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The solitary art of translation

Allison Christine on Unsplash

I’ve always thought that there are many similarities between being a writer and being a literary translator: we all deal with words, sometimes spending hours searching for that elusive term that conveys just the right meaning; we all sit at a desk, mostly, hunched over a laptop or a notebook, or both; and we all spend several hours in our own company.

I know of authors who set up shop - laptop and all - in coffee joints. I suppose you find a lot of inspiration in the assortment of humanity that crowds a coffee shop, but it’s not for me. When I’m translating, I need some measure of silence around me to make the words flow.

When I’m writing, though, such as now… boy, give me a toilet to clean, ironing to do, dishes to wash… anything is more appealing than the blank page. But all in all, whether you’re a writer or a translator, whether you work while listening to music or in silence, it’s undeniable that we have all chosen a solitary form of art.

So why do we do this to ourselves?

I can only speak for myself, of course.

For starters, I’m an introvert, thus possessing a natural inclination to withdraw from the world - but that is only part of the story.

I’ve always been a reader - I started devouring books as a child and by the time I was sixteen, I was reading books in the original language. That’s when realisation dawned that I wouldn’t be able to exchange views on the writing, share my favourite bits, or gush on a particular phrase or word choice because, well... no one in my circle of friends read the language. So I guess that the need to share those words with others was the driving force that pushed me towards translating, long before I went to school for it.

The author’s words were already there, ready to be shared - translation was just a means to make those words and thoughts available to a wider audience. And knowing that someone would be able to read those same words in a different language and still feel their deepest meaning, the same way the author had intended in their original language, rewarded me for the hours spent typing away in solitude, researching, deleting, re-writing, revising my work.

Once again, only a writer can probably fully understand the translator’s elation at finding the right word, the right phrase, that conveys the same meaning in another language because communication, after all, is what helps us understand each others’ feelings, thoughts and emotions, and helps us progress as a society.

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