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August 17, 2011

Lily Ye: How did you come to start translating Tavares? Were you familiar with him before you began translating this book, and if so, what in particular stood out to you about him and his works?

Daniel Hahn: Yes, I’d read him before. I read Jerusalem in Portuguese quite some time back and tried unsuccessfully to persuade publishers in the UK to take it on, then read and reviewed the English translation when Dalkey eventually published it; I also knew some of his playful little ‘Senhores’ books, but hadn’t read Aprender a rezar Learning to Pray. . . before I was invited to undertake the translation. It’s entirely different to the Senhores (which are delightful little collections of mini-stories and reflections, each whimsical little volume inspired by and named after a much-admired writer—Senhor Brecht, Senhor Calvino, Senhor Valéry, etc.). He really is a writer with several quite different careers running parallel. Aprender a rezar. . . meanwhile is more in the vein of Jerusalem and the others in that series (‘The Kingdom’), really powerful, unsettling, muscular stuff—smart, thought-provoking, harrowing, surprising.

LY: Did you work closely with Tavares in translating this work, and if so, how was that process?

DH: Even though we’d been in e-mail contact I didn’t bother him while working on my first draft, but I did send it to him for a look when it was done; and when I was down to a couple of dozen intractable queries he and I sat down in a café in Lisbon and he let me throw them at him. Nice way to work.

LY: In Learning to Pray, the tone of the book seemed to me to be very severe, perhaps in reflection of the personality of the protagonist, Lenz Buchmann. Would you agree with this assessment, both in your translation and in the original, and how did it affect the process of translation? That is, how did you find translating this particular style of writing?

DH: Yes, it’s severe—it’s very chilly and cynical, and generally I think a pretty bleak place to be. There’s one sense in which this made it a difficult translation job (though not in the sense meant by your question, I think)—when you translate a book you live in it much more intensely, and naturally for a much longer period, than if you’re simply strolling through it once as a reader, and when a book is sown through with views as toxic as those found here, it doesn’t make it an altogether pleasant place to be living. That said, he’s a brilliant writer, and translating brilliant writing is always more enjoyable than translating mediocre writing, unsurprisingly.

Your question I guess is more to do with style, though, and that was certainly difficult to get right. It’s one of the hardest books I’ve worked on in terms of making sense of the structure of complicated sentences, sometimes very imprecise and sometimes very sharp-focus; this also meant that it benefited from a pretty significant edit once I was done, from a rigorous editor who approached it simply as an English-language reader—the result, I think, might be pulling away from my draft and producing something a little smoother for English-language readers.

LY: Given the somewhat clinical tone of the book, why do you think this book was written in third person and not in first person, even given the deterioration of Buchmann towards the end?

DH: I suspect the answer is in the question—the deliberate coolness of the tone is allowed in part precisely by the fact that it’s third-person; Buchmann isn’t a character to whom we feel warmth, and if we understand him it’s a clinical understanding rather than a sympathetic understanding—our narrator helps to unpick him for us, and extrapolate from his actions, but we never get inside.

LY: This book is made up of many very short chapters each with its own heading, sometimes with groups under a large subheading, and all of that under a larger structure of three parts. In a way, it reminds me of a textbook in its organization. How, if at all, do you think this affects the process of reading this book?

DH: It’s destabilizing, in a way, that you don’t get to settle for too long (just as you aren’t allowed too much into any character’s head), and allows the author to switch perspective—and means the plot events can happen pretty abruptly—never giving you much chance to relax into it.

LY: Why do you think the book is titled Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique?

DH: That’s a question for Gonçalo, really. The English title is pretty close to the original, though we did have a lot of trouble with making the ‘Age of Technique’ part of it work in English. (I still have some doubts.) The contradiction in the title reflects an apparent tension in the book between the motivating forces for utterly cynical Buchmann and those for everyone around him, but also suggests a transition we might expect to happen over the course of the novel, as the rational Buchmann finds himself forced to handle the sudden threat of imminent mortality, though in fact he doesn’t change in quite the way we might anticipate… But that ambiguity and obliqueness is all there in the original, so, as I say, this is one for Gonçalo, I think. (That’s a useful translator’s prerogative, I reckon—always glad to be able to deflect questions like this that I can’t answer. . . )

Daniel Hahn
interviewed by
Lily Ye

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