Excerpt: The Burning of Daniel Hahn

A real-time record of the translator’s pleasures and pitfalls, the diary is the first in Charco’s untranslated series. In the excerpt below, Hahn discusses how gender is encoded differently by Romance languages ​​and the challenge of representing it in English.


Imagine a novel that begins, in French, with the narrator writing the simple sentence “I am tired”. Or “Estoy cansado”, in Spanish.

If you happen to not know any of these languages, the totally simple translation would be “I’m tired”.

But there is a problem. (Well, of course there are.)

Since each language works differently, each language encodes slightly different information into its words, beyond their simple meaning. In this case, the word “tired” (or “cansado”) not only tells you that the speaker is tired, but that the speaker is tired and masculine. Because adjectives agree with their nouns in all the languages ​​I translate, a first-person narrator often testifies to their gender repeatedly, in a way completely invisible to the reader. My opening line in English “I’m tired” does no such thing.

I have read so many English translations where a discrepancy has crept in – where there is nothing in the translation to confirm how the narrator identifies his gender for many pages (or chapters), but where I know the original drive could have been left in probably. As the reader of an English novel that begins with “I’m really tired today”, you either unconsciously make an assumption about who’s talking to you, or you consciously make an assumption – and maybe 25 pages later you’ll discover that you read everything is wrong. That’s not to say doubt can’t be effective in some ways, but that’s certainly not the intent of this particular book.

(Of course, the reverse is also true. I know of two very good English-language novels published in the last year, both written in the first person, in which the respective narrators choose not to identify their gender, and it would be practically impossible to translate this effect, for example, in a Romance language, in which each adjective betrays more information than in English; or in Russian, for example, where verbs in the past tense also reveal the sex of their subject.) Unnecessary to say that I have encountered this problem in Diamela’s book countless times already.

Wherever that’s a problem, I have to find a way to make my tired character say the equivalent of “I’m tired (and a man for that matter).” This bit in parentheses doesn’t appear to be in the two-word original, but of course it is – it’s just encoded in the word “tired” rather than a separate unit. I add words, but convey exactly the same information.

Similarly, just as in English we can choose to differentiate between an “actress” and an “actor” if we need to, different languages ​​have the option of substituting gender for nouns such as doctor, teacher, nurse or – as you saw a few entries ago – assassin. You can assume the gender of the relevant character based on your biases, but – unlike Spanish etc. – it is not always 100% confirmed. If you find any clever solutions to this problem, please let me know. As the actress said to the bishop being one of those lines where you probably assumed on a balance of probabilities that the bishop was male, but she doesn’t need to be .

A few such issues I’ve encountered recently:

“The doctor sighed and stood up.”
“I’ve always been a big fan of black and white movies…”
“People tell me I’m pretty funny, actually.”

What I did with them:

“The doctor sighed and stood up.”
“Since I was little, I have always loved black and white films.”
“People tell me I’m a pretty funny guy, actually.”

If you had read my translations containing those last three lines, I doubt you would have noticed that I had smuggled in this additional information (contrary to what I had said “The doctor, who in this case was a woman, sighed and got up ”), so that important information is transmitted to you as unobtrusively as in the original.

I just went through a new chapter in Diamela’s book whose very first sentence has the narrator describing himself as feeling contaminated – i.e. polluted + feminine. Hopefully by this point in the book it will have become clear to my readers that there is a consistent narrator, so I can ignore the issue here as long as I have established that she is female before now. And indeed, the Spanish reader would have had no doubts from the first page.

Look again at these opening lines, from the draft I shared with you a few days ago:

We are stretched out in our bed, delivered* to the legitimacy of a rest that we deserve. We are, yes, lying in the night, sharing. I feel your body bent against my bent back*. Perfect together. A curve is the shape that holds us best because we are able to harmonize and undo our differences. My height and yours, the weight, the disposition of the bones, of the mouths. The pillow supports our heads in balance, separates our breaths. I have a cough. I raise my head from the pillow and lean my elbow on the bed to cough in peace*.

This first asterisk refers to the Spanish word entregados, which tells you that, among the people who surrendered, at least one of them is a man. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) The third asterisk tells you that the person trying to cough in peace – calm – is a woman. As the translation currently stands, you could make a guess to that effect, but there is information that was in Spanish that is still missing here.

(Obviously I’m using gendered language here as an example, but any translation involves understanding what’s conveyed in the words – beyond just meanings – and then mapping it to another language that might be more or less resistant. )

To understand what’s going on in that first asterisk, you just need to know that Spanish uses the masculine by default (it’s quite common in languages, or not even languages) – so as long as it doesn’t there is only one male, he outweighs any number of females. In other words:

Cansado – singular, masculine;
Canada – singular, feminine;
Cansados – plural, masculine; or a mixed group even if it is 99 women and one man;
Canadas – plural, feminine.

(Similarly, you have a sister – a hermana; or a brother – a hermanoh. But if you have 99 sisters and one brother, your siblings are still your hermanbone.)

Hence this first adjective (entregados) tells us that the people who surrendered are plural (it becomes clear in the next line that there are specifically two of them, no more), and that at least one of them is male. Half a dozen lines later, the narrator identifies herself as a woman (calm). Less than a hundred words into the book, any possible doubt or ambiguity about the gender of the two main characters has been resolved.

So, yes, the English currently lack a vital certainty. One more for the ever-growing list of things to figure out at some point.

Oh – just one last nice little thing. Take a look at this sentence with the second asterisk:

I feel your body bent against my bent back.

In Spanish, the first “folded” is doubledthe second is doubled. The slight difference is that one describes a body (cuerpoa male noun), and the second a back (espalda, feminine noun). Neither adjective, strictly speaking, describes the person – that’s not why they’re gendered the way they are – but it does at least give a good little hint of who’s who. We meet the man with his doubled body, the woman with her doubled back. It’s a neat little thing, I think.

(As long as you don’t try to translate it, of course, in which case it’s still brilliant but also a bit of a nightmare at the same time. Good writers can be really boring like that.)