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2016 Man Booker International Q&A: Daniel Hahn

By Eric M. B. Becker

Daniel Hahn is shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for his translation of José Eduardo Agualusa's A General Theory of Oblivion. His other translations include fiction by José Luís Peixoto, and nonfiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel literature laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. 

Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to José Eduardo Agualusa's work?​

Daniel Hahn (DH): When I was first asked to read one of Agualusa’s books for a publisher friend, I’d never heard of him. This was back in 2001 or thereabouts. I’d never translated a book—nor had any intention of doing so (ludicrous idea)—but this friend knew I read Portuguese and sent me Nação Crioula for a first opinion. I loved everything about it. The richness of stories in such a slim book, the way the importance of cultures (in the plural) and histories (in the plural) underpinned all the multiple characters’ experiences, and all of this in writing that was gorgeous but somehow also unaffected, irresistibly readable. Nação Crioula, I later learned, was quite different from much of his other work, but the things I loved about it—that generosity of storytelling, that prose—are consistent in everything he writes. To my surprise and delight, he was soon to become the first writer I would translate. I have him and that publisher friend to thank—or blame—for my being a translator at all.

WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you'd done?

DH: Though I’d translated four Agualusa books before, this was my first in a very long while—he was the victim of my first four translation jobs, and nothing since (with many other writers usurping my time in the interim), so one thing that made this book special for me wasn’t how different it felt, but how familiar. It had its challenges in a way that really good books always have their challenges, but this at least is a voice I knew/know well. And one that has always slipped into English with relative ease, I’ve always thought. (Though perhaps I shouldn’t admit that. Don’t tell anyone.)

WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?

DH: The last few years have been pretty good for contemporary Portuguese-language fiction writers coming into English, especially Brazilians; but there’s still a lot we’re missing. I’d quite like someone to ask me to translate the latest book by Julian Fuks—a brilliant writer, who’s only going to get better. I also have my eye on Ronaldo Correia de Brito, and José Luís Passos, and Ricardo Lísias, and . . . and . . . oh, many more. Currently none of them have book-length work in English, and they all should. (They’re among the many on my mental hit list for future translating.) Of course there are lots of other Brazilian writers I love but they’re already translated by friends of mine so I’m not allowed to try and steal them, though the temptation is strong.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Daniel Hahn's translation of José Eduardo Agualusa's "A Practical Guide to Levitation" (WWB's September 2007 Issue)

More interviews with 2016 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Published Apr 12, 2016   Copyright 2016 Eric M. B. Becker

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