Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Translating, with Hugh Hazelton

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Hugh Hazelton

Writer and Governor General's Literary Award-winning translator Hugh Hazelton's most recent project is the English translation of renowned Argentine-Canadian author Pablo Urbanyi's Silver (Cormorant Books). Described as a no-holds-barred critique of modern life, Silver is the second project of Urbanyi's which Hazelton has translated.

Hugh Hazelton talks to Open Book about the alchemy of translation, his advice for aspiring translators and iconic translations.

Open Book:

Tell us about your experience translating Pablo Urbanyi’s Silver.

Hugh Hazelton:

I’ve known Pablo for some twenty years, ever since I first began researching material for my book Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada, and have translated two of his novels. Pablo is an author of great experience, with nine novels and three books of short stories, most of them published in Buenos Aires, where he is well known. His mordant, acerbic style, often with long sentences that are interrupted in the middle with ironic reflections on what’s being said, appeals to me with its blend of philosophical humour, timely and highly original subject matter and elegant prose; his work is carefully crafted, with deep roots in the satirical tradition. Silver is an outstanding novel, both funny and profound, and I’d always wanted to translate it. Despite the book’s warm reception in Argentina — where Pablo received a front-page interview in the literary supplement of the newspaper La Nación and a number of very favourable reviews — Canadian audiences were unfamiliar with it, and I wanted to help bring it into the Canadian literary orbit. It’s also been translated into French and Hungarian.


What are some of the challenges unique to translating poetry?


One of my favourite fields of translation is contemporary poetry, usually with a fairly experimental or exploratory edge to it, though I also translate more traditional work. What I most enjoy about translating it is the effort involved in taking apart the linguistic puzzle of the poem, which is as fused and idiosyncratic as a painting, and reassembling it again so that it is understandable and moving in the target language. This involves replicating a range of poetic devices and intricacies, including extreme concision, ambiguity, the play of alliteration and assonance, hints of rhyme, neologisms, the interplay of registers, the conscious depoeticization of certain passages, fragmentation and at times elements of sound and concrete poetry. Moreover, the translator is always striving to bring the work as close as possible to the reader in the target language: this often involves searching for words of Anglo-Saxon origin that have more power and impact and avoiding the calques and false cognates that can be a minefield when translating from Latin-based languages. Negotiating these challenges is one of the most rewarding activities I know.


You are a poet as well as a translator; how does your own writing fit with your translation projects? Do the two conflict with or complement one another?


The two activities are deeply complementary. Literature has a long history of writers who translate and translators who write: for hundreds of years European writers also translated Latin and Greek classics. I have my own poetic style and themes, and sometimes translate my work into Spanish or French, especially for poetry readings. When translating another poet, the most important thing to me is to feel a strong affinity with the work I’m undertaking. It does not have to be in a style similar to mine, or have anything to do with the subject matter I prefer in my own work, but I do look for an innovative theme and way of expression that will take me into unknown directions. Occasionally I find that a writer may even influence my own style a bit, or at least drive it farther out into the unknown.

I like working with poets that are writing and discovering new directions right now, in the present, with whom I can discuss the text and translation. I’m very fond of the French Caribbean Neo-baroque style of Joël Des Rosiers and other Haitian-Canadian poets, as well as of the fierce experimentalism of the Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo, the delicacy of feeling of the Argentine-Canadian poet Nela Rio, the science-fiction futurism of certain Chilean poets, and the structural interplay and subtlety of Quebec poets such as Yannick Renaud and José Acquelin.

When I translate works of other poets I try to step into their content and style as completely as possible, to immerse myself in it. Of course it’s impossible not to leave your own mark on a translation, no matter how hard you try to remain neutral, but at least if I identify strongly with a work, my mark will hopefully coincide more closely with that of the author.


What do you enjoy most about the process of translation?


Translation is like hiking in the mountains: it’s fun, exhilarating and sometimes dangerous, but the challenge itself is part of the enjoyment. There is also a lot of intensive work involved and literally thousands of decisions to be made: in a sense, every word or phrase requires a multitude of choices. Beneath the necessary care, even meticulousness in proofing and re-proofing the final versions, constantly on the look-out for gaffes as well as for ways to improve the translation, there is a perpetual feeling that a translation is never really finished, that you could always have put something another way.

The most deeply enjoyable thing about translation, though, is undoubtedly feeling that you yourself are expressing what another person has written, in all its complexity, letting yourself be to a certain extent inhabited by the other text or by the author’s imagination in order to bring the work into your own cultural sphere. The translator serves as a bridge that connect with other peoples and cultures, uniting them through shared experience.


What would you say to a reader reluctant to read in translation?


I would point out that probably a majority of the books that have most influenced his or her own cultural growth, as well as the development of civilization itself, are in fact translations.


You often work with Latin American authors living in Canada. What do you enjoy in particular about the works you translate? Do you find any common themes or techniques in Canadian-Latin American texts?


Working with and translating works by Latin American writers living in Canada allows me to blend my interest in Latin American and Canadian and Quebec literature, history and culture. I like to consider Canada as part of the Americas and compare it with other countries of the Western Hemisphere, all of which have common characteristics that are often quite different from those they share with Europe.

Moreover, every Hispanic-Canadian writer brings multiple personal and national interests to a text, while at the same time participating in the larger world of Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking literary traditions. This allows the reader to enjoy the particular combination or palimpsest of, say, a Salvadoran-Canadian author’s own development within Salvadoran literature, along with his or her place in Central American writing, the Latin American and Spanish traditions and the English-Canadian and/or Quebec literary worlds, all at the same time.

Latin Americans generally have a great interest in writing and artistic expression, enjoy poetry readings and literary get-togethers and take particular pleasure in interacting with Spanish- or Portuguese-speakers from other countries, as well as with Canadian authors and audiences, mixing together their different national and cultural identities — especially in Canada, where their numbers are far smaller than in the US. Although they do sometimes share common themes, their techniques and subject matter are basically as unique as the twenty or so countries and literary traditions they come from.


What advice do you have for aspiring translators?


I’d advise them to translate the books they feel most drawn to, works that they consider virtually part of themselves: that way the translation will rarely seem like work, but an exploration and a pleasure. Canadian translators are also lucky to live in a country that promotes and encourages translation and that is recognized as a pioneer in translation studies. It’s now ready to step beyond the traditional domestic axis of translation between English and French, toward developing a presence in international translation as well.


Is there such a thing as the perfect translation?


No, there isn’t. A translation is always an approximation, an asymptotic line that curves toward but never becomes the straight line it approaches. A given work can be translated by an endless number of translators, each of whom will render it in a different way. Great works of literature are often retranslated every two or three generations.

Some translations, however — such as the King James Bible and Thomas Shelton’s translation of Don Quixote, which came out only a few years after the publication of the original and has its same linguistic ebullience — capture the power of a text so well that they become classics on their own.

Hugh Hazelton grew up in Chicago and Connecticut, and moved to Montreal in 1969. He translates primarily from French, Spanish and Portuguese into English, specializing in the work of Latin American authors living in Canada, and won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation in 2006.

For more information about Silver please visit the Cormorant website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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