Interview with the winner of the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, Phil Hand Reply

Earlier this month member Philip Hand was announced as the winner of The Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize for his translation from the Chinese of Han Dong’s story ‘The Wig’.

After reading this news I felt curious to learn more about his opinion about participating and winning the prize so I prepared a few questions which he kindly replied below:

Q:  What motivated you to enter the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize? Was this the first time you have ever participated in a translation contest?

A: Yes, this was the first time I’ve entered a competition, though I’ve done an MA in translation studies and studied interpreting, so I’ve had my translations critically appraised many times.

I really just wanted to try something different. Actually, I wanted to take the opportunity to try translating in a different way – to try playing with different voices and styles, then to try editing something together to find the best possible version. But in the end I just didn’t have the time. Work was frantic over the summer, so I ended up just doing a single draft, then revising it. It was great to win, but I didn’t get to try out a new translation practice in the way I’d hoped.

Q: Would you define yourself as a literary translator? Will you add this as your specialty?

A: Not at all. I’m not yet convinced that I’ll steer my career in that direction. I really like being a commercial translator! I find enormous interest and value in translating technical, academic, legal and business documents.

But I do find the challenge of literary translation interesting, and I’ll be trying some over the next six months. Part of the prize is that Nicky Harman, a very experienced Chinese>English translator, will mentor me for that time, and help me to develop my literary translation skills.

Q:  How long did it take you to translate the story and what did you find most challenging about the text?

A: I did the initial translation fairly quickly. It was about 3000 characters long, so it took about a day. I then revisited it later to edit, but I never got to do the alternative drafts I’d wanted to try.

The hardest part was the cultural references. In the first few lines there’s a reference to qigong masters, with an assumption that the reader will have read Chinese fantasy novels. The story also mentions go, a Chinese chess game. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle these elements.

Q: How do you think this huge achievement will affect your career? What are your future plans?

A: Just wait and see, really. I’m in the fortunate position of having a job that I very much enjoy, and the flexibility to try new things. I’ll try a little literary translation. If it suits me, I’ll work on doing more. If not, I can go back to the contracts and research papers that make up my day job.

Q: What piece of advice would you give your fellow translators regarding their profession?

A: Try new stuff! There’s always a worry about doing a new thing: can I satisfy the client? Will I make mistakes? But you’ve got to try new things to find out what you enjoy.

Q:  What are the benefits of competing in this and other kinds of translation contests, beyond the obvious prize in this particular case?

A: Competitions are what you make them. Like you say, you can’t go into a competition expecting to win, so you have to be clear about what you can get out of just participating. You could use a competition as a way to try a different type of text; or to test out a new translation procedure. If it’s a competition where you get feedback on the translation, that’s a great learning opportunity.