Sold-out duels, ninjas versus saints, and the invisible translator made visible… Daniel Hahn reports from Edinburgh International Book Festival for PEN Atlas

Edinburgh is one of the great international book festivals. There are plenty of terrific book festivals out there, but to my mind it’s the strength of the international literary coverage in particular that makes Edinburgh special. With writers this year from more than forty countries, I don’t know a literary event programmed with an eye to wider horizons. What this means, of course, is that it’s a celebration of – and an examination of – writers who produce their work in many languages, writers whose extraordinary work has come to UK readers through the skill of English-language literary translators.

This year, alongside the writers, the festival has included a strand of events putting the translators and their craft centre-stage. This series, programmed with the British Centre for Literary Translation and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, isn’t just about shoving the translator onto a stage to sit next to their writer, a well-meant gesture but which is mostly about helping the original writer get by in English; rather it’s made up of events about literary translation. Typically, of course, a translator expects to be invisible (that is apparently the most desirable state of affairs) – certainly nobody’s heard of us in the way they might have heard of our authors; and English-speaking audiences, we’re always told, aren’t on the whole interested in, or perhaps just aren’t comfortable with, discussions of the subject. So if we were to programme a series of events about translation, featuring in most cases a line-up of translators nobody’s ever heard of, would anyone show up to hear what we had to say? We put it to the test.

Following a lively talk by David Bellos presenting his book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear, my own first event in the strand was chairing a discussion on translation between Nathan Englander and Etgar Keret. These two brilliant story-writers are good friends and serve as translators of one another’s work, and they promised many insights to share on the subject. We had more than fifty people show up, but that, I thought, was probably an anomaly; both Keret and Englander are big names to a book-festival crowd, capable of attracting audiences in decent numbers. It was them, not the subject, that accounted for those tickets being sold, perhaps.

Translators, we were told in that event, were surely “saints”; but also, to Keret’s mind, “ninjas”. “As soon as you see them,” he explained, “they stop being any good.” A couple of days later, however, the translators were altogether visible – front, centre and under some very hot, very bright spotlights. And they were, it turned out, very good indeed.

Both Monday and Tuesday night’s evening programmes at the festival included “translation duels”, in which a text is given in advance to two translators for each to produce their own English versions; at the event we present the two versions to an audience and discuss the discrepancies and what they tell us. We look at the ways each translator has interpreted the original differently, and how each has expressed what they want to express differently. It helps people who might not have given the subject much thought before to understand translation as both an interpretative undertaking and a creative undertaking, rather than a purely mechanical one.

The first duel featured a text from Spanish, by Basque novelist Bernardo Atxaga (who also participated in the discussion), in versions presented by translators Rosalind Harvey and Frank Wynne. We discussed mostly pronouns, commas, Don Quixote, and the difference between a stream and a brook, and between “It held its head up” and “It carried its head high.” A little recondite? A tad esoteric? Just a touch nerdy? Yep, absolutely. Shamelessly, gleefully so. The following night, Frank returned for the second duel, this time from French (with a text by Laurent Binet), matched tonight with Adriana Hunter. This discussion was about sea lions, about the air force (or the airforce), research, italics, whether that second ‘to’ was really necessary, whether ‘gutbucket’ is appropriate in the context or possibly a hint too strong, and writing in the historical present.

Frank, Rosalind and Adriana won’t mind my saying that none of them is what you might call famous. They are all, like me, like almost every translator, entirely unknown to readers. We don’t kid ourselves – our names don’t sell tickets to festival events. And both events were held in a 190-seater venue. And both sold out. So – might someone out there be a little bit interested in this subject after all?

There was more to come; on Sunday, Ros Schwartz ran a public all-day translation workshop at the festival. On Monday Sarah Ardizzone and I took the stage for a wide-ranging, general discussion about literary translation (also sold-out). And then, of course, there were all those writers from those forty-something countries. Because really, our job, after all, is to make them look good, and to make it possible for readers in the UK to gain access to them. Because, no, it’s not about us, deep down. Their books are the point. But access to those books requires a strange thing, the complex sleight of hand that is literary translation, and I can’t help but being pleased that, for a change, readers were queuing up to ask questions about that part of the process, too.

About the Author

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator, with some thirty books to his name. His translations (from Portuguese, Spanish and French) include novels from Europe, Africa and Latin America, and non-fiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé.

A past chair of the UK Translators Association, he is currently programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation.  He has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (with his translation of Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons) and a Blue Peter Book Award (for The Ultimate Book Guide, the first in his series of reading guides for children and teenagers), and judged a number of prizes including the IFFP and the Booktrust Teenage Prize.