Write Like a Translator

Heather Cleary

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 180.

Wait, you might say. Why would I want to write like a translator? Fair enough. Translation isn’t usually among the first things that come to mind when we think about the craft of writing, but maybe it should be. For many writers translation is an integral part of their creative practice, offering an intimate perspective on a range of stylistic and conceptual approaches to poetry and prose they might never have encountered otherwise—Langston Hughes, Julio Cortázar, and Elizabeth Bishop, are just a few twentieth-century examples. And just as great writers (often) make great translators, great translators generate powerful linguistic effects, creating vivid images, vertiginous rhythms, tonal shifts, and silences charged with meaning. Which is to say that translation is a form of creative writing in its own right—one that operates within a unique set of constraints.

One of the things I love most about translating fiction is that it demands my total immersion in someone else’s narrative sensibility. I need to understand how character, setting, pace, and tone are constructed in the text I’m translating, then figure out how to render these using an entirely different set of linguistic tools. The only thing I don’t need to do is decide what happens next in the plot. This means that each project becomes a master class in the effects different linguistic choices can produce in a text. Below are three of the many lessons I’ve learned from the practice of translation that can be applied to all forms of prose writing.

Lesson 1: There’s meaning in sound.

When I began to work on Luis Felipe Fabre’s Recital of the Dark Verses, published last month by Deep Vellum, I quickly realized that everything in this novel of picaresque misadventures, sexual awakenings, and stolen corpses (well, just the one) hangs on the rhythm of its prose. (Read Fabre’s earlier Craft Capsule: “Dis-Identity Poetics.”) This makes sense: It’s a novel written by a poet about a poet, the Spanish mystic San Juan de la Cruz, whose poetry is woven throughout. Fabre’s control of Spanish is virtuosic. On the one hand, he combines archaic syntax and verb forms with crisp contemporary phrases; on the other, like the landscape across which his protagonists travel, the terrain of Recital ranges from easy, loping narration in service of the plot to baroque passages in which the devout are whipped into religious fervor or the libidinous are whipped into orgiastic frenzy. In one scene, for example, while the court bailiff charged with stealing the dead body of San Juan de la Cruz—then known as Fray Juan—is arguing with the prior of the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Úbeda, the friar guarding the front gate regales two men with the story of Fray Juan’s death and the startling reactions sparked by the holy odor given off by his corpse:

The scent quickly spread throughout Úbeda like a rumor, waking its people and waking within them unfamiliar yearnings and excesses and making them rise from their beds and wander through the pitch-dark night, for they knew, without knowing how, that Fray Juan de la Cruz had died, and they knew they needed to come see him. And come they did, wandering through the night to gather here at the doors of the monastery. And here gathered did they implore and demand entry, but I was not allowed to allow them such.

One of the strategies Fabre employs to convey the people’s breathless fervor, their teeming mass, is interlocking one clause with the next through repetition. The account almost sounds like a religious litany as it builds toward its climax over the course of several pages. To render the scene in English, I had to respect this repetition and pay attention to consonance and assonance, reinforcing the sense of linguistic braiding present in the original. I also looked at where the natural emphasis fell in the sentences I was constructing, with an eye toward creating an incantatory effect.

Toward the end of the same passage, Fabre conveys the chaos of the scene with the overlapping images of people from different professions carrying blades, one clause bleeding into the next, one verb serving varied subjects:

Persons of all ilk clambered over one another in the church and in the streets to approach and touch or at least see the body. And drunken on that celestial odor arrived the butchers with their knives, and with their daggers the pimps, and the cooks with their skewers, and the blacksmiths with their tongs did arrive. With their saws arrived the carpenters, and with their clippers the seamstresses, and with their needles the noblewomen, and with their razors the barbers did arrive. And the people arrived in uncountable throngs at the ready with blades suited to their office and, standing but notwithstanding their office and standing, all desired the same thing, which was their slice of saint.

In contrast, later in the novel, a moment of relative peace on the road to Madrid offers the travelers a chance to breathe, and the prose follows suit. The text is still playful and baroque, but there’s more air in it, and we can feel the travelers’ forward movement.

The restfulness of those days was aided by the flatness of the road through Castile, where at dusk the sun rolled across the sky like an orange across a country table, nudging [the travelers] along their way. But to say this is to say too much, for the flatness of Castile allowed neither ornamentation nor rhetorical flourishes, much less the luxury of metaphorical Andalusian oranges.

How can we activate this attention to sound in our own writing? One exercise I’ve found helpful has been to write a simple scene of four or five sentences (a person waiting for the bus, for example) four different ways. What happens to the language if your subject is very hot versus very cold? If they need a bathroom? If they’re angry about something that just happened? How does the phonetic landscape shift?

Lesson 2: Check your work.

This might mean confirming that you haven’t included a term that, historically, was first used centuries after the novel is set (unless you’re deliberately playing with anachronism, as Fabre does in Recital). Or reading your draft through with a specific focus on continuity: Did an old version of a character’s name sneak in there somewhere? Did you accidentally cut the transition between your character sitting inside on the sofa and them sprinting down the street? Or it might involve a visualization of physical spaces and objects that appear in the text, using online image searches or even a trip to your local library or archive. If you’re talking about a coat of arms that existed four hundred years ago, to borrow an example from Fabre’s novel, it can make a huge difference in the specificity and believability of your description if you’ve seen it with your own eyes. Or—to linger with this extremely niche example—if you’re inventing a coat of arms, look up its possible components and sketch it out in the medium of your choice.

I grew accustomed to this process as a translator, particularly through reconstructing, in English, spaces that had been imagined by another writer in Spanish. This practice has served me well in my own writing: The notebook for my current fiction project is peppered with hand-drawn blueprints and sketches of a character’s favorite trinkets—there’s even a paint chip in there. This is not to say that every space, object, and emotion needs to make perfect sense or be completely explicit, either in translation or non-translational writing. Experimentation is great; expectation-busting is great. Ambiguity is great. But withholding information or deviating from a linguistic norm tends to work best when the hand sketching the image or writing the phrase knows every contour of that choice and can render them with precision.

Lesson 3: Choose your verbs carefully.

It might be a product of the languages I work with or the brain I use for translating, but I’ve found that the process of rendering text across languages can distort how things come out on the other side. I remember Natasha Wimmer—who has translated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño—describing the early stages of translating as “getting a snail’s-eye-view” of a text. Working from Spanish to English, this might mean finding a gratuitous “the” or “that” here and there in a first draft, as well as countless appearances of “to be” and “to have” and “to get,” all of which needs to be audited in second, third, fourth drafts of the text.

This awareness has led me to be particularly vigilant about those little elements that slip over from our thought processes or the way we speak, which can dilute a passage of prose: the little habits we each have in our forms of expression, or the multiple adverbs we use to build toward an action when there’s usually a more direct road to get there. It’s always striking to watch a text come to life as I begin to select more specific, evocative verbs to take the place of “to get” (tired, hungry), “to be,” and so on, even though I know from experience the difference this makes. Which is not to say that efficiency is always the goal—not at all. Circuitous expression can be a very powerful strategy, too, particularly in voice-driven narratives. But, just as in Lesson 2, this strategy works best when used with precision and intentionality, and I’ve found that there’s usually room somewhere to trim and polish word choice.

In any case, practicing translation—even if you never intend to publish your work—can be an excellent way to explore the mechanics of other narrative or poetic strategies and to learn more about your own habits as a writer. (I didn’t talk much about translating poetry here because that practice offers different lessons, which I hope you’ll explore if you feel called to do so.) If you don’t have a second language to work with, you can always apply the principles outlined above directly to your own writing.

One caveat: You may not want to trot out your inner translator for a first draft—we translators love obsessing over details, but we can be great company as you edit.


Heather Cleary is an award-winning translator of poetry and prose from Spanish into English. The author of The Translator’s Visibility: Scenes from Contemporary Latin American Fiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), she holds a PhD from Columbia University and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently writing a hybrid novel about translation and murder.

Art: Mounzer Awad