To present the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature to Daniel Hahn is a momentous and singular honor that I am very lucky to have been granted. Dozens of people would have given quite a bit for this opportunity, I know, and that—before we get into everything he’s done for literature, translation, and all the rest of it—brings us immediately to the first and most important thing there is to say about Danny: He is massively, immensely beloved.
Most of you who’ve come here to celebrate him probably already know that. But in case any of you are wondering why everyone loves Danny so much, I’d like to share a characteristic anecdote from Maureen Freely. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about it, just Danny being Danny, but still it explains a lot.
Amanda Hopkinson and Danny and I—writes Maureen—were all on the board of the [UK Society of Authors] Translators Association back in 2009/2010, along with Ros Schwartz and Alexandra Buchler. There was talk and talk and talk about our having a presence at the London Book Fair. But LBF just couldn’t see the point. Until, just a month or two before the fair, Danny went along in his usual quiet way to the Gulbenkian Foundation, the British Council, and various other bodies, secured the necessary funding, and put together a schedule for sixteen events. That was the year of the Icelandic volcano; many, if not most, of those planning to attend the fair could not make it. We were pretty much the only act in town and had 600 attendees at our events. I say “we,” but of course it was Danny quietly managing most of it.
All of us who know Danny have stories like this. He sees an opportunity, creates a network of support for it, and makes something transformative happen. And continue happening. If you’ve been going to the London Book Fair over the past decade, you know that each year translation has a larger and more prominent place in its programming.
That same year, 2010, Danny established the Emerging Translator Mentorship program in the UK; it has now mentored more than a hundred budding translators and inspired a similar program founded in the US five years later. With funds he received when he won the International Dublin Literary Prize, he founded the Translators Association First Translation Prize in 2017, and he’s now working with Susan Bernofsky, myself, and a few others at the American Literary Translators Association on founding one like it in the US. Next month, the South Asian Literature in Translation Project, which Danny and Jason Grunebaum spearheaded, will launch at the University of Chicago.
These achievements, however, represent only a tiny subset of Danny’s contributions. In fact, objectively, when you look at all that “Daniel Hahn” has done, only one hypothesis fits the facts. “Danny” is—must be—in fact, a set of identical quintuplets who have, in a complex, lifelong hoax, succeeded in passing themselves off as single person.
Let’s review the careers of these five wunderkinds.
First there’s Activist Danny. He not only launches impactful new initiatives like the ones I’ve just been telling you about but is also untiring in his service to existing organizations. He’s judged numerous major literary awards and is the former Chair of both the Society of Authors itself and its Translators Association. He’s also served on literally dozens of boards and advisory councils, including those of Modern Poetry in Translation, English PEN, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Human Rights Watch.
Second, of course, is Translator Danny. This highly accomplished Danny has translated close to a hundred books, mainly fiction, from French, Spanish, and Portuguese—books that have won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the International Dublin Literary Award, and have been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the LA Times Book Award. Quint #2 has also been program director of the British Centre for Literary Translation and teaches innumerable translation workshops each year with BCLT and other institutions.
Third (and these are not in order of importance) is Author and Public Intellectual Danny. This one has published dozens of articles and book reviews and seems to do about fifty or sixty public literary programs, podcasts, or radio shows each year, delivering lectures, participating in panels, interviewing other people, being interviewed himself. Author Danny has written a book on the six-hundred-year history of the menagerie at the Tower of London, as well as biographies of Coleridge and Shelley. His 2022 Catching Fire: A Translation Diary, which the New York Times described as “smart and neurotic and funny and clear,” is, to the eternal gratitude of all of us who teach, a wonderfully lucid hands-on account of the making of a literary translation. And the very good news about Quint #3 is that he’s currently at work on a forthcoming, hotly anticipated book titled If This Be Magic, about Shakespeare and the “unlikely art” of translation.
Fourth and fifth are Editor Danny and Children’s Book Danny. These two have somewhat intertwined careers, since many of the books Quint #4 has edited—including The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature and The Ultimate Book Guide, a series of catalogs of books for kids of various ages that has won the Blue Peter Award—involve children’s literature. But Editor Danny has also co-edited The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland. Meanwhile, Children’s Book Danny has served on the boards of a number of schools; chairs The Children’s Bookshow, an annual program of in-school workshops with authors and illustrators; and works with the UK Literacy Association book awards, a children’s book prize judged by teachers. You will not be surprised to learn that this Danny also advocates for the translation of children’s literature.
A recent Booker Prize study of the reception of translated literature in the UK had heartening news. Sales of translated fiction rose by 22% over the past year, and now account for 3.3% of the country’s overall fiction sales. The stats seem to foretell an even brighter future: 48% of translated fiction buyers are under the age of 34, making them significantly younger overall than readers of general fiction. Readers of translated fiction—or “Generation TF,” as the study calls them—also read more nonfiction, read more for information and knowledge, and are more likely to prefer reading books that challenge them.
What does that have to do with Daniel Hahn? We certainly don’t want to fall into some kind of Great Quintuplets theory of history here, and the Dannys themselves would probably be the first to object if we did.
Still, the actions of one person—or five—do make a difference. Work as committed, longstanding, wide-ranging, and unstinting as Danny Hahn’s has an effect, and I believe the Booker Prize survey offers some clues as to what its effect has been. For Danny, the greatest prize of all would be to know that the initiatives he’s founded and contributed to, the books and authors he’s championed, are catalyzing a shift in British literary culture, and, therefore, in the culture of the English-speaking world.
Our hosts tonight, Words Without Borders, have published a lot of work by Danny over the years (which I suggest all of you read) and have, of course, been an enormously influential player in that ongoing shift toward anglophone openness to the literary cultures of all languages. A couple of years ago, the late Queen Elizabeth II honored Daniel Hahn with the Order of the British Empire. It is gloriously fitting that this evening he receives, from his longtime partners, allies, and friends at Words Without Borders, the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature, given to people who strive to transcend the boundaries in which the old empires constricted us.
Copyright © 2023 by Esther Allen. All rights reserved.