Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

Jenny Bhatt

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?


Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

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