No Blank Page

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Caspar David Friedrich. ‘Chalk Cliffs on Rügen’ (1818). 90.5 × 71 cm. Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur Switzerland. I would have entitled this: ‘The Translator Gazing into His Text’. 

So often do writers declare how agonized they are to sit down each morning to face a blank page which needs to be filled that I have often considered the phenomenon. Indeed, when I myself have sat down to write a piece of fiction, for example, I have experienced the feeling first hand. But all this is in stark contrast, I believe, to the experience of the translator. Because the translator never sits down to face a blank page: he sits down to face the very concrete text he is about to translate. This can be, and perhaps generally is for the translator truly made for his or her task, not agonizing in the least but rather quite pleasurable and even exhilarating. The core content of your work has already been done for you long before you open your eyes to begin your work day. I have always found this to be a source of great reassurance. I do not have to invent anything. I do not have to come up with any clever insight which is separate from insights of the author I am translating. I do not have to organize thoughts into some kind of cohesive whole where no whole has existed before. Any inventing, insight-gathering and organizing must be based upon what the author has long since accomplished and given to me to translate. It’s really a great feeling. And it is the translator’s unique preserve, his or her own happy hunting grounds, open daily to be eagerly explored.

Another reason why I believe the translator generally approaches his task with joy rather than trepidation is that the text itself, already accomplished by someone else and lying there before him, is something he can focus his full attention on with every bit of concentration he can muster: when engaged in on an habitual basis, this intent and silent concentration becomes over time a true pleasure, to be anticipated and relished. It is actually a form of meditation: the translator meditates at length upon his text. With all its nuances of language and subject matter, of context and contour, it is something the translator can admire, wonder at, learn from and at times puzzle over, before he ever begins the next most important task of actually translating it into another language. Translators have different methods here: some will read through an entire page or chapter before translating anything, and some will do it line by line, considering first the original text, then how it might be put into an entirely different idiom. Whatever the method, however, both tasks are done: meditation upon the original followed by meditation upon the translation. Both can be, and perhaps most generally are, sources of joy to the person engaged in the pursuit.

I believe that the process of translation is essentially a contemplative act, and that this is the reason why the translator really suited to his or her endeavor almost invariably finds great pleasure in engaging in it. The world drops away and there is only the enchanted world of the text. Then, emerging from that charmed place, you enter into the similarly but yet differently charged world of your translation. Then it gets really exciting, because the translator is actually creating a world that never existed before: the original world of his own unique translation. Choices need to be made, words and phrasings and syntax selected, but never once in this whole complex process does the translator face that awful blank page which so terrifyingly seems to loom before the writer. Even as he looks away from the text to be translated and gazes at his blank computer screen or sheet of paper, the translator’s mind is so filled with the words of the original work that there’s not a moment to be spared in the fearing of anything. Except that–and it most certainly can happen–you might not actually be up to the task…and not know it.

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