A short guide on how to translate a book your client will love

I started translating a new book for one of my old clients today (Russian into English). So I thought I would jot down some thoughts and insights on the process of translating a book from a co-creator’s standpoint.

Translating a book is an act of co-creation, not a mechanical process

How do you translate a book? I start with the mindset. Having translated over 100 books in 28 years, I am convinced that producing a quality translation (or any work of art) is not a mechanical process but an act of co-creation.

Insights from J.R.R. Tolkien and Leo Tolstoy

Bag End,Bilbo Baggins' residence
Bag End

The creator of the world-famous fantasy legendarium, J.R.R. Tolkien, said that he never “invented” any of the events of the Lord of the Rings:

“I have long ceased to invent… I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.”

What does he mean?

Leo Tolstoy noticed a similar paradox in writing Anna Karenina. He confessed that he never knew in advance what Anna would do next and just waited to see how things would unfold.

I think both great authors reveal the secret of their great writing – being able to listen to the text, its characters, and the inner logic of the plot without forcing anything on them.

They didn’t just “tell” or “command” their characters to act in a certain way. They didn’t bid them to “do their will.” Instead, they patiently listened to them, letting them think and act on their own.

Dialoguing with the text as you translate

Co-creation is a process of deeply listening to what the text might be saying and responding to what you “have heard.”

Here’s how I see it. After reading a sentence, I pause for a second or two and let it sink in. The goal here is not to rush or force anything on the page. I am not “working on the text.” Rather, I am in a dialogue with it. In fact, “it” is working on me.

I just need to hear what’s being said and then “catch” my spontaneous response to it coming from inside. This “response” is the translation I am looking for.

Translation is a response to what you have heard. And it is very different from translating mechanically – as in “working on a text.”

Hearing what the sentence is “saying” is a way to tap into a hidden source of energy. It is this energy that creates something worth reading. If I allow the text to speak to me, I will be able to say something in return.

Translation as a conversation with a good friend

Imagine speaking to a good friend. What would happen if you started talking without letting them say a word? There would be no communication. No connection.

Translators often see the text as an object to work on. An object is something I can study, measure, and use. But I cannot have a relationship with an object. You need two subjects to have a relationship. Treating something or someone as an object implies disconnection.

As a translator, I need to establish a connection with the author. If I don’t hear him or her, I am not able to say anything that would BE BORN OUT OF THE CONNECTION.

But the reader is ultimately looking for this sensation of “connectedness,” “relatableness” when they read the text. Like “I have always wanted to say it, only I couldn’t find the right words.”

You never know where “the conversation” will take you

When I don’t “hear” the text (think “friend”), I push my own agenda. I think I know what to say. But I am not actually communicating because communication takes two parties, not one.

Translating in response is different. You never know in advance what the text will say to you or how you will respond. You are not managing anything but allow yourself to be led. It’s about trusting the flow.

Like in a good conversation, it looks like a cycle – I listen, I hear, I respond to what arises in me.

A simple exercise for connecting with the text

  1. Listen for your emotions as you read each sentence. People read emotions, not words. How does it make you feel? Warm? Entertained? Uplifted? Amused?
  2. Allow 1-2 seconds for the sentence to “settle in” before putting anything on the page. Most likely, you will “hear” some words filling up your consciousness. These are the words you are looking for – your free response.
  3. You will probably feel energy accumulating inside. When it comes, “catch the wave” and let it pour out on the page.
  4. Pause for 1 second before going to the next sentence to create some mental space. Then, listen to the next sentence.
  5. Repeat the cycle.

4 signs that you are on the right track

  • You lose all sense of time. When you translate a book with a co-creator’s mindset, you are carried along by a flow of creative energy, which makes time irrelevant.
  • You don’t keep track of how much you have done. The generated energy draws you into the process by a strong gravitational pull.
  • You don’t “think” very much. The words just come from the subconscious.
  • When you revisit what you have done, you feel a sense of fulfillment and a sense of awe at the same time, knowing that it wasn’t you who did it.

Literary Translation as Mindfulness – and its Many Benefits

When someone asks me how to become a literary translator, I have to stop and think. There are so many things to tell. Many individual streams feed this wonderful ocean of creativity. Yet, there is one stream that, in my opinion, flows underneath it all – and crowns it all. I would put it like this: “Literary translation is a mindfulness practice.”

Working in the flow
Working in the flow

The wisdom of a cat

In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle tells a story of how his cats taught him great wisdom. Imagine a cat sitting in front of a high fence, wanting to jump on it.

It looks up, then down, then around. For a brief moment, it seems to have lost all interest in jumping.

Then, all of a sudden, it perks its ears and looks up again. You wonder if he will make it. The fence is too high.

Before you know it, the cat’s body tightens up – you can almost “see” how energy accumulates inside it. Where does it come from?

The cat looks intently at the top of the fence as if seeing itself ALREADY up there. Its paws shuffle back and forth for a second or two, and then… it shoots itself up into the air in a most graceful leap, landing exactly where it wanted to be.  

What was happening inside the cat? You could almost sense the sudden rise of energy inside this nimble body. It felt almost like the cat was ALREADY up there even before it jumped.

What is the source of this energy? The cat simply projected itself to where it wanted to be. It saw itself ALREADY up there before doing anything. It had no doubt whether it would make it. It was one with its goal.

A mindful cat
A wise cat

How does it translate to translations?

I have been doing translations since 1993, and by now I can catch the difference between “just translating” (as in putting words on a page) and getting this “surge of energy inside” because I have seen in my mind what this sentence, paragraph, or text SHOULD be.

There is no doubt at that moment. I don’t hesitate what words to use. They just flow. Before I know it, the text is on the page. I am not “thinking” very much; it’s ALREADY there, in my mind.

This state of consciousness is fleeting, of course. It comes and goes. Unfortunately, I am not a cat and can’t bring it about at the swish of a tail.

But I have noticed that, whatever my state of mind at the beginning of the day, I still have some say in what will happen.

Literary translation as mindfulness – am I playing or working?

A wise man once said to me: “You are lucky to be a translator. You can always play.” I was surprised. I told him that at times my work felt like drudgery.

He replied: “You still have a choice in the matter. You can choose to play or to toil.”

Chuang Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, told a parable of an archer who “needed to win.” At first, he was shooting just for fun and seldom missed.

Chuang Tzu

When someone offered him a reward, a brass buckle, he became nervous. Then, he was offered a prize of gold and went blind – he started seeing two targets.

His skill didn’t change, but the prize divided him. He cared more about winning than shooting. The need to win drained him of power.  

The need to get results

If I start my day with the mindset “I need to get this done by 5 pm,” I focus on results. On winning. And this mindset divides me. I am not fully present in what I do. Focusing on the goal, not the moment, drains me of power.

But if I let go of the “need to win,” I gradually immerse myself into the process. My mind refocuses on what’s right there on the page. I get centered. I pause. I don’t need to win. I am one with what I do.

This new mindset grows slowly. Every now and then, I still relapse to “Am I being productive”? But I let it go again and again, and then suddenly it comes – a surge of energy. I ALREADY see what I want to say even before typing it down. And then… a leap.

The result of not focusing on results

It’s impossible to create real quality when your work is a means to an end. Real quality is elusive. It eludes me when I am not in the flow, not in the zone, regardless of how much effort I put in. And it comes organically when I am “not producing” but playing. My work is an end in itself.

Revisiting my clients’ comments on the quality of my work, I often see this strange correlation. Not focusing on results usually brings about the best results.

When I am not in the flow and just type in words on a page, the quality may not be bad, but it’s not what the client will come back for.

The benefits of working in the flow

Science has discovered that when a person is in the flow, the brain releases certain hormones and brainwaves that are conducive to a sudden leap in performance. The neocortex amps up dramatically, increasing the speed of learning. The prefrontal cortex, which is our “conscious mind,” temporarily shuts down, which explains why we lose all sense of time, place, and self.

In other words, this is a neurobiological condition in which outstanding performance and creativity become readily accessible.

How do you enter the flow state?  

Even though we have no direct control over the flow, certain mental exercises help facilitate this state of consciousness. Every person has a flow-inducing strategy, whether they are aware of it or not.

It takes some self-observation to find situations, contexts, or thought patterns that work for you as a portal into the flow. Have you seen yourself suddenly getting inspired by something to the degree that you become super energized? What touched you to the core? When was it? Where did it happen?

Inspiring places
A place of inspiration

I have noticed over time that I get super energized when I imagine myself reading my translations to my friends gathered in our living room. It actually happened a lot in the past when we hosted a book club in our apartment. In my mind’s eye, I will immediately see their faces, and I want to tell them a good story.

This thought alone sends shivers down my spine. It has worked for me again and again when I want to get in the flow.

Some questions and helpful tips for getting in the flow

  1. What are the situations, thought patterns, or places that make you come alive again and again?
  2. Where does the flow state happen for me the most?
  3. Why is it so meaningful?
  4. When you are in that situation, thought pattern, or place what is happening for you? (Not externally as in: “I am playing music” but internally: “I am making these people happy”). In my case, I am telling an exciting story to my good friends and I am loving it.
  5. Focus on that inner goal “I want to tell my friends a good story” when you start translating.

If you have any thoughts or comments on literary translation as mindfulness, please leave them down below!