Writing feeling stale? Try a little translation for change.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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 Qwiklit.com. He spends his time between Canada and California. 

Your Degree is not Useless: 8 Invaluable Skills You Will Gain From Studying Literature

I woke up this morning to see that Buzzfeed had recently put out an article about the misconceptions of being an English major. The content of this article is puerile at best and, in my opinion, does more to push prospective students away from literature. Furthermore, recent articles such as this one posted by The Wall Street Journal have once again revived the idea that the language arts are a leisurely pursuit.

Fortunately, they have it all wrong.

There’s no use arguing that the now-popular STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are essential to adapting the workforce to the rising digital age, but as automation continuously removes whole sectors of jobs from the market, we must consider alternative ways of vocation. While rising tuition costs have driven people away from the Humanities for fear that they may not be employed, this new wave of automation leaves us asking pressing questions. What skills, for example, will be essential in the future? In ten, twenty or thirty years, who will be the most valuable thinkers?

Here are ten reasons why you should never underestimate the power of advanced literacy and artistic creation:

1. Critical Thinking

Outlook For The Future

Increasingly automated machine learning is already causing massive changes in the job market all over the world. Any actions that a computer can learn just as easily as we can will no longer require a human contribution.

What You Gain

The type of thinking learned from studying literature is completely different than what computers are learning. The detection of irony, of an unreliable voice or of an ulterior subtext within a reading are much harder to detect by machine. A supercomputer may be able to process information, but can it assign a value to the quality of one’s persuasion?

2. Creativity

Outlook For The Future

Web-based publishing are quickly bridging the gap between the medium and the message. With websites like WordPress, Tumblr, Facebook and LinkedIN providing high-quality platforms for expression, soon we will be seeing the democratization of content.

What You Gain

Many tech entrepreneurs have promoted the virtues of learning difficult programming, but those seeking to make a name for themselves via the internet will be able to concentrate more time on making good content, and less time and money on a suitable platform.

One of the most valuable skills you gain from studying literature is the recognition of creativity. With hundreds of thousands of companies vying for supremacy across social platforms, marketing is becoming more and more of a war of attrition for airtime. Only the most creative and audacious ideas will stand out.

3. Genuine Empathy

Outlook for the Future

I would be understating the importance of Facebook if I said that it has alienated us from “real life”, but social media has likely changed the dynamics of social interaction forever. As billions more join these online platforms, a growing need for genuine, interpersonal empathy will arrive.

What You Gain

One of the veritable landmark studies from the past decade posits that reading fiction is one of the most effective ways to cultivate empathy. As pessimistic as it sounds, a genuinely (I am purposefully repeating this word) altruistic approach to everything from app production to business management will be more valued than you expect. If companies will want popular opinion on their side, they will want to be represented by those who know how to empathize.

4. Speedreading

Outlook for the Future

As more and more software becomes able to read segments of text, our ability (or rather our will) to read large texts will dwindle. We will rely on computers to summarize.

What You Gain

I firmly believe in the ability to improve our cognitive sharpness through reading, and as I mentioned before, automation of reading will leave more complex, ambiguous texts in the dust. Being able to read large texts will not only improve your patience, but it will make you an important asset in a world moving at a mile-a-minute.

5. Reading the Big Picture > Big Data

Outlook for the Future

‘Big Data’ has recently been the buzzword around Silicon Valley and abroad. Many of the next decade’s major statistical findings will come as a result of amassed information from applications that require user information. Everything from traffic to pregnancy will be greatly affected.

What You Gain

The surge in big data is currently sending shockwaves through the STEM departments, but society’s growing dependence on this type of information may result in people seeking a contrary opinion. Rapid technological change often brings upon resurgence of more personal texts that highlight the exception rather than the norm, and there will be a growing audience seeking to move away from this subjection to macrocosmic inferences. The realist novels of the 19th century, for example, persuaded public opinion on major social issues because of their foray into urban and rural microcosms.

6. Concentration

Outlook for the Future

The inability for youth who have grown up on smartphones and computers to concentrate will become a gigantic problem for companies looking for patient and disciplined people

What You Gain

While some of you may associate reading with lazily rocking in a hammock on a breezy summer day, spending an afternoon with a difficult book is nevertheless an accomplishment in concentration that fewer and fewer people are able to do without browsing the internet or fiddling on their smartphone. Patient minds that can process a consistent stream of information will become increasingly valuable.

7. ‘Self’-Creation

Outlook for the Future

Social networks like Facebook and LinkedIN have already helped thousands turn from average people into celebrity personas, simply by allowing them to express themselves on a global scale. In the next few decades, this persona creation will become even more malleable and customizable, and your personality will not be limited by the medium you are using.

What You Gain

The finest resource for character and story creation is, of course, fiction. Characters like F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby would not be so alluring were it not for their ability to use fiction and rumor to their advantage. Today, interesting and attractive personalities are marketable. But soon, you will be able to be irresistible.

8. The Ability to Shock and Awe

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Outlook for the Future

The retirement of the baby-boom generation and the growth of automated machines will provide a huge portion of the population with spare time. While it is impossible to conclude that art is either better or worse in modern society, it is certain that this extra time spent reading and watching TV/film will cause people to demand more refined, interesting and thought-provoking works. As bleak as it may sound, entertainment will need to bewilder its idle audience.

What You Gain

Sure, you may think, literature is not as “applicable” in this day and age. This is a very erroneous notion; the quantity of entertainment one is exposed to every day is staggering, but the Youtube videos that once impressed people in 2006 will seem less novel now. Every day, though, the price of using high quality resources is shrinking. Self-publishing is now a simple process. Billions have access to high definition video. With much of the world now able to create and communicate at the fraction of the price it used to cost, the need to move your audience will become more and more valuable. Those able to inspire catharsis, then, will reap significant rewards.