Translation Tips: Daniel Hahn

English PEN has gathered a collection of top translation tips from established and award-winning translators. Every fortnight we publish advice from a different translator who’s let us in on their advice on how to improve your translation skills. This week Daniel Hahn, a translator of French, Spanish and Portuguese, shares his advice


1.  Translation isn’t just about meaning, it’s also about effect. If the original joke is funny, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to make your readers laugh, too.

2.  Translation is always a competition between hanging on to an original and knowing when to let go. Letting go is always, always more fun. It’s also necessary if you’re going to learn to fly.

3.  Read aloud.

4.  Love whatever you’re translating. If you don’t, convince yourself you do. It helps.

5.  Never forget you’re a writer.

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator, with thirty-something books to his name. His translations from Portuguese, Spanish and French include fiction from Europe, Africa and the Americas, and non-fiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. A former chair of the Translators Association, he is now national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He is currently writing the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.

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5 Comments on “Translation Tips: Daniel Hahn”

  1. ‘morning Daniel,
    As a long-term professional French/Spanish/Portuguese/Italian/English translator/interpreter, myself, I’ve just listened attentively to your fascinating Radio 4 prog.-debate with Brigitte Kendall and learned others, and I’d enthusiastically echo your own wise tenets on apt ‘context’, etc.! However, equally, do you as said “literary translator” also liaise actively with the original author, on some ‘imposed’ occasions, regarding his/her originally ‘intended meaning’ …?! – as I’ve had a rather ‘telling’ (and amusing!) discussion with Louis de Bernieres on such aspect of the ‘intricacies’ of the ‘due process’ of translating ‘concepts’ which don’t ‘always’ prove ‘satisfactorily’ translatable (or ‘even’ as these may have been [mis-!]translated, in already published form!) from one language-domain ‘into’ another … n’est-ce pas?!!
    Amities, as a fellow such communicator, to the best of our ‘human’ abilities! Corinne – or I’d much appreciate your, pls., replying by e-means, as I find all ‘notes-comparing’, in our professional domain, properly constructive!
    (‘Sorry’, in some sense!? – as I think that I may have sent you the essentials of this msg. ‘twice’, as it appeared that I was called upon to ‘modify’ the original content – I think I may have deduced ‘correctly’, possibly ‘owing to’ my having originally ‘mis’-included my a-address …?!)

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