Translating = Editing?

by Intermittent Rain ~ August 6th, 2013. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.

I don’t understand any language other than English. But I have read some translations: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert mostly, and others. Last year I met an author whose first language is French but he writes in English.  I asked why he doesn’t translate his works himself, and he replied that writing fiction is one thing, translating is another. But he’ll happily argue with his translator.

I also read a book on writing fiction which showed two different translations of an excerpt from Chekov. The order of sentences was different, the impression from the material was different. The two translators had different perspectives, yet still conveyed the same basic information.

This leads me to a critique of one of my works-in-progress. A much more experienced writer opted to re-write one paragraph to show me a tighter, clearer way of writing the same scene.

Except it wasn’t my scene any longer. The characters are the same, the setting’s the same, the same basic things happen, but it’s not my scene. The other version is tighter, uses fewer words, flows better, uses a lot of my original words, but it’ not quite my scene any more.

I’m aware that the process of imagining the scene is one thing, the process of writing it is another. It’s similar to translating. The scene exists; it needs to be presented in the best manner possible, but different people will interpret the same scene in a different flavor, placing different values, perhaps even ordering the presentation of elements (people, background, objects) in a different sequence. Subject and verb order might be different in one language from the other, and there may not be direct equivalent words for the way in which something is stated. Guessing at what is the best presentation of the key elements of a scene has got to be a crucial skill for a translator; at least of written words; a live translator has less time to evaluate.

And I feel as if I’m in a similar situation when I try to get a situation down in words. I sense the essence of what I’m after, and by writing bit of it down I start to develop it. There may be grammatical errors and awkward sentences, but if someone else takes what I’ve written and rewrites it, they take it in a different direction than I had intended, if only slightly so, and the larger the chunk of writing that they revise, say a paragraph  instead of just one sentence, the more off target they can be.

I’m assuming that this is frequently the issue between an author and their editor. In fact, the person who suggested the revision of my work has worked as an editor. On the other hand, I’ve also worked with another professional editor who was less direct and only pointed out sections and described what he felt they lacked or how they could be improved (other than specific grammatic errors or other specifics) in general terms.



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