good work in English translation will be evidence of writing and translating both of the highest of standard.

If something is below par, we don’t try impossibly to tease out whether it’s a great bit of translation let down by some poor bone structure underneath, or whether it’s a dead, tin-ear translation behind which we can almost glimpse traces of what was once probably an interesting novel. Either way: not good enough.

In 2010, the year I judged the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP), the winning book was John Cullen’s translation of Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel. Or the winning book was Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report, in John Cullen’s translation, depending on where you choose to put the emphasis. Either way, everything about the book was excellent, and this only happens with great original books rewritten into great translations. Clearly there were two remarkable talents to reward. For the IFFP, picking apart precisely who did which bits was irrelevant. (Likewise when my panel awarded the Marsh to Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of Bernardo Atxaga’s The Adventures of Shola.)

So it was with the IMPAC Dublin, for which we judges read 142 novels (that was a looong summer), of which about a third were translations and the rest English-language originals. At our judging meetings, we didn’t talk about the translations any differently from the rest—we discussed the English books (the books as English-language texts rather than their authors or their authors/translators), and when we wanted to commend a book that was a translation, we named the original-language-author and the translation-author as both deserving of the praise in combination. As it happens, our shortlist had seven English originals and three English translations, and so the shortlistees were Mahi Binebine, Alice McDermott, Geoffrey Strachan, Roxana Robinson, Sue Branford, Colum McCann, Richard Flanagan, Lulu Norman, Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie, Bernardo Kucinski, Andrei Makine, Hannah Kent and Jim Crace—thirteen names.

In the event, Crace took the crown for that one. If we had chosen one of the translated titles, the lucky translator would have walked away with 25,000 Euro. Each prize determines what proportion of the winning pot goes to the translator, and which to the author—an invidiously hard call to make about respective contributions to the English book, I think. The Man Booker splits the generous pot 50/50, just as the IFFP used to. The IMPAC, 72/25. The Marsh Award, though similarly judging the books without recourse to an original, nonetheless styles itself as more of a translation prize and only the translator gets a cheque. This latter case is an interesting one, not least because it aims to draw attention to translations in a part of the market where historically they haven’t been eligible for the main, “proper” prizes, which is changing now, with the Carnegie Medal, the UK’s most prestigious prize for writing a children’s book, last year opening up eligibility to include translations for the first time. (When I first discussed this prospective change last year with the prize’s steering group, and also when I met this year’s judging panel, they asked me how they were expected to judge the translations. I said they weren’t. I said they were judging English books, just simply not caring how the book got there.)

Incidentally, another one of the reader questions submitted for this column asked why—in relation to the two parallel Man Booker prizes, for example—do any prizes need to separate translations from non-translations at all. I wrote about this for the Guardian last year when the new international Booker was announced—my piece is here if you’re interested in reading more—but to summarise it, broadly I agree with the implication behind the question: while we may not be ready for it yet (we still benefit from a prize that focuses attention particularly on translated work, which still needs all the extra visibility it can get), in time I do hope that we’ll be able to normalise things to such a degree that we won’t need to make the distinction.

In a very small number of cases, I’ve been involved with prizes that examine translation as a distinct process—rather than just English-language texts authored by translators after other people—which has its own challenges. There are many prizes, such as the raft of translation awards administered by the Society of Authors, that are language-specific, and so it’s possible for a judge to make decisions based on different intelligence—not just whether this translation is a good English book, but whether it reflects as perfectly as possible the original (as I interpret it myself?).

The Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize rotates through a different language each year, and participants are all required to translate the same text—providing sometimes hundreds of versions of the same story for the assessors to wade through. I’ve judged a similar contest for translations from the Turkish, again with hundreds of rival versions of the same two or three pieces. (These judging processes are, as you can imagine, rather less fun than when you’re just reading lots of different novels one after another). To use the terms in your question, there was an awful lot of chaff in that one—but even here, as a non-Turkish speaker, my job was to weed things out based on the aptitude/ineptitude of the English the translator had produced, not by drawing on my non-existent Turkish. (Though after a couple of hundred similar-ish versions, you get a pretty good sense of what the original is/isn’t doing.)

So, generally speaking? We look for what works as a piece of excellent English writing on its own terms and don’t second-guess in detail which bits are the translator’s personal strengths and weaknesses, and which the author’s, any more than we can tell what contributions were made by, say, any of the editors who improved the book to a greater or lesser degree along its journey to English publication.

But it depends.

For more insights from Daniel, check out this compilation of our favorite bits of translation wisdom from his past columns. Send us any questions you have for Daniel about language, translation, or the ‘curious composite’ of world literature to [email protected]!

(Original article posted in Asymptote)