Watch Daniel Hahn’s Ottaway Award acceptance speech and read the transcript below. Esther Allen’s laudation of Hahn is also available on WWB.
Well, on behalf of all my siblings . . . That was fun, wasn’t it? Thank you, Esther. I feel like those seven minutes are going to keep my ego very well fed for quite a long time.
(I also can’t believe at this point that I said to my parents, “Nah, you don’t need to bother watching, it’s fine.” I think my parents might have enjoyed that. They would’ve liked you.)
The person—or indeed people—Esther has been describing, they sound great, don’t they? But I’m slightly alarmed by that introduction for a number of reasons. One of those reasons, of course, is that there are so many other people who could be receiving this amazing award. And Esther herself is obviously one of them. I have checked, and my name is already kind of engraved on this thing, otherwise I could at this point stage a little coup and give a counter-encomium. (I’ve been calling it a eulogy all day—it’s not a eulogy, it’s an encomium. I have to get that right.)
Esther and I met at the Sound of Music thing, which you may not hear anything about this evening, in 2009, and even at that time, because she started in this business a while before me, she was already an example to me and to many of us of how translators might make their lives a dynamic and engaged thing, how we might ask questions about our situation, how we might be active and activist, thinking broadly about what the translator can be.
It’s very strange hearing my work described as Esther did, and it feels slightly dissociated somehow from me for a number of reasons—though I sound very coherent somehow! It didn’t feel coherent when I was doing any of that stuff but, yeah, it’s very tidy. (She’s writing a biography. Obviously, you can tell she’s got that brain on.)
There’s that Wisława Szymborska poem some of you will know called “Writing a Resume” in which she sort of plays with the things that you do and don’t include when you’re doing that sort of official accounting of your life. You know, the achievements without the failures and the concrete things without all the sort of all-pervading blurriness which is mostly our experience of life, I think.
However thoughtful and generous Esther’s words were, I think there’s one important thing which is downplayed, and I will come back to that.
I was thinking this morning (in a slightly sleep-deprived and jet-lagged way, so this may be a bit of a struggle, but we’ll be all right . . .) about the things I might talk about this evening. And I was at a loss. Partly because, first of all, it’s one of the other quints who normally does these things. But also because when I speak in public, which I do quite a lot, I usually make it an excuse, almost regardless of the context, to proselytize, to advertise, to talk about the importance of translation and internationalism and cultural pluralism and cultural influence and speaking across borders. I do that quite a lot. And I feel slightly, looking at the people who are in this room and being aware of some of the people who are watching online, that this is maybe not a company that needs to be persuaded. It’s very nice to see you all.
You will have heard already that Words Without Borders turns twenty this summer, which means that I have never worked in this business without its presence. As for so many translators, it’s been my most constant online home. And like the thousands of writers it’s published, and the countless readers who have met those writers on their site, I’m hugely grateful to it for the visionary idea that it was twenty-something years ago, but also for the extraordinary ways in which it has evolved over that time, and the thing that has become.
My own working trajectory can sort of be mapped, I think, against my experiences with Words Without Borders. The next book I’m publishing, which is coming out with Archipelago next month (with Jill Schoolman, former winner of the Ottaway Award, I should say), and actually the last book I published with Erika [Goldman] at the end of last year, are both by writers who were published very early in our translations at Words Without Borders.
I do about a hundred public events a year, but the first one I ever did in this country (I think possibly still the only event I’ve ever done in New York) was programmed by Words Without Borders several years ago. And actually now, having translated close to a hundred books, it was after my second book only that I was first brought into the Words Without Borders fold. And I should say the second book is quite late for Words Without Borders, who have, I think, the best record of any major publication I know for giving people their first paid professional gig.
(The word “paid” is very important to that sentence, by the way. And they’re putting their rates up, which is amazing. This is very exciting—if you’d like to support them, and therefore us . . .)
Like I was saying, when I was first invited to collaborate with Words Without Borders—with a commission that happened in error, actually, though it turned out to be a very fortunate story which I will not tell you today . . . —it was with my second book, and I’d just at that time won the first prize I ever won in the translation world, a prize that sort of gave me my career in lots of ways. It was a very fortunate thing and I was very lucky, but there was only one downside to that experience: I was very new, I had never met another translator (it’s very hard to imagine being at that point in your career now), so I was this sort of rookie going to receive this award in a room full of absolute strangers, I didn’t know anybody there. It’s very different to my experience now, my experience today. And I say that because while I think it was that second book (and that writer, Agualusa, and that publisher, Arcadia) who kind of made me a translator, it was the community I became entangled with afterward that kept me here. Many of you, in fact, in this room, and some people I know who are watching now.
To some extent, what Esther said is technically true—some of the facts (that’s as far as I’m prepared to go). Some of those things that she said happened happened. I think the significance of my parts in it is sometimes overstated, and I also think that the uncommonness of it is possibly overstated. The great majority of translators I know, including, again, many in this room and many watching, all do things for, as it were, the greater good or the common cause. (We always sound slightly zealous when we use that kind of language, I know.) People with different means, different possibilities of time, or money, or energy, or attention, but those contributions, I think, are everywhere in the world in which we work. They’re not always ostentatious, but I see them, and one of the ways I know this is because almost everything that I have done has been in collaboration with, again, some of you in this very collegial endeavor in which I find myself. Me and my four fellow quints and also some other people.
We all know that translation is inevitably a collaborative practice: it’s writing, but it’s writing in company. And those engagements with the writers, but also with editors and publicists and critics, and many other people involved, all the way to our readers, are how I’ve learned the things I’ve learned. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always preached the virtues of co-translation. It’s also why I like working very closely with my authors (OK, except that one time . . .) and also why most of my favorite translators really love being edited (OK, also except . . .). But that also means that almost every part of my resume could—with apologies to Esther Allen and Wisława Szymborska—be described in a narrative that didn’t have me at the center of it.
I do often get to take quite a lot of credit, but every individual thing to which people put my name could be the story of, first of all, the giants whose shoulders we stand on, who are maybe campaigners who over many generations loosened the ketchup bottle, and we kind of came along and popped the top off. (I’m translating now, I’m in America and am now absolutely pandering to my audience. You know, ketchup and stuff . . .) It could also be the story of many friends who, like me, and alongside me, do all this work every day. When Kate Griffin and I were doing a job share at BCLT—Susan will remember this—we used to joke that the most efficient division of labor would be for Kate to do the actual work and for me to talk about it. (I think it was a joke . . .) In short, a lot of the work done by other people is hidden behind the work of the one middle-aged white guy Esther was saying nice things about.
She mentioned some of the names, but all the projects that she mentioned have other people involved in them one way or another. I was scribbling while Esther was talking that I should also mention Sarah and Cat and Jason and Arunava and Paula and Antonia and Shaun and many, many other names. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of people who started before me and from whom I have learned; and to work with those who are new to this business, and to learn from them also.
Last night a few of us had dinner at Esther’s and right beforehand she and I were talking about the scheme that she mentioned to bring in a new prize, which we hope will be announced later this year, which was a continuation of a conversation that began as another dinner at Susan Bernofsky’s earlier this year. Karen [Emmerich] and I are having lunch tomorrow, and there will probably be more scheming, I think—different, Greek scheming. I feel like it might seem that mostly I’m in this profession for the food and the scheming, and . . . that is true, actually. I don’t know whether everyone loves to talk about their work, but I’m someone who does.
(Rather to the misfortune of the Uber driver bringing me to Heathrow a couple of days ago. The poor guy was just trying to merge onto the M4 and there’s someone sitting behind him saying “But of course, what you have to understand is it’s not possible for a word in one language to map perfectly to words in another language.” If you’re watching—his name was Alan—if you’re watching, Alan . . . #sorrynotsorry)
It’s certainly the case that while I like translating, I often enjoy being a translator more. I know honestly that I’m better at being a translator sometimes than translating. I draw that distinction particularly when I’m talking to early-career translators about the job. Translating being that thing of remaking an old text anew and replacing these words with those words; being a translator is more about being a citizen in this community. It’s the advocacy and the peer development and the public programming and the demystifying and the budgeting and the proselytizing. It’s promoting and lobbying and fundraising and training new talent and scheming in people’s apartments over cups of coffee.
So like I said, yes, an inherently collegial profession, when it’s at its best; and ours is a profession that is serious, I think, mostly—when it is at its best—about solidarity. Not always, and that solidarity is not always as evenly distributed as it might be, but I think more often than not, and it’s getting quickly better. It’s a community—translators and all those who sail with them—that is evolving, an evolution that I think is nuanced and complex and that requires thoughtfulness, and intention.
(It’s also worth noting that, for translators, trying to do something that everyone else assumes is going to be really simple and is actually nuanced and complex, well, it’s what Tiggers do best, as they say. That’s a range of cultural references.)
And I am, in the light of that, that very proud of some of the things that we have done, some of the things that I have done.
There are others I’m less proud of, and I’m not going to dwell on them for very long, because I should be basking in the things Esther said about how very cool I am. But I should say that when I look back, the moments in my working life that give me pause are not to do with translating. They’re not thinking about a job that was maybe not well enough done, or an actual concrete mistake. Whatever. But I think it’s those cases where I think I wasn’t as good a citizen as I might have been to the community, the moments where I made an early working choice without real deliberateness behind it, the time I took a job without checking if somebody else maybe wanted to do it, or I took a little bit too long to realize what other people needed. Sometimes what they needed is for people like me to step out of their way.
I think when we’re at our best, those of us with privilege in this profession—and indeed those of us with privilege not in this profession—use that privilege to enable and mitigate some of those barriers to entry and to celebrate what we think should be celebrated, and to create and extend opportunities. That work also is a privilege, I think, in the way we used to use that word more often. It might be a duty, in a way, incumbent on those of us who can, but it also feels like something we’re very lucky to be able to do. To me, no other part of this job is as rewarding, which is why being recognized for that work particularly means a huge amount.
So thank you. On behalf of the five of us, who I know will be watching from home, thank you to the trustees who selected me from so many strong nominations.
(I know there are a lot of strong nominations because I’m constantly nominating people for this award. Not myself—that would be weird—but other people. I think possibly this is just a way of shutting me up. “Just give him the thing, for the love of God . . .”)
Thank you to Mr. Ottaway himself for presenting this and for letting his name grace this award.
Thank you to Words Without Borders for everything you have done for me, for us, for all of us.
Thank you to Esther, of course, for tonight, for the things that you said, for the things that you tactfully did not mention (we shared some heady days in Havana in the 1950s that we don’t want to talk about). Thank you for your leadership in our community and your friendship to so many of us. I think those two things are very intertwined, actually, in lots of ways.
These prizes always feel like the celebration of a community, not just the values of the community, but also us here, and our work.
So many in this business, several in this room and many I know watching back home, have done a lot of work that is concealed behind mine, and tonight is concealed behind me. Which is not to say that I’m not great. Because, I mean, obviously I am. But so are you.
Thank you all very much.
© 2023 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2023 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.