Daniel Hahn, the translator of Diamela’s Eltit’s Never Did The Fire, is a brave man. I cannot imagine signing a contract to translate a novel without having first read it cover to cover. But this is his modus operandi. He likes to discover a novel, just as a reader does, quickly creating a first draft. But what if the novel is fiendishly difficult to translate? Such was the case here. Eltit’s novel being the most difficult book he has ever translated (and he’s translated 80+). Perhaps that, and the fact that his translation diary, Catching Fire, was published online in real-time, as he was translating, is why Hahn is adamant that his diary should be read first. Particularly if you’re a translator. So that you can recapture his experience. Oops! Tell you what – even though I’m not a translator, I’ll put that right by reviewing the diary first.

The memory of reading Catching Fire will always be a most pleasant one. It was 28 degrees, I had just taken delivery of a zero gravity chair; the beer was perfectly chilled. Perfect for kicking back to read and giggle my way through a very rare, hot, sunny afternoon. “What are you laughing at?” queried Rossetti, his afternoon snooze disturbed for the nth time. Not that I attempted to explain, for he is not a linguist, and would fail to appreciate the geekiness involved in finding exactly the right word, translating a gendered language into a non-gendered one, sequencing adjectives correctly, resisting footnotes, and 1001 other considerations that occupied Hahn’s mind as he sought to

read a book in language A, and write it again, in language B … create a new thing, one that’s identical to the original book, except for all the words.

At his 2022 Edinburgh Book Festival event, Hahn spoke of his first translation diary, written and published online in 2010. It was, to use Hahn’s own word, full of grumbling. How very embarrassing, therefore, when the author of said book emailed I’m really enjoying your diary, and so is my aunt. Suitably chastened, Catching Fire is filled with self-deprecating humour and constructive problem solving (with significant input from the online translation community). There is a little grumbling, for Never Did The Fire turned out to be a slippery fish, taking 4 months rather than the projected 2.5 to translate.

Eltit is a prose stylist and a trademark of Never Did The Fire is ambiguity. Comprising mainly of the thoughts of an old woman, holed up in a one-room bedsit with an even older, dying man, there is no explicit explanation of what brought them there. The pixels, if you will, take their time to coalesce. These two former left-wing political opposers are now in hiding. (Did their opposition extend to terrorism? I’m not sure.) Stuck with each other in their assumed identities, there is now precious little affection remaining. The narrative meanders between past and present. There was a boy, their son, he was sick, but they could not seek treatment for fear of blowing their cover. This led to tragedy. The woman occasionally ventures outside to care for other old, infirm folk. The descriptions of bodily disintegration are graphic, and may serve as a metaphor for the disintegration of the political cells. But there are no givens, the reader has to work hard to form a picture, and Hahn had to work hard to ensure that his translation remained as ambiguous as the original.

He mentions the temptation to smooth things out, and the ongoing battle to resist that. Eltit’s word choice is at times singular. Having read in the what-I-now-know-to-be-the-incorrect sequence, I was jarred at times. Two examples: Are backs folded (Eltit’s word) when lying in bed? Were there Stalinist (Hahn’s translation) cells in Chile? Both are discussed in the diary. Perhaps if I’d read it first, I might not have had these issues.

My original plan was to reread the novel after the translation diary, but Eltit’s alternative ending put paid to that. Actually it’s more of an alternative narrative, calling into question much of what went before. After jumping through all those hoops to make (some) sense of the first story, that was one hoop too many for me.