• Sijin Xian

Why Should Translators Write?

A translator extracts meanings from one language and delivers them in another. This process requires both the language proficiency to understand what is being said and the writing skills to express what is to be said. While most translators have a solid command of their source and target languages, it is often the writing part that sets the masterly translators apart from the rest. A good translator is a good writer, without exception.

A proven way to becoming a better writer—and henceforth a better translator—is to be a diligent one. As a translator specializing in international affairs and politics, I always recommend writing book reviews, reflections on translation, and research papers. These three types of projects are crucial to a translator’s professional development for the following reasons.

Book reviews

1) I don’t identify myself as a mere translator who makes her living off her bilingual talent. I regard myself an expert in my field who has too special a knack for words not to put it to use. This shift in mentality pushes me to always strive to learn more. I read to keep abreast of the latest developments and theories in my field.

2) Research has shown that knowledge is more solidly obtained when you relay what you learn to others in your own words. In this sense, writing a book review is also a practice of “creative” translation: you have to have a good grasp of what the book is about, think about how to eloquently convey the author’s viewpoints, and learn to apply your own judgment to analyze them.

3) Reading enriches writing. I have always loved to read. Next to a spring breeze and chilled fruit-flavored sparkling water, there is nothing more soothing than an elegantly crafted sentence. Just as a musician needs an ear for music or a chef a palate for food, to be a good writer one must know what constitutes good writing in the first place.

Reflections on translation

4) Translation is the art, craft, and science of words. Its artfulness lies in its literary flair and eloquence. It is a craft because it takes consistent practice and refinement. And as in scientific endeavors, striving for precision and rigor is a most noble goal. Translators are connoisseurs of words who improve their taste through savoring and critiquing works by other translators.

Research papers

5) Every translation project is a precious learning opportunity because it exposes me to novel concepts and ideas. To properly understand and translate these new blocks of knowledge requires excellent research skills in locating the correct word or terminology in the correct context. When time allows and a nostalgia for graduate school strikes me, I enjoy writing short research papers to understand my project on a deeper level while furthering my expertise in my specialization.

But how to be a more diligent writer? When I was writing a paper to present at a research conference at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I read the book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Dr. Paul J. Silvia. A year later, some of the big takeaways from this book remain relevant to writing in general.

The book began with painfully accurate diagnoses of four prevailing “specious barriers” to writing, and I scored three out of four: Yes, I was the one who constantly complained about not being able to find time to write yet never missed my favorite TV show. Yes, I was inclined to get lost in reading and researching while having zero words on the actual paper. And yes, I liked to say, “It’s no use trying to write when I’m not in the mood. I need to feel like writing.”

To me personally, holding the misconception that creativity comes out of a flash of inspiration out of nowhere was the most lethal of all. Flash of light, bolt of lightning, and alignment of stars rarely happened, yet the very rarity seemed to have further fed my illusion. In this book, Dr. Silvia made all attempts—scientific, psychological, and motivational—to hammer home to the readers the crucial point that “writing breeds good ideas for writing.” That is, inspiration comes through scheduling, not daydreaming.

#Translation #Books


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