On February 10, 2021, the Circle hosted a presentation by the prominent writer, editor and literary translator Daniel Hahn. Mr. Hahn’s body of work includes over fifty fiction and non-fiction books and includes translations into English from French, Portuguese and Spanish. Mr. Hahn is a past program director of the British Centre for Literary Translation and several other literary translation associations in the UK.
The presentation centered on Mr. Hahn’s English translation of Stella Dreis’s children’s story “Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head” which was first published in Portuguese in 2011 as A Felicidade e’ uma Melancia na Cabeca. The book is notable for Stella Dreis’s colorful and rather eccentric illustrations. It tells the tale of Miss Jolly, whose unrelenting happiness annoys her nosey neighbors Miss Whimper, Miss Grouch and Miss Stern who try desperately to discover the secret of her happiness.
Mr. Hahn recounted to the group that his first draft of the translation adhered fairly closely to the original text. At the suggestion of his publisher, however, he started to reimagine the translation by focusing only on the pictures. This raised some interesting questions. Could the translation actually improve the relationship between the words and the illustrations in the original? Could other rhetorical devices be incorporated into the translation even if they were not part of the original? How much freedom in word choices could the translator allow himself while still remaining faithful to the spirit of the original text?
As he refined his approach to the book while keeping in mind that this is a children’s book meant to be read aloud, Mr. Hahn decided to translate the text in rhyming verse. He used anapestic tetrameter,* a meter that appears frequently in Dr. Seuss books and other famous poems such as “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”:
“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow…”
“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…”
Following in this tradition, the first lines of Mr. Hahn’s translation are as follows:
“At the end of the village behind a green door
Lived happy Miss Jolly with Melvin her boar…”
Mr. Hahn then read the complete verse translation accompanied by the illustrations which the group could see online. The ultimate result, which might be viewed as a very free translation of the original text, is one sure to captivate any child (or adult) privileged to see and hear it.
After the reading, an attendee raised the question of how the author felt about a translation which was so different from the original text. Mr. Hahn confessed to having some trepidation about the author’s reaction when she was first approached. Happily, the author, who is more of an illustrator than a writer, liked the verse translation very much.
The Circle thanks Mr. Hahn again for this thought provoking presentation which explored the craft of literary translation in such a charming and unique way.
*anapestic tetrameter is a meter with four groups of sounds in each line, each group comprised of three syllables with the stress on the third syllable