My book review of 'Catching Fire' by Daniel Hahn

by Daniel Hahn
Catching Fire
by Daniel Hahn

I enjoy reading books in translation and I have long been fascinated by the translator's task.

This book is an account by one translator approaching one particular piece of work. He has recorded the project as a diary, charting each step of the process, in order to give us an insight into the challenges he faces and the decisions he has to make.

Daniel Hahn is a respected author, translator and reviewer and I've heard him speak at various conferences over the years, so I was keen to read what he had to say, despite the unappealing cover and title of this book which I would have overlooked if it wasn't for a friend's recommendation.

Daniel has been given the task of translating the novel 'Never Did the Fire' by Chilean writer Diamela Eltit and he takes us through the early days of receiving the commission through to completion.  

He first translates quickly, leaving any difficult words or passages highlighted or with suggestions to come back to. By undertaking this first swift read through, he gets an idea, an impression of the book and the writer's style. He then goes back to the text to investigate it more carefully, and that is when the fun begins.

In other languages we are aware of a character's gender by the language used to describe them, but this doesn't work in English. And how do you distinguish between the French use of tu or vous? What do you do about puns or ambiguities in the original text when the same play on words doesn't work in another language?

Translation is much more than replacing one word with another and this book brilliantly balances some detailed, technical information with humour and more general, easy-to-understand examples and explanations. It's very good! And I am in such admiration of the translator!

Date of this review: April 2023
Book publication date: 5th April 2022