Translator Daniel Hahn has started a very interesting blog:

Translation – like most kinds of writing, like most kinds of artistic creation – tends not to expose itself to an audience till it has reached its finished form. A reader is encouraged to read a finished book – which may be a third, fifth, or fiftieth draft, which has been worked and re-worked, corrected, questioned, edited, polished and proofed – and to disregard the imperfect stages that have preceded this final one. You are requested kindly to keep well away from the rehearsal room until the performers and production team have their show ready for public viewing, if you please.

In this blog I hope to examine the translation process, working through a novel from my own first launching into a first draft, right up to publication. It’s not a blog about the life of a translator – musings about translation generally, reports of events I’ve attended or readings I’ve given, people I’ve met at launch parties, books I’ve read – but intimately about a single piece of translation work, which I hope will bring you closer to the experience, to the pleasures it brings and the questions it raises.

He’s translating Estação das Chuvas by José Eduardo Agualusa, “a wonderful Angolan novelist I’ve been privileged to work with a few times before.” There are three posts up so far, with lots of thought-provoking stuff, like this from the latest:

I mentioned in my last post too the issue of local specific words/things that my readers won’t know, and I gave the example of quicombo – this exotic something that in that first extract was perfuming the air in Lídia’s room as the novel opens.

The alternatives would be to find a closeish translation (it’s a kind of wood, so a reasonable alternative – a scented wood – sandalwood? rosewood? It’s neither of these, quite…); to retain quicombo in the Portuguese and maybe italicise it so it’s obviously foreign and assume it doesn’t much matter if no one knows (my usual inclination); or to footnote it – “A wood with which beds used to be made because it was believed that its intense scent repelled insects.”

That last solution seems the least appealing – a very distracting thing to a reader. But… rather curiously, there’s a footnote, with just that text, in the original edition too. This makes things more complicated…

I, of course, like footnotes, but I’m hardly the average reader.


  1. I’m missing something: how does that make things more complicated? If quicombo is not something that the average Angolan reader can be expected to know about without a footnote it seems like a dead obvious call to put the footnote in the English. Is the complexity that a reader who sees the footnote will assume it was put there by the translator and is not part of the original text? I can sort of see this but not how it would make a difference.

  2. Oh I see — now I am reading Hahn’s post and getting a vital bit of context.

  3. I’m looking at a couple of books I got in used book stores in Minneapolis that survived various upheavals, including moving to the middle east and back, and one thing they have in common is tons of footnotes. It’s easy enough to skip a half a page of footnotes if you don’t want to read them, but pretty hard to read them if they aren’t included.
    One is a translation of Skaldic poetry; the translator discusses his philosophy in detail.
    ~audience: both general readers and those who don’t have time to study the Old Norse in the original.
    ~annotations pages not overloaded but enough information for understanding.
    ~background and setting of poems-Skaldic verse is not its own explanation
    ~the syllable count of the original cannot be retained without sacrificing clarity, feminine endings are retained, also the alliteration, the three-beat effect, but not the internal rime.(more reasons follow).
    The other translator (of the Edda) discusses at length the various manuscripts available and says explanations of the differences between the texts is important at the risk of overloading the text with notes (with opinions about the reliability various interpretations). He also goes on at length about verse forms and his reason for retaining the elements of the original language that he did. Several examples comparing Norse and English are included to illustrate the point. For someone with no knowledge of the language I find it fascinating to see what someone with great familiarity with the language finds important about it.
    The example of the foonote above
    “A wood with which beds used to be made because it was believed that its intense scent repelled insects.”
    is much too long, though, and would slow down reading. Much better would be something like “an aromatic wood used to repel insects” that you could skim in one eye movement without breaking step in the main text.

  4. I, of course, like footnotes, but I’m hardly the average reader.
    We need a concerted effort to promote the use of footnotes in general. This is even more pressing than my proposed universal adoption of Hungarian ugye (as a marker for n’est-ce pas questions in those languages that lack one, like English).
    It is absurd that publishers’ faddish preference for neat, airhead-friendly pages should trump other considerations. What a disservice they do their most avid readers! It amazes me that word has not reached them yet: we loathe having to thumb our way back and forth between main text and a wildly luxuriant and unruly bank of ill-labelled endnotes. In the worst case, the pilgrim will spot the glint of a hidden gem in endnotes, and then spend ten exasperated minutes tracking down the text to which it refers.
    It is a stand-out stupidity of our time. Just as the task of setting footnoted text satisfactorily became trivially easy, we lost all sense of how welcome and useful this arrangement is, for serious scholarship and indeed for any sort of deep reading.
    The publishing industry has much to answer for; and we should bring them to account. The “average reader” (assuming for the moment that we are not that chimaerical being ourselves!) will be either with us entirely, or oblivious to whether or not the cost-free enhancement that we long for is applied. Even if this is not so, for whom are responsible publishers publishing, anyway?

  5. Crown, A.J.P. says

    I’m with Noetica — who could also use an occasional footnote, ikkje sant?*
    *nynorsk, ugye? oder?

  6. Crown, A.J.P. says

    He should really have comments. A blog without comments is like bread without jam, like John Emerson without Paul Goldberger.

  7. Re footnotes: There’s a strong belief in (many schools of) translation theory that the perfect (and unattainable) translation causes the target-language reader to have the same reactions as the source-language reader. A book with copious footnotes is a different reading experience than one without them. Thus, many translators severely dislike footnotes (I am one of them) – not footnotes in general, footnotes for explaining things in a translated text. I prefer embedding my explanations in the text:
    the room was scented with quicombo, that distinctive pleasant wood that repelled insects,
    (or something like that) is an option. There are many others, from just leaving the original word to something like this
    the furniture was made of a wood whose scent, though it was pleasing, repelled insects

  8. OK, Ridger. I was against footnotes as opposed to endnotes, myself. It doesn’t take much to divert me to that topic.
    Whether to make separate notes at all, as opposed to keeping everything in one continuous flow of text, is another question, but one that connects with the question I addressed. How copiously to annotate literary translations, if at all, is also distinct from those questions. But connected!

  9. footnotes ftw.
    i absolutely hate having to turn all the way to the back of the book to find out what that tiny little number is hinting at. i just never end up reading them, whereas the footnotes all get read and it never throws me out of the context.

  10. J. Del Col says

    I had a history professor who occasionally based exam questions on footnotes in the texts. If you wanted to do well, you read the footnotes.
    I’m reading a new volume of Darwin’s letters about the Beagle voyage, and I am very glad to have footnotes for some of the people and things mentioned by Darwin and his correspondents.

  11. Hahn speculates the footnote may have been added for the Brazilian edition rather than in the Angolan original. I’ve never seen such a thing in anglophone novels: you can change “colour” to “color”, or even “philosopher” to “sorcerer”, but you don’t explain what a “maiden over” is, innit?

  12. John Emerson says

    Chinese readers normally read Chinese poetry in footnoted editions. Traditionally the footnotes were half the size of the main text and would be line by line. Often a poem hinges on the citation or echo of a line from an earlier poem, or on an obscure historical reference (which ceases to be obscure if the poem becomes famous.)
    Many poems (e.g. by Ruan Ji) are unreadable now because the keys have been lost. Some poems were deliberately obscure to hide subversive intent. Quite early even unsubversive writing came to be written in a kind of erudite referential code, rather like Alexandrian poetry, and it’s almost impossible for anyone today to read. A friend of mine has the correspondence of her Chinese grandfather with famous scholars of ca. 1900-1920, and she’s found that reading them now would be a PhD-dissertation level specialist task.
    Some of the inspiration of Pound, Eliot, Joyce et al came from this Chinese model. It didn’t work, in my opinion, because 1.) the common culture had ceased to exist and 2.) the few people able to appreciate erudite poetry were obscure, powerless literati, whereas the Chinese literati were the ruling class. Contemporary erudition seems like a stunt or a form of pedantry, whereas Chinese erudition was the the normal expression of a whole class and could be playful or jocular. (“New Account of Tales of the World”, tr. Mather, is an amazing scholarly feat which translates a lot of erudite jokes from a period when the literati were very playful indeed.)

  13. Crown, A.J.P. says

    I wonder if it’s been translated into French. It sounds like something for Siganus.

  14. Endnotes! How I hate endnotes. And at the end of every chapter? You might as well just leave them out. Put a bibliography at the back of the book if you must, but anything that explains the text must be on the same page.
    Years ago it was so hard to set up even one footnote by typewriter, moving the platen by half a line to get the number above the line of explanation. But now the computer programs do all of that for you so there is no excuse for putting them at the end.
    As far as incorporating the footnotes into the text, how does that make the translation accurate? If you do that, then you’re not making a translation any more, you’re rewriting the work to include the way you interacted with it. I would much prefer to read a straight translation. Even in translation a lot of implied stuff comes through and you see the personality and viewpoint of the writer in spite of the language barrier. The translator may have an interesting personality too, but I would prefer one with a strong enough ego to keep their own viewpoint in the introduction and foot notes and let the original writer come through in the body of the work.

  15. There are footnotes and there are footnotes. On 17 October, China’s Global Times (环球时报) ran a piece about the Wall Street Journal article on “America Will Remain the Superpower” (14 October). (The Global Times is a roundup of world issues as seen through the foreign press, although it tends to have a strong fixation on Taiwan).
    The WSJ article contained the following memorable sentence: “When the tide laps at Gulliver’s waistline, it usually means the Lilliputians are already 10 feet under.”
    This was translated as “当潮水拍击格列佛的腰部时,通常意味着小人国的居民们已经遭遇灭顶之灾了。” (Dāng cháoshuǐ pāijī Gélièfó de yāobù shí, tōngcháng yìwèi-zhe xiǎorénguó de jūmín-men yǐjīng zāoyù miè-dǐng-zhī-zāi le).
    While Chinese literati in the early 20th century may have used “a kind of erudite referential code”, the relative familiarity of Gulliver’s Travels to many Chinese under the name《格列佛游记》does not appear to be enough for the 21st-century editor of the Global Times. He dutifully adds an inline note to explain what 格列佛 Gélièfó is: 西方一本小说中的主人公,经历过怪诞旅行 (Xīfāng de yī xiǎoshuō de zhǔréngōng, jīnglì-guo guàidàn lǚxíng). That is: “The protagonist of a Western novel who experienced fantastic travels”. The note is described as an editor’s note (编者注).
    Footnotes can be equally revealing of the culture that is being footnoted and the culture doing the footnoting. The broadbrush description of “Gulliver’s Travels” as a Western (西方), not British, novel is interesting in view of the theme of the article. The idea that general Western dominance is in decline, presumably to be replaced by a more natural and appropriate state of affairs, could not fail to tickle Chinese fancies.

  16. John Emerson says

    In Taiwan in 1983 the pop stations would footnote / paraphrase the lyrics of English-language songs. So programs playing songs which were often quite fluffy had a peculiarly earnest, pedantic air.

  17. marie-lucie says

    I am with Nijma on both counts.
    Adding an explanation to an exotic word makes it sound like it was in the original text, not added by the translator. Think of reading older literature, even as late as the nineteenth century: we don’t expect Dickens or Conan Doyle to define words such as “cab” or “hansom” – we of a later period look them up in a dictionary if we really want to know what they are. Any writers describing their own time period use words that are in normal usage in their time, adding explanations only if using words that they expect to be unfamiliar to their readers. Similarly the Angolan author using “quicombo” without explanation assumes that persons reading the original are also familiar with it. It would be different for a travel writer encountering both the word and the thing for the first time and adding explanations for the benefit of readers back home. In a translation I much prefer to read a footnote with a short explanation by the translator than an added description which sounds patronizing to the reader.

  18. marie-lucie says

    p.s. and if the footnote is by the author, of course it must be translated as it is, not incorporated back into the text.

  19. Crown, A.J.P. says

    Nijma: The translator may have an interesting personality too, but I would prefer one with a strong enough ego to keep their own viewpoint in the introduction
    ‘Tradition has reserved this space for the translator’s apology for his translation.’ Thus begins Ben Belitt’s Translator’s Preface to Juan De Mairena, by Antonio Machado, that John recommended the other day. Great book, great preface.

  20. I definitely see the objection to interpolating an explanation of quicombo into the text as if it were part of the original; and also I don’t really like footnotes being added when they are not part of the original. What about this idea? The translator writes a short essay with cultural and historical background details which are important to understanding the novel like a reader of the original novel would understand it; the essay is published as an afterword. Then the word quicombo (for instance) can stand by itself, italicized or un-; the reader can peruse the supplemental essay if s/he is confused. Sort of like a glossary but written out so as to engage the reader, rather than just a word list. I thik this would be the ideal mode of reading a translated work. (As an example, Maureen Freely includes such an afterword with her translation of Pamuk’s The Black Book, and it is useful.)

  21. marie-lucie says

    Jeremy, that sounds very good! But if there are only a few words or expressions which require explanations, footnotes are OK.

  22. John Emerson says

    Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy”, written in English on XIXc English models, includes a certain amount of exotic local-color subcontinental vocabulary. I’m sure he does it deliberately and consciously, for effect. Anyway, he got me to look up “verruca”, which turned out to be an English word unfamiliar to me. Probably an accident, but if not –well played, Vikram!

  23. An explanatory phrase within the text would give the impression that the author had a fascination with dendrology or carpentry at the expense of story-telling.
    A footnote would be the way to go.

  24. michael farris says

    I dislike footnotes in fiction, the wordier, more explanatory the worse.
    That said, I’m less likely to find them intrusive if it’s for a US edition of a anglophone novel (sort of like quicombo for a brazilian reader).
    But in translated fiction (or English fiction set in a non-English speaking environment) they rankle. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but it is for me.
    In this case, a lot depends on how important the reader recognizing quicombo is (which we can’t know without a lot more information). My inclination might be to translate ‘quicombo’ as ‘quicombo wood’. If the insect repellent qualities aren’t important in the novel then I’d just leave that out (or italicise it and hand a glossary of italicised words).
    Somewhere I have an interesting article by a colleague, a translator who specializes in drama (Hungarian to Polish) where the same sorts of problems come up. But in a staged performance footnotes are not an option (and program notes often aren’t either since a couple of her translations have been dramatised on tv).
    She discusses a lot of ways of handling individual cases. Sometimes context is enough, sometimes a single word added can help, sometimes more is called for.

  25. a certain amount of exotic local-color subcontinental vocabulary. I’m sure he does it deliberately and consciously, for effect
    Foreign words in the text do add to the effect, and they are also likely to be used quiet naturally by native English speakers who live there. For example, when Americans in Amman take public transportation they take either a bus, a serveece, or a regular taxi. The serveece is a taxi that holds maybe 6 people and goes on a fixed route as soon as it is full (or the passengers get tired of waiting and agree to split the cost of the missing fares). You can take a serveece to Aqaba, a three hour ride to the south coast, or to The Other Side, a 45-minute ride west to the border, and then another transaction for a ride to Jerusalem in whatever they call their serveeces over there. (Oh, it’s a sherut–so there’s more local color and a word that tells you which side of the border you’re on.)
    You would never say “serveece taxi”–it just doesn’t sound right. Many names of food and clothing items are borrowed from the local speech as well.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Up your count of endnote haters by one.

    格列佛 Gélièfó

    It is so cool that Gulliver is spelled with 佛 Buddha. 😀 😀 😀

  27. The last post was on 19 April 2009; you can see the whole run here.

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