When writer’s block, or even a general dearth of creative feeling descends upon me, I start translating. In part, it’s a way to switch my brain onto a slightly different track, the one that shares some characteristics involved in doing crosswords or Sudoku– and so I can partially get my mind away from its despair at being in some sort of standoff with words and ideas.
But note I said only partially; translating provides a unique way to study an author’s style, and that’s where it’s akin to discussions creative writing classes might have about how Writer X achieved a particular effect, or carried a plot development through in an unexpected way. And on the rare occasions when I’ve been able to get others to work on the same piece simultaneously, but independently, it’s also been pretty interesting to compare our respective results; you see where something hit home for a given reader, or how a nuanced change in one term can bring an original interpretation to light or transform a mood.
Lately, I’ve been going to Ingeborg Bachmann for this sort of exercise; she’s unsentimental and almost spare, but that deceptive spotlessness is often on the point of bursting with emotional burdens or unconfronted historical baggage. The story I rendered as “The Caravan and the Resurrection”* is still my favorite of hers, both in terms of pleasure in translating and just in reading in general. It makes such a curious, not altogether clear, and especially not really comforting, theological statement, a fact I love. But at present, I’ve gotten started on “Among Murderers and Madmen,”** and instead of reading it through once before getting started on its English version, I’m just going into this thing blind, where developments to come are concerned, and seeing what happens. (For instance, I might have to go back and change the title, depending on how things turn out– and I might not find out for a while, since this is a longish story, and my calendar’s overloaded for the near future.) The beauty of undertaking this project on your own, for no purpose other than the task itself, is that there are, in fact, no rules (other than not letting it see the light of public day, since you probably don’t have permission from the copyright holder to even be doing such a thing). Let’s at least hope that this round of creative brain shake-up gets me out of my productive funk. Vorwärts!
* “Die Karawane und die Auferstehung,” in Ingeborg Bachmann, Sämtliche Erzählungen (Munich: Piper, 1996), 23-7.
** “Unter Mördern und Irren,” in ibid., 159-186.