Translation uses the same mental skill set and processes as creative writing, and the two disciplines are closely linked.
The translation industry is global and yet small: We’re all vaguely aware of each other and the work we’re doing. When I see a translation of a novel in the book store I always see who has been hired to do the work, and often recognise the name even if I’ve never met the translator.
When we gather at conferences and the like it’s very collegial and we often get into the sort of dull conversations about translation as an art and a science that bore our non-translation friends to death. In one of these boring conversation recently I explored the concept that translation is work that very closely resembles writing in just about every way. Superficially people may automatically agree simply because both involve putting words together, but I mean this in a much deeper way: Translation and Writing involve the same activities in the brain.
Essentially, studies have shown that translation and creative writing are essentially both problem-solving activities. In the latter, you have a concept you wish to express, and the puzzle is how to assemble the pieces (the words) into the right order to best convey your ideas. As anyone who has tried it knows, writing isn’t so easy: Simple concepts get gummed up in confused sentences, or complex subjects get expressed in a superficial manner that conveys no meaning. Solving the puzzle in writing is difficult.
It’s no easier in translation – and not much different. Translation sometimes seems to me to be like a game of Telephone – you take someone’s ideas as they expressed them and you have to puzzle out the exact order and shape of the words in the target language to express them. Just as the original writer had to make stylistic choices in order to achieve a tone and style, so do you – and it’s generally not a one-to-one process, or an easy process of word substitution. You really do have to absorb the material’s meaning and then re-write in the target language.
The Nature of Translation
This idea leads directly to something that has been discussed for centuries: What is translation, exactly? Is it a creative act that results in an original work, or is it a utility act that merely carries the original over to a new language? Translators own copyright to their translations, which would argue for the former, but they are generally ignored in favour of the original author when novels are translated, which would argue for the latter. After all, if I’m reading MacAndrew’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov, are not the ideas equally Dostoevsky’s and MacAndrew’s? The translator in this instance had to take the original and re-create it.
On the other hand, the translation would not exist without the original. Whatever the proper credit given to the translator, the fact is, translation and writing are intrinsically linked. While different, they employ all the same skills.
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