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. 

Ten Incredible French-Canadian Texts you should read right now

by Elizabeth DiEmanuele

Similarly rich and full of complex insight into Canada’s cultural memory, French-Canadian texts have a very different perspective with regards to history, politics, and language. These texts tell stories of identity, history, struggle, and loss, all unique and separate from Canada’s dominant, English-speaking society. Contributing to Canada’s diverse literary canon, here is a list of 10 compelling French-Canadian texts.

  1. Marie Chapdelaine (1913) – Louis Hémon

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Though written by a French writer who resided in Quebec for many years, Marie Chapdelaine is a French Canadian classic. As a love story that also addresses the struggles of settling within Canada, including climate, working the land, politics of language and the complexities of religious doctrine, Marie Chapdelaine offers insight  into the workings of the Quebec province.

2. The Tin Flute (1945) – Gabrielle Roy

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The Tin Flute takes place during the Second World War at a time when Quebec was still experiencing consequences of the Great Depression. The characters suffer from extreme poverty and sacrifice for each other amidst poor conditions. Hailed as a novel that captures the struggle of the working-class during the time while also capturing very real moments of tenderness and love, The Tin Flute is a must read, Canadian classic.

3. The Second Scroll (1951) – A.M. Klein

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“Wonderful is the engrafting of skin, but more wonderful the million busy hushed cells, in secret planning, stitching, stretching, until — the wound is vanished, the blood courses normal, the cicatrice falls off.”

Tracing his Uncle Melech’s history as a Holocaust survivor with goals to help Jewish peoples return to Israel, the unnamed narrator follows his uncle to Italy, Morocco, and Israel; but, he is always a step behind in the journey. Constructed as a modern Torah and told through a variety of narrative forms, this complex novel seeks to come to terms with a post-Holocaust world.

4. Mad Shadows (1959) – Marie Claire Blais

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Marie Claire Blais’ short debut novel is anything but a simple read. Written at a time when Jansenism dominated much of Quebec, Mad Shadows was a taboo novel that transgressed doctrine and its restrictions. Many have read it as a deconstruction of the Jansenism myth. Focusing on the family dynamics of Patrice, Isabelle-Marie, and Louise, Mad Shadows troubles the body, familial relationships, and the human consciousness through each character’s obsession for beauty and perfection. With no happy end, this novel explores the unsettling capacities of the human.

5. Next Episode (1965) – Hubert Aquin

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“I am the fragmented symbol of Quebec’s revolution, its fractured reflection and its suicidal incarnation.”

Next Episode tells the story of an imprisoned revolutionary who decides to write a thriller as he awaits his execution. Significantly, his story becomes an allegory for the Quebec separatist movement of the 1960s, deeply connected to issues of loss, politics, rights of peoples, and sacrifice.

6. Beautiful Losers (1966) – Leonard Cohen

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Strange, uninhibited, and taboo, Beautiful Losers does not hold anything back. This experimental narrative develops a love story between the Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an unnamed Canadian, a native woman named Edith, and F, a member of the Quebec separatist movement. With sexually explicit and taboo scenes, Cohen’s novel experienced mixed reception; but, its humorous depiction of complex power structures and identity politics has been acclaimed by many.

7. Kamouraska (1970) – Anne Hébert

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Switching between the past and the present in a stream of consciousness style, this novel tells the story of the well-respected Elisabeth Rolland. As Elisabeth sits at her second husband’s death bed, she recalls a tragic secret, that of a passionate love triangle and its murderous consequences. Based on the true story and murder of Seigneur of Kamouraska in 1838, the novel explores love, passion, and the repercussions of an uncontainable past.

8. La Sagouine (1971) – Antonine Maillet

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“Your happiness in life, the only way you’ll ever get any is to keep on asking for it, you can’t just sit back waiting for it to come along. So you got to take care, because one day, without saying nothing to nobody, it’ll just pop back to where it came from. Life’s funny that way.”

This play written by Antonine Maillet is the true story of an Acadian cleaning woman and former prostitute. As Maillet writes, “That is where I found her, between her mop and her rags, bending over that pail of dirty water that has been collecting for half a century all the dirt of the country. Muddy water perhaps, but still capable of reflecting the face of a woman who can only see herself through other people’s dirt.” As a story of struggle, poverty, strength, and humour, this play tells story of this woman’s life and of Acadia.

9. Volkswagon Blues (1984) – Jacques Poulin

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The novel’s protagonist, Jack, is a writer who seeks to find the brother he has not seen in 20 years. With the help of his hitchhiker friend, a Métis girl who goes by the name, “La Grande Sauterelle,” the two road trip through Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and the Oregon Trail. In their search for Jack’s brother, Jack and La Grande Sauterelle uncover histories of the French and First Nations peoples in Canada, complicating the simplicity of the Canadian myth. Following the tradition of Jack Kerouac’s The Road, Poulin’s Volkswagon Blues is a story of adventure, disillusion, and self-discovery.

10. Frog Moon (1994) – Tostevin Lola Lemire

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Using a variety of narrative mediums, including oral tradition, myth, folk tales, and past experiences, Lemire’s debut novel, Frog Moon, tells the story of a French Canadian woman’s attempts to confront her complex history. Kaki, also known as Laura, recalls her childhood experiences in Northern Ontario, her strict Christian schooling, and the loss of the French language from moving to Toronto. Moving between Kaki’s past and present, Frog Moon is a rich narrative that addresses the intangible effects of loss (of people, of language, of home) and the ways in which these losses come to shape one’s identity.