wed 19/06/2024

Extract: Catching Fire by Daniel Hahn | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: Catching Fire by Daniel Hahn

Extract: Catching Fire by Daniel Hahn

Laying bare the translator's quandaries, including the problem of gendered language

Hahn: 'One more for the ever-growing list of things-to-figure-out-at-some-point' John Lawrence © 2015

Daniel Hahn began his translation of Jamás el fuego nunca, a novel by experimental Chilean artist Diamela Eltit, in January 2021. Considering the careful, difficult but not impossible “craft” of translation as he worked, Hahn kept a diary, describing the “discrete choices” made during the process of writing Never Did the Fire: an English version of Eltit’s original with Hahn’s “fingerprints” all over it.

A record in real time of the translator’s pleasures and pitfalls, the diary is the first in Charco’s Untranslated Series. In the extract below, Hahn discusses how gender is encoded differently by Romance languages and the challenge of representing this in English. 

Imagine a novel that began, in French, with the narrator writing the simple sentence “Je suis fatigué.” Or “Estoy cansado,” in Spanish.

If you happen not to know either of these languages, the totally straightforward translation would be “I’m tired.”

But there’s a problem. (Well, of course there is.)

Since every language works differently, every language encodes slightly different information into its words, beyond their simple meaning. In this case, the word “fatigué” (or “cansado”) tells you not only that the speaker is tired, but that the speaker is tired and male. Because adjectives agree with their nouns in all the languages I translate from, a first-person narrator often testifies to their gender over and over, in a way that's totally inconspicuous to the reader. My English opening line “I’m tired” does no such thing.

I’ve read so many English translations where a discrepancy has slipped in – where there is nothing in the translation to confirm how the narrator identifies their gender for many pages (or chapters), but where I know the original reader could have been left in no doubt. As a reader of an English novel that begins “I’m really tired today,” you either unconsciously make an assumption about who’s talking to you, or you consciously take a guess – and you might discover 25 pages later that you’ve been reading it all wrong. That’s not to say that the doubt can’t be effective in some ways, but it’s certainly not what this particular book intended.

(Of course, the converse is also true. I know two very good English-language novels published last year, both written in the first person, in which the respective narrators choose not to identify their gender, and it would be all but impossible to translate that effect into, for instance, a Romance language, in which every adjective betrays more information than in English; or into Russian, say, where verbs in the past tense reveal their subject’s genders, too.) Needless to say, I’ve come up against this problem in Diamela’s book countless times already.

Catching Fire by Daniel Hahn front coverWherever it’s an issue, I need to find some way of having my tired character say the equivalent of “I’m tired (and btw male).” That bit in parentheses doesn’t look like it’s in the two-word original, but of course it is – it’s just encoded in the word for “tired” rather than a separate unit. I’m adding words, but conveying precisely the same information.

Similarly, just as in English we can choose to differentiate between an “actress” and an “actor” if we need to, different languages have the option of gendering nouns like doctor, teacher, nurse, or – as you saw a couple of entries ago – assassin. You might assume the relevant character’s gender based on whatever prejudices you have, but – unlike in Spanish etc. – it’s not always 100% confirmed. If you come up with any clever solutions to this problem, please feel free to give me one. As the actress said to the bishop being one of those lines where you probably assumed on balance of probability that the bishop was a man, but she needn’t be.

A few problems of this kind that I’ve come across recently:

“The doctor sighed and stood up.”
“I’ve always been a big fan of black and white movies…”
“People tell me I’m pretty funny, actually.”

What I did about them:  

“The doctor sighed and got to her feet.”
“Ever since I was a boy, I’ve always liked black and white movies.”
“People tell me I’m a pretty funny guy, actually.”

If you’d read my translations containing those last three lines, I doubt you’d have noticed I had smuggled in that extra information (unlike if I’d said “The doctor, who in this instance was a woman, sighed and stood up”), so the significant information is conveyed to you just as inconspicuously as it is in the original.

I’ve just raced through a new chapter of Diamela’s book whose very first sentence has the narrator describing themselves as feeling contaminada – that is to say, polluted + female. I hope that by this point in the book it will have become clear to my readers that there is one consistent narrator, so I can ignore the problem here so long as I’ve established that she is a woman before now. And indeed, the Spanish reader would have been in no doubt from the very first page.

Look again at those opening lines, from the draft I shared with you a few days ago:

We are lying in bed, surrendered* to the legitimacy of a rest that we deserve. We are, yes, lying in the night, sharing. I feel your body folded up against my folded* back. Perfect together. A curve is the shape that holds us best because we are able to harmonize and unmake our differences. My stature and yours, the weight, the arrangement of bones, of mouths. The pillow supports our heads in balance, separates our breathings. I cough. I lift my head from the pillow and lean my elbow on the bed so as to cough in peace*.

That first asterisk relates to the Spanish word entregados, which tells you that, of the people who have surrendered, at least one of them is male. (I’ll come back to this in a sec.) The third asterisk tells you that the person who is trying to cough in peace – tranquila – is a woman. As the translation stands, you might make a guess to that effect, but there’s some information that was in the Spanish that’s still missing here.

(Obviously I’m using gendered language as an example here, but all translation involves figuring out what is being conveyed within words – beyond only meanings – and then mapping it onto another language that might be more or less resistant.)

To understand what’s happening in that first asterisk, you just need to know that Spanish uses the masculine as the default (this is quite common in languages, or indeed not in languages) – so as long as there’s just one male, it trumps any number of females. In other words:

Cansado – singular, male;
Cansada – singular, female;
Cansados – plural, male; or a mixed group even if it’s 99 women and one man;
Cansadas – plural, female.

(Similarly you have a sister – una hermana; or a brother – un hermano. But if you have 99 sisters and one brother, your siblings are still your hermanos.)

Hence that first adjective (entregados) tells us that the people who’ve surrendered are plural (it becomes clear in the next line that there are specifically two of them, not more), and that at least one of them is male. Half a dozen lines later, the narrator identifies herself as female (tranquila). Less than a hundred words into the book, any possible doubt or ambiguity about the gender of the two lead characters has been resolved.

So, yes, at present the English is lacking some vital certainty. One more for the ever-growing list of things-to-figure-out-at-some-point.

Oh – just one last pleasing little thing. Have a look at that sentence with the second asterisk:

I feel your body folded up against my folded back.

In the Spanish, the first “folded” is doblado, the second is doblada. The slight difference is because one is describing a body (cuerpo, a masculine noun), and the second a back (espalda, a feminine noun). Neither adjective, strictly speaking, is describing the person – that’s not why they’re gendered as they are – but it does at least give a nice little suggestion of who is who. We meet the man with his doblado body, the woman with her doblada back. It’s a nifty little trick, I think.

(So long as you’re not trying to translate it, of course, in which case it’s still brilliant but also simultaneously a bit of a nightmare. Good writers can be really annoying like that.)

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