Despite popular opinion, translation has much more to do with creative decisions and imaginative acts than it does swapping out Word X in one language with Word Y in another language. Creative “wordsmithing”—as opposed to mechanical word exchanging—means that you have to find a way to set your creativity in motion. Doesn’t it?
We once read an interview with Ernest Hemingway where he was asked about mnemonic devices, ritualistic acts that set him on the creative path. Hemingway may have been at the Ambos Mundos in Havana or the Finca in San Francisco de Paula. Regardless of where he was, he would begin the creative act with the same ritual: He’d take out seven No. 2 pencils and sharpen all of them. Only then would he write.
One of our colleagues, an agnostic without a religious bone in her body, ritualistically lights five candles every morning before she practices her forty-five minute yoga routine. When a candle burns down after several weeks, a new one replaces it. Every day she repeats the act. For her, the candle has absolutely no connection to spirituality or the yoga routine. It’s simply a habit, a ritual that sets the day and the creative act in motion.
Regardless of what your ritual is, it should be habitual and practiced unswervingly. If you’re looking for some ideas, here are 5 suggestions to get you started.
Wrestling the muse: 5 creative rituals for the freelance translator
Write in Bed
According to Monica Ali, author of Untold Story, Edith Wharton, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and Marcel Proust all wrote in bed. Writing, or in your case, translating, is serious business; it’s “stuff” of the mind, so writing from bed might seem a bit irreverent. But if it works, why not?
Provoke Tiny Moments of Awareness
While we were browsing the shelves in Barnes and Noble, we came across a book by Roger-Pol Droit called Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life. It’s a playful book, but we’ve found that some of the exercises do in fact help us discover the ways in which small, ritualistic acts can become the starting point for a sort of “astonishment” that can take you out of the moment and inspire creativity. Here’s one such example, an exercise called “Empty a Word of Its Meaning”:
Make sure that you are in a place where no one can hear you. Take an ordinary object—in the past, we’ve picked up the very object that is intimidating us or hindering creativity. Now take the object in your hands and say its name. Repeat its name over and over again as you look at it. Keep going until the familiar word detaches itself and starts to become a series of strange sounds, meaningless noises that mean nothing, indicate nothing and take little form. Once this happens, you’ll notice that the object, too, has become much less startling, more crude and present. Did you notice the exact moment when the meaning dissolved, when the object became no longer something to intimidate, but a simple thing? Now go about your business creatively!
Learn to see the blank computer screen as a beautiful, clean canvas
What’s so bad about a new beginning? “Starting off with a clean slate” is one of the most frequently uttered colloquialisms around. Why not apply it to your work? Remember, the words you put on it don’t need to be perfect—especially since it’s a digital canvas that can be written on, deleted, copied, pasted, printed and saved for later.
Go to your creative space
You may be familiar with Maya Angelou, author of I Know How the Caged Bird Sings? Here is how she describes her writing ritual:
I keep a hotel room in my town, although I have a large house. And I go there at about 5:30 in the morning, and I start working. And I don’t allow anybody to come in that room. I work on yellow pads and with ballpoint pens. I keep a Bible, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a bottle of sherry. I stay there until midday. About once a month, the management slips a note under my door and they ask, ‘Please, Dr. Angelou, may we change the sheets? We know they must be moldy.’ But I’ve never slept there. I just go in and sit down and work.
Stop trying to be a genius and write only for X amount of time every single day
In a letter to Cecil Dawkins, author Flannery O’Connor said,
“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”
These creative rituals may not be every freelance translator's cup of tea. Just remember, it doesn’t matter what the ritual is as long as it’s something that works for you and becomes a habitual part of the translation process itself.