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Burning Your Dictionary: Translation as a Life Process

Opinion | November 9, 2015

Last week, during a class presentation, the art director of a magazine referred to herself as a “translator.” By shuffling through heaps of content, fostering connections between artists, and commissioning assignments, she helps readers imagine realities they would not typically encounter. Through art and creative processes she focuses on articulating the essence of the world around us. Her reference to this work as translation was the first time I acknowledged that the act of “translating” could be applied to more than foreign languages. And it was only through recognizing the arduous, spiritual process of linguistic translation that I was able to begin to extend this mentality to other realms.

My superficial understanding of linguistic translation has been limited to the “act of translating” from dictionary to dictionary, or the world’s most infamous translator: Google. It wasn’t until I read a review of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which referred to the translation by Natasha Wimmer as a “stupendous labour of love,” that I began to acknowledge the beautiful and imaginative spirit found in the act of (good) translation.

In an interview with The Quarterly Conversation, Wimmer describes the difficulty of translating Bolaño’s writing style: “One of the main challenges of the translation was getting the rhythm of Bolaño’s sentences right. He is never predictable and can be intentionally awkward, and sometimes it was hard to strike the right balance in English—I often felt an urge to smooth over ungainly constructions, but restrained myself, then realized in reading them that they were perfectly calibrated.” This difficulty is both subtle and enormous. The act of translating slang, tone, and mood from one language to another is a work of art. While perhaps it is not as organic as what we traditionally call “art”—paintings, literature, photographs, sculpture, symphonies—translation requires an extraordinary amount of creativity and imagination. It requires more than just the default setting of reading—it is not about synthesis, but about vibe, aura, and, as Wimmer notes, calibration. These components are often hard to grasp, but a translator undergoes this process in order to recreate these abstract components into a new, palpable form.

Novelist and philosopher William H. Gass says that to translate effectively, one must “transread.” He describes this as “reading of…the most essential kind,” in which “what we get when we’re done is…a reading enriched by the process of arriving at it.” This process of arriving at it is no small feat, and Gass is critical of translators who seek to be original and infuse their voice onto the text rather than to be “right.” To have a right translation means focusing on the artist, the writer, and why they made the choices they made. It is undoubtedly an extension of our imagination. It is a process of empathy. It is not about taking the physical entity of a poem or a novel from point A to point B, but about listening: hearing the poem’s past, present, and future in relation to the artist.

But can’t this process of translation be channeled beyond the realms of language? Doesn’t the art director’s work—which is an attempt to capture the aura of our time through text and art—also require this creative, patient mentality? Can we extend this even farther? I think the answer is yes. In an article focusing on empathy, writer Rebecca Solnit discusses how to translate feelings between humans. As a response to the indifference with which we treat those suffering, near and far—think of the callous way we skim through global tragedies as we peruse social media—Solnit advocates for this same creative process of translation. Referring to “kindness” as an imaginative shift of seeing the world she writes, “We think of kindness as an emotional quality, but it’s also an act of imagination, of extending yourself beyond yourself, of feeling what you do not feel innately by invoking it.”

Through imagination, we can extend even further, beyond human connections, to translating the world around us. And by attempting to grasp its essence—the intangible parts—we can start to dispel our constructions and our norms for creative alternatives. This may sound like a colossal task, but it’s actually not too sudden a shift because we are all already translators. Think about it: do we not ingest thousands of images, messages, and experiences each day? Is not our experience of life a continuous act of translation? The shift, then, is not in becoming a translator; it’s in becoming a good one. And, if good translation really is this imaginative, empathetic act, then it seems we ought to channel that same spirit into how we live our daily lives.

Too often, I am apathetic about what I witness each day. It’s miraculous that we have so many senses to experience the world, but too often I choose the default path. I choose to be a Merriam Webster’s French-to-English pocket dictionary, or a student half-assing her Spanish homework with Google Translate, rather than the Wimmers and the Gasses. I operate under the notion that this is all how it ought to be, taking everything I experience at face value. And, even in those instances when I do seek to translate what is around me, I easily fall into Gass’ greatest fear: imposing my voice on what I have not yet tried to deeply understand.

Imagination is an alternative. To be creative when processing the world is to examine and empathize with all we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. It is rejecting that anything is inevitable, or that anything is “normal.” What we know to be war today will be different tomorrow. No two schools in America are the same, though they may share similarities. There is no evidence that humans are “inherently” greedy. The harder process is then asking the questions of the unknown: What could war become? How can we make relevant education policies for differing communities? Are humans inherently anything? Though we may not know the perfect answers, it’s a good start. Imagination allows us to reject the status quo, plunges us into this unknown, and shows us that that’s not such a bad place to be—at least it’s home to endless possibilities.

This way of life is laborious. It’s more than a paradigm shift; it’s realizing there is no known paradigm, so everything falls into this unknown. And, even if we cannot verbalize what we find out there—in that intangible space that Wimmer and Gass and so many types of translators seek to express—it’s okay, because at least we have entered inside, beyond the self-imposed boundaries of a manufactured world that benefits from lazy acceptance. “Our translations will make a batch of botches, but it will not matter, crush them into a ball and toss them to the trash. Their real value will have been received. The translating reader reads the inside of the verse, and sees, like the physician, either its evident health or its hidden disease.” Gass may be talking about text, but his message is clear. Our lives will amount to messy translations, but the outcome is not the focus—we are all dispensable. Instead, what is significant is what an attentive, imaginative process can reveal. If the art of life, like the art of translation, is in the process, then we should choose to live like good translators: discerning enough to know what assumptions to forgo, passionate enough to find out what may have been here all along.