Creativity and Translation

  • By Miriam Hurley
  • November 9, 2021
  • 0 Comment

Boats by Nadia

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s fascinating essay about translation, she opens, “To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses.” While some translators are also writers (or writers become translators, like Lahiri), many of us, like me, aren’t driven to tell a story, write our own works. 

I’ve always liked writing and been good at it. Going through boxes of old papers, I found evidence of when I did feel impelled to make my own stories (whether driven by a fire within or to fulfill a creative writing assignment). I wrote short stories, filled many diaries, and carried on prolific correspondence with many friends in those days before texting et al. I wrote for the school paper in middle school, and my teacher unwittingly gave me a lifelong complex by announcing at a school assembly that I would write the New York Times Book Review someday.  My writing skills were key in earning praise in school, getting into a “writerly” college (Sarah Lawrence) — who knows how it would have gone for me if I were in the Italian system, which is all about oral exams rather than written papers —  and obviously in my work as a translator.  

Though I never again wrote “creatively” after college, I write for hours every day (translating, emails, blog posts, texts; indeed, touch typing is far and away my most used practical skill; thank you, Mavis Beacon). I use the quote marks around “creativity” because all writing is inherently creative even if not a work of fiction. Translation — even if not transcreation —  is creative in the literal sense and is often creatively gratifying though perhaps in a different fashion than choosing the words to tell a story, express one’s own ideas. There is both the aesthetic pleasure of making a sentence sound nice and the creative solutions we must find to do our best to reconcile the irreconcilable differences between the two languages, to square the circle. (I often say that translation is not an undertaking for the perfectionist because some meaning, some nuance, some effect is always lost in translation, and others perhaps gained; as an example see Lahiri’s discussion voler bene.”)   

My sister is an aficionado of the Enneagram system of classifying personality types. She tells me regularly that I’m a Nine, a Mediator/Peacemaker. As the name suggests, rather than seeking the glory of self-expression, we’re often happy in the wings, quietly connecting others.  At a translator meetup, I was talking about this advanced system of pigeon-holing and suggested that maybe Nines are overrepresented among translators. The other translators present quickly declared themselves Nines as well. 

I have mainly lived in places that draw artists and creatives in general (Sarah Lawrence College, Brooklyn, and Florence), and I am, in turn, drawn to artist types. Watching them struggling with creative fire, the challenges of making a living while being creative, and all the angst and joy their drive brings them, I feel like an outlier in being content to lend my writing, my English to someone else’s ideas. But maybe that’s just the way my creative juices flow. 

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