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!

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