Why Translate When You Can Write?

  • onJuly 27, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byHoward Goldblatt


When I first examined the issue of translating fiction, the literary genre that most interests me, as opposed to creating fiction, I conceptualized it as: “Why literary translators don’t write their own novels.” In other words, I thought of it not as an interrogation, but as an exposition, for I could think of a number of reasons why translators don’t write novels, and I’ll list those shortly. But first I needed to ensure that my assumption was correct, that translators, almost by definition, do not write novels. Proving that, of course, leads us to the black swan theory. So I’ll hedge my bet by stating that I do not know any translators of fiction—and I know quite a few of them—who write their own novels and stories. Does that mean that the two categories of artists are always and can only be mutually exclusive, that one is either a writer or a translator, never both? Of course not. There are, in fact, any number of writers who also translate. The names Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, and Vladimir Nabokov spring to mind. But, let’s face it, no matter how involved they are/were, they are known to all as writers, not translators, despite the fact that Auster is often cited for his translations of French writers, or that Nabokov’s view of a translator’s obligation to the original is well known and quite controversial (I, for one, reject it).

At this point, we need to ask the question: Who writes, and who translates? Let’s start with the latter. Mostly, I think, it is people who love “language” more than they love “literature” (strictly a matter of degree!). Academics in the many national literatures, who seem to fit that definition, are among the most prevalent translators of literary texts, sometimes in support of scholarly work, sometimes to make foreign literatures available to students who do not know the foreign language well, and sometimes to add to the corpus of world literature in translation. Then why don’t they also write, since they must, in addition to being proficient in at least two languages, love literature and take great joy in reading and working on it? There are a number of possible reasons.

I suspect that most translators, academic or not, love what they do. The satisfaction garnered in working closely with a foreign text and, through the judicious and often inspired search for the mot juste, rendering it into a new work as fine as the original, is palpable. Most translators would not find this fulfillment less valuable than writing creative works of their own. In fact, they take pride in precisely what it is they do. Why, they might ask, write a bad novel when I can translate a good one? To them it is a high calling. Many writers, I’m afraid, would not subscribe to this claim, wanting their work to reach the widest possible audience, yet seldom approving of translated versions of their work. But there are exceptions: Goethe is on record as defining literary translation “one of the most important and dignified enterprises in the general commerce of the world.” Pushkin has called the translator “a courier of the human spirit,” and Borges has written: “Perhaps . . . the translator’s work is more subtle, more civilized than that of the writer: the translator clearly comes after the writer. Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization.” (Thanks to Robert Wechsler for these.)

Then who writes? For the most part, putting aside the issues of livelihood and ego, I think it is people who have a desire for self-expression, who have stories to tell, and who want to be beholden only to themselves. Theirs is a search for ways to describe the human condition, using a variety of narrative techniques and images.

One might say that the translator deals with sheets of paper (or, these days, a computer screen) with writing on them, where the novelist stares at blank pages; or we could say that translators have texts, and writers have ideas. A translator selects a text to work on, a sample of writing that permits internal creative impulses, but has clearly defined boundaries. Those particular boundaries (length, style, images) do not exist for writers. Both are creative artists, and their work overlaps. But they are different.

Since uninformed outsiders often ask if translators harbor a desire to write their own novels, I’m going to hazard a guess that many do, but not most (thankfully, I suppose). Then why don’t they/we? In other words, are translators also frustrated writers? For those (theoretical) translators who also write, translation may be like training wheels on a bicycle. Translating a good novel lets you zip along with the author with little fear of falling off as long as you keep your hands on the handlebars. Take off those authorial wheels, and you are out there on your own, everything from idea to choice to execution. Knowing how something works can surely make you more competent in putting it to use. When for instance, you see flaws in someone else’s work, you try to avoid them in your own. But it can also make you wary of even trying it, for fear of messing it up.

One key difference between writing and translating has to do with schedule. A translator’s task is circumscribed by the text he/she is working on. One can begin each workday by laying out the text to be translated and start working at a pace dictated by the difficulty of and familiarity with the text. One can stop and start at will, based often upon what other activities place a demand on one’s time. Even a publisher’s deadline presents no problem. Writers, on the other hand, seldom enjoy that consistency of pace, for they must follow the logic of the plot as it is formed in their heads and on the page, and each writer is different. Wang Wen-hsing, a Taiwanese novelist, has stated that when he wrote sixty characters a day on one of his novels in progress, it was a productive day. John Updike, it is said, had a precise daily schedule based on the clock, working (writing) so many hours a day, no more and no less. Then there is Oscar Wilde, who is said to have responded to a question about revising his work before publication: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back.”

In the end, naturally, personal preference, circumstances, skill sets, and the like dictate the choice of endeavor. I once asked an accomplished fellow translator why she didn’t try writing her own stories.

“Because I’ve got better things to do,” she said. And so she had. 


Howard Goldblatt
Translator of Chinese fiction,
including Nobel laureate Mo Yan