Literary Translation as a Workshop for Creative Writing
This is a very vast topic. All I can do is scratch at its surface and use my personal experience as a short introduction of sorts.
The other day I searched the Internet for this exact phrase: ‘literary translation workshop for creative writing’. I got back more than 1 million search results. All the major Western universities, English-speaking Western universities seem to have some form of this topic in their curricula. Which is kind of weird. Because why would someone coming from a dominant culture think of linking creative writing (an honest subject matter, by comparison) to translation? Such an exotic concept!
But indeed there’s no better way—not that I know of—of learning the ‘secrets of the craft’. Because, let’s face it, every translator wishes deep down inside his or her own heart to be one day the name on the cover, and not the one hidden somewhere inside the book. Almost like a character. I know that I did that! I nurtured that desire with every new book I translated, and most of the time that kept the writer in me satisfied.
If nothing else, I was a writer by proxy.
And from quite early on I started to use all the authors I translated to study their craft. In other words, I started seeing translation as creative rewriting.
There was a clear cut moment for that… epiphany. A tipping point. Up until then I had worked relentlessly and almost mindlessly to churn away book after book, most of them by the grand master of the macabre, none other than Stephen King. And funny enough it was also one of his books that rewired my thinking. It was a book about writing. Eleven years to the day that was. In 2007, four years after I had started making a living by translating literature, I received a message from one of the publishing houses I was working with. They wanted me to start translating On Writing.
Well, I have to say this book did it for me. It ended my long-lasting love affair with the author, and it gave me a push to start seeing things in a different light.
Don’t get me wrong. On Writing is a terrific book. In fact, you most certainly would find it in almost all those Western university’s course bibliographies. It teaches you all you need to know about plot, character, dialogue, back-story, about the dreadful trap of the adverbs, while also stating a few things about the right mindset of a natural-born writer. All good precious things, all true, and delivered in the author’s most honest voice. But, you see, they were all at the same time things that I had seen at work before in Stephen King’s books. I, his translator, maybe his most attentive reader, kind of knew his tricks before he decided to lay them down in front of everybody, in On Writing. And by doing that he really spoiled it for me. On Writing taught me to question every turn of phrase.
After that, only after that I started growing as a translator. And that is because the writer in me needed more. He needed to see for himself that … ‘there are other worlds than these’, to quote from The Dark Tower.
And, like the gunslinger’s world, I moved on. I moved to Ballard, I moved to Palahniuk, I moved to Joyce Carol Oates, I moved to H. P. Lovecraft, I moved to Raymond Chandler, I moved to Denis Johnson … I experimented with their prose, I was eager to learn—and not merely to … earn. I knew that I had access to the best creative writing course in the world. I struggled with Palahniuk’s syncopated prose because I wanted to understand its workings—and I finally did it, otherwise one can never translated truthfully a book. I plowed through Ballard’s hypnotic prose searching for its beat, hearing it closer and closer, until I managed to dance to its techno-trance-like rhythm. I then walked the meandering paths that Joyce Carol Oates uses to guide us through time and space by way of a sometimes very prolix narrative. And I followed detective Marlowe, so witty and gay, always having a sharp answer to give. And after that I was for almost a year that despicable unreliable narrator Willkie Collins, in Dan Simmons’ Drood. And the list could go on and on and on …
You learn the craft of writing through exercise. You imitate at first, then you start coming closer to your own true self. Step by little step at a time. You do it through reading, certainly. There is no way around that. But sometimes some lucky ones get a chance to translate literature. They are handed literally with a permit to imitate. You do it unconsciously for a while, but sooner or later you start seeing patterns, you digest them and make them into reflexes, they become a part of you. A writer who also translates is not only the sum of the books he or she has read, but also the sum of the authors he or she has sung playback after.
This is a very vast topic. And the beauty of it, I think, is that no matter how hard you try, you can always only scratch at its surface. What happens in the deep blue stays in the deep blue. Untranslated ananand untranslatableand untranslatable by conventional means.
and untranslatable by conventional means.
[ Mircea Pricăjan is an author and literature translator from English into Romanian. His most recent published book is Pumn de fier. He has been translating over 60 volumes from English into Romanian.]
You can find other literary translation articles here.
This article is from „Confluențe – Analele Universităţii din Oradea, Fascicula Limbi și literaturi moderne Oradea, 2018” and has been published with the author’s approval.
Publishing date: 13.05.2019