October 05, 2010

Writing as an Act of Translation

I just wanted to share this apt quote from an Op-Ed article by Michael Cunningham in the New York Times, which my mother recently passed along to me. This bit of writerly wisdom really struck me:
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.
But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.
It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.
Click here to read the rest of the article, which is about translation of literature in both the specific and the broad sense. What about you? Do you feel like the written product is an inadequate approximation of what's in your head, or do you generally feel pretty good about what you write? Does the realization get closer to the vision as a writer matures and gains more experience, or is it a perennial struggle?


tanita davis said...

I went into my senior year in high school, dreaming of being a music major. But in a rare moment of seventeen-year-old perspicacity -- and believe you me, those were rare -- I realized that the music I heard in my head was something I could never hope to reproduce vocally myself or directing a choir. I didn't want to be One Of Those Evil Directors who screams a lot, and realized that if I went into music, that way frustration lay.

Sooooo, it's a good thing I didn't read this article before deciding on being an English major. Geez.

My own experience is that it gets better as you go along (this from the mighty perspective of all of two books). I feel like ALC was barely 1/8th of what I wanted to say, what I meant to do -- but the incoherence of the freshman writer has to improve simply by virtue of doing.

Maybe we're never virtuoso writers, fully able to express our every nuance - but I doubt humans can. We all just muddle along and do the best we're able...

And on THAT disturbing note...

Alex said...

Ok, I'm a little late to the dance here but thought I would throw in my 2 cents worth anyway. I don't think anything I write is what I had in my head. Somewhere between head and paper/computer screen so little editor I would like to banish gets in the way. It does get better, but I was trained to write objectively, no "I" allowed. Tbe only big work I did was a dissertation and it was definitely not what was in my head. Of course, I had my own internal editor, and three outside ones to help. So I think that Michael Cunningham was right to some extent. I practice getting as close to my vision as possible now, but it is slow - at least for me and I can't speak for anyone else.

aquafortis said...

Thanks for chiming in, Alex (it's never too late!). I think I have trouble with that from time to time--spending a lot of time on academic writing does make it difficult to switch gears, too, to other types of writing.

tanita davis said...

The internal editor and I got along much better for academic work. Often I look BACK at things I did during my MFA time and am sort of bewildered at the level of hauteur and expertise in the writing. Who was that? I wonder uneasily, and flinch to see my name on the title page.

Of course, though, I didn't particularly care that much about my topics. I mean, yes: I got into Aphra Ben, and I loved my 18th century female poets, and all of the rest. But it was a temporary thing -- and when the classes were over I went on to immerse myself in the next thing. Somehow that was an acceptable temporary partnership - my brain and my internal editor cooperated completely.

And then I started to write fiction - and when my passion got involved, it all fell apart.