Translator’s Block

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On wanting to talk about creativity and the obstacles that impede its flow, I came upon a challenging and ironic scenario: I was suffering from writer’s block myself. I am of course not a stranger to this problem; in fact, it has become a most faithful companion. It sits at the breakfast table with me, tells me its plans for the day (namely, thwarting my every effort to put down in a structured text the loose ideas that have been floating in my head for days or weeks), and barely ever leaves my side. Inspiration, its nemesis, only comes to take its place in flitting and inconvenient moments, namely, when I am prevented by some constraint or another from putting my inspiration into action (riding the bus, in the middle of a class, at work).

I am sure this has been the experience of anyone who has undertaken the creation of anything. For every article I am able to churn out after much travail and turmoil, there are five others sitting there, half-baked, in an unfinished state or but all abandoned in the paltry form of outlines.

Writing something from scratch can be quite an excruciating endeavor, especially when one has concerns for good style and rhythm. But what about the creative process in writing as applied to translation? Is there such a thing as translator’s block?

***

Our lack of inspiration may have something to do with our collective notion of the creative process. We have this idea of the creative process as flowing from stage to stage in a montage-like fashion, whereby we progress from beginning to end with a few hurdles inserted here and there for comedic value. Rarely do we take into account the distractions, the other things in our lives that require attention (our own body’s needs, if nothing else) and, most importantly, those moments when we lose sight of what we want to do or simply have no idea how to proceed.

In the progression of any given translation project, I can recognize the moments when those other things have come between me and the much desired progress. Much like writers would love to simply sit and spill out words onto the empty page as if on divine inspiration, I suspect translators have the same ambition. I am not talking about coming across unfamiliar words or concepts that we need to go and research; after all, the research can be a big part of the fun of translating. I am talking about those moments when you are truly, utterly, seemingly irremediably stuck.

The blockage may result from a variety of issues: a sentence in the source text is incomprehensible. Or perhaps an entire paragraph is; there is no direct equivalent of the source word in the target language (“cue”, “feedback”, ); the target sentence is too long; the options for translation are unconvincing at best; the translation won’t fit in its target destination (a button, an ad). Or, put bluntly, the subject matter just simply does not interest you in the least, in fact you find it excruciatingly boring.

Faced with challenges of this sort, I do what a lot of people in my position would: I go away. The going away almost never results from a conscious decision, however. It is more like a survival mechanism and happens completely outside of my volition. The second I am confronted with a challenge on the page, I do my due diligence, open the browser, check my options, and if nothing readily convinces me, I just… wander. Two minutes later, I am foraging in Facebook; five minutes after that I am reading an article about an extinct tribe in the Amazon or the mating habits of gorillas. It is in those moments when I decide to pay that bill, do my laundry, take care of the pile of dishes in the sink or call my mother. There is nothing like being stuck in the task at hand to infuse you with the energy you had previously lacked to go out for a run or do the groceries.

Alas, this process cannot go on forever. There are deadlines, project managers to placate, clients to satisfy, money to be made. There is no time for dilly-dallying on the tragically beautiful conciseness of English’s conceptual language, its capacity for packing several layers of meaning into a single catch-all word. More than likely, that “short” 200-page translation of marketing copy that made it to your inbox only two hours ago is needed in three hours (“URGENT, we’ll pay you a rush fee!”), and that 20-page document for review is due tomorrow, even though you got it just last night.

Thus, treasure troves of “general” texts shock full of hidden metaphors and cultural references are shoved into your desktop, tagged with next-day turnarounds that seemed reasonable at first but are now hysterics-inducing. The deadline looms overhead. More than likely, it is only one of several due dates. Meanwhile, you are stuck, stuck with a word that you don’t understand, confronted with an ever expanding-horizon of research you had not foreseen.

It often seems to me in those moments that I have no business doing this for a living. If I cannot reliably come up with a possible solution on the spot for this particular concept without having to look in the dictionary, then what good am I? And what good is all my reading, my frenzied learning, gobbling up words like magic potions of youth and learning nuances and etymologies and sundry other linguistic tidbits if Knowledge eludes me when I most need it?

Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes later I return to the page. The solution pops into my head effortlessly. It turns out that the mulling over part was happening at the back of my head all the while. I get unstuck. That forage into the Internet liberated something in my head. Sometimes thinking too hard and being too close to the problem can hamper the flow of ideas more than anything else. Suddenly the minutes spent frantically searching for meaning in the monolingual dictionary, the glossary, thesaurus or that lowly online dictionary your professors think no self-respecting translator would dare use yield some sort of fruit.

Paranoia is creativity’s worst nightmare. Fear blocks our access to the resources we’ve cultivated over time, leaving us feeling stranded in an island of helplessness where we feel completely disconnected from the task at hand. It is ultimately fear that must be conquered. When we come up against a block in the road, a word, phrase or sentence that just will not budge, and the solution does not come readily to us, a lot of us will panic and stare like the proverbial deer in the headlights. It is only through turning our face away from it for a moment, forgetting why it’s there -by doing something mundane or completely unrelated – is what often liberates us and opens the way to a creative solution.

Do you ever get stuck while translating? What are your strategies for getting unstuck? How do you deal with a stoppage in the flow of ideas, especially when you have a looming deadline?

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