(Note: This article is the third in our “Cardinal Sins of Translation” series – here’s #1, #2, #3 and #4 if you missed them!)

Translation is all about making decisions… and remaking decisions… and reconsidering them… and tweaking them… until your deadline comes around and the “final” decisions have to be made.

Sometimes this pressure to make decisions can lead us to make them too quickly. We make a choice—whether it’s a word, phrase, idiom, cultural reference, style, etc.—without giving much consideration to how many options are actually available to us. Right from the first draft, we make decisions that lead us to consciously or unconsciously ignore other possible options.

So, what if, rather than starting your process by making all the decisions right away, you left lots of options available for yourself to explore later? Rather than expecting yourself to produce a clean, idealized “document,” what if you allowed yourself to make a “messy” draft, full of extraneous synonyms, various permutations of the same sentence, a mix of styles, comments to yourself, highlighted areas, and even question marks in those places where you draw a blank?

I’ve heard translators emphasize the importance of really taking your time with the first draft of a translation. This is certainly important on the level of making sure you understand the text, on both the semantic and the stylistic levels. However, sometimes this mindset can also draw us back into the pressure of feeling that we need to make every important decision in this first draft. Yet experience tells us that some of those decisions can only come once we’ve spent a lot of time translating the text and have a better sense of how those individual choices work into the whole.

“Messy” translation can be done slowly or quickly. You might delve into a word or phrase and decide to come up with several options for it before moving on. On the other hand, if you get stuck on something—if none of the options you can think of “work” or you feel like you’re spending too much time trying to think of an equivalent idiom or cultural reference—the “messy” mentality gives you permission to highlight the problem area, perhaps leave yourself a parenthetical note about it, and keep moving.

Once, this method led me to choose two adverbs in English for a single word in a French text I was working with, since I couldn’t find just one word in English that fully expressed the French word’s meaning. Because I’d already listed several synonyms that expressed the French word’s different aspects, I saw that keeping two of these synonyms would better express the word’s full range at that point in the text.

Other times, the parenthetical notes I’ve left for myself in areas I’ve gotten stuck have given me a good starting place when I next sit down to work on the translation. Notes like “this needs to sound less choppy” or “try to find an idiom that fits the nautical puns in this section” can help me remember why I got “stuck” in that certain place and give me a clear goal for moving forward.

If you’re a perfectionist (as I tend to be), this method might be painful at first. But it can also be freeing to realize that you don’t have to make every important translation decision in one sitting. You may even surprise yourself by delving deeper than you normally would into possible options, and come out with a more polished translation to show for it.

When I write, I put down everything I can think of without worrying about how it sounds. It’s just about getting my ideas onto the page. You might approach “messy” translation in the same way—get as many ideas as you can into your first draft, then refine it in your editing process.

How about you? Do you create “messy” first drafts when you’re translating? If so, do you have any other stories about how it’s helped you become a better translator? And if not, why not give it a try!

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Christiana was drawn to literary translation through her love of reading, writing, and the French language. Her passion is for experimental writing that seeks to create new kinds of literature, such as the works of the OuLiPo. She received an MA in Literary Translation (French-English) from NYU in 2013 and is currently working on a PhD in Translation Studies from Binghamton University. Her first book-length translation, One Hundred Twenty-One Days, a novel by Michèle Audin, came out in 2016. She lives in Raleigh, NC. You can find Christiana online at www.christianahills.com
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