By Phil James


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Writer’s block is a mighty beast. It catches every writer off guard and sometimes, it take month–if not years–to shake off.  Sometimes, it feels like nothing is conquerable in the mind of the lost writer. But I want to propose a solution to your daily writer’s block, so that you can still apply your creative muscles while also putting something into your own words.

How about a little translation?

Translation is a loose term. To some writers, it literally means the word for word transference of a text into another language. This is perhaps the most noble path–the author of the original text will likely not want their phrases, metaphors and linguistic structure to be compromised by the misinformation of incorrect words.

But to others, translation is less of a science and more of an art, for lack of a better word. Nearly every one of Shakespeare’s plays was written before by another playwright, poet or historian, But few will tell you that Shakespeare was unoriginal. Rather, what we remember is his response to the conventional tales. If you apply the same approach to your writing, not only will you write more productively, but also more strategically.

You can be creative without exhausting your creativity


Creativity comes in many different forms. While the J.R.R. Tolkien’s and George R.R. Martin’s of this world can populate an entire world out of thin air, the likelihood of you doing that while keeping a day job is minimal. But with translation, the creativity you provide doesn’t require any plot conjuring nor character building. Rather, translation forces you to be linguistically and stylistically creative. If a piece of French poetry contains long, languid words to create a sense of slow time, how will you create that same sensation in English? Think of it this way: Translation forces you to think beyond the definition of words and gets you right to the meaning of words and sounds,

You can stay true to a story, but give your own interpretation


When translating it into another language, you can reshape a character’s key traits by specifying the connotations behind a certain word. Translating a story helps you think about the intention of your character’s actions, thus helping you better embody your subjects. Consider a word like ‘nice’, for example. ‘Nice’ can mean something like ‘kind’, but it can also signify weakness or suggest a limited sense of gratitude. Be very wary of how you translate actions. A character may “look” at someone else, or they may stare, glare, peer, leer–the choice is up to you.

You are forced to do close reading

Translation is also a great exercise if you want to truly dissect a particular text. When you read in your strongest tongue, you will likely gloss over common expressions or familiar phrases. But when you translate, especially with an eye for maintaining the rhythm and atmosphere of the original text, then it forces you to not only interrogate what is actually happening in the story, but also how they original author conveys those images and ideas.

Translating will help you track how authors and poets modify their rhythm in certain areas, or how they make certain descriptions either very simple or exceedingly complicated. Such skills are very hard to adopt without the practice that comes with translation.

You can really understand the structure of a piece


One of the most daunting types of translation is poetry. You must include all of the elements and maintain the same general form to get a desired result. But how do you keep all the pieces together? Translations forces you to disassemble a piece and then put it all back together. Unsurprisingly, many of the most successful artists and engineers have benefitted from doing so; everyone from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs improved their knowledge of their craft through this same process, although they did it with transistors and radios.

Forcing yourself to maintain the rhyme structure will improve the creativity of your word placement and word choice, and as a result help you gain a better understanding of form.

Translation avoids the most common causes of writer’s block

The average writer may spend years trying to churn out a piece worthy of the attention of their audience. But with translation, your length and content are already set. So instead of using your creativity to conjure up new worlds and alien characters, you can instead work with materials you already have. Think of it this way: the creativity you put into story creation is different from the creativity you put into your word choice, but most writers fail to make that distinction. Translation allows you to simply sit down at your workspace and begin the mental process of composition.

Remember, translation doesn’t just mean transferring words from one language to another. You can take a 14th century English text and put it into modern terms. You can also take a fairytale by the Brothers’ Grimm and give it a modern perspective, replacing the enchanted forest with the big city, and the villainous wretches with modern equivalents. Likewise, you can tell the same story from another character’s perspective. The point is to have material to work with from the moment you sit down to write. Think of it as a confidence booster.

Phil James is the Editor-in-Chief of He spends his time between Canada and California. 


  1. I really like this idea.Translation-or rather- reinterpretation of something. No idea is quite as original as the author usually thinks it is. There are very few genuinely original ideas or stories around.But there are a number of genuinely great writers and poets and playwrights etc around.What makes them great is not their originality of ideas, it’s how they interpret and rewrite those same, old ideas and stories.

  2. Hi Phil! Per your earlier permission, I’ve scheduled this article as a guest post on A Writer’s Path on May 31st. As usual, it contains your credit/bio/link back to this website. Thanks.

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