What is word choice?
Great poets and writers are known for their ability to choose words that accomplish multiple tasks—convey several meanings (via metaphor), evoke sound/image/smell/taste, play off the sounds and meanings of other words, and allude to whole other caches of information that both inform the poem and cause the reader to experience many meanings in just one word or phrase.
In my own writing, I strive to use words and language to their full potential. Beyond double meanings and allusions, language can play with perception and conventional wisdom, just by twisting a phrase or inverting the order of a well known idiom. Words—a single word even—can suggest a whole history, culture, school of knowledge, or system of belief. Tweaking such a word, or using it is just the right way can amplify or judge or evaluate all those meanings without interrupting the flow of the prose.
Our world understands this power and exploits it often—religion, politics, advertising, etc. This is not news. But as writers, you can wield this power to create intriguing, influential, informed prose that reaches out of the confines of each letter to convey more than just a story. Isn’t it amazing?
In today’s class, we will practice stretching our vocabulary and our verbal abilities to create prose that does more than just relay the details of a story. We will do what is called an English to English translation.
I first did an exercise similar to this in high school English class when we studied Shakespeare. Our teacher instructed us to read a short section of Romeo and Juliet, then write a line by line “translation” of what was going on. This is also called paraphrasing, though paraphrase implies a shortened version, while translation ensures as much of the original as possible will remain intact.
I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find an example of this online. I was right. Here is one I found on http://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/sonnets/36.htm. This site has nearly all his sonnets “translated” into modern English.
Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so, I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
Let me admit that we two have to part even though we are united in love. By parting those disgraces that we’ve brought on ourselves can be born by me alone, without any help from you. In our love for each other there is a single mind, even though circumstances, which force us apart, can’t destroy our love, but rob us of those sweet hours of mutual pleasure. I can’t ever openly acknowledge you again because my wretched guilt would bring shame on you. Nor can you honour me with public notice without dishonouring yourself. So don’t do that: my love for you is such that I value your reputation as though it were my own
Admittedly, the case here is that the translated version lacks some of the loveliness and depth of the language in the original. Sure, the message is more clearly stated in terms recognizable to the modern reader, but Shakespeare’s poetics and verbal dexterity is lost. The translation is too literal.
Let us, instead, think like professional translators. Modern translators has a special gift to both convey the literal meaning of one writer’s work into another language while maintaining the literary deftness of the original prose or poetry. Though impossible to translate every bit of the double meanings, cultural allusion, etc., a great translator will be able to cull the meanings behind the words and transfer them to the translated text.
Consider the poem below. This is a translation of the Spanish original. While the translator tried to keep the words literal, he also tried to maintain the beauty of the poem’s original language and imagery, though we might have lost some of the other poetic devices such as alliteration (use of similar consonant sounds) and assonance (use of similar vowel sounds).
This poem is from the Center for the Art of Translation website. They also publish a great book called Two Lines, which publishes poems side by side—Original language on one side, English translation on the other.
By Eduardo Milán
Translated by John Oliver Simon
Meanwhile is the word
that ought to be wiped off the map. An expression
as ordinary as a basket of apples, red and shining
as the fresh‐swept streets of Heaven, which means
not everything is ordinary. If there’s a place on the map
for the word meanwhile that’s an outrage, that’s like
loving your murderer, the dead man’s debt, the debtors
so to say the Cabbalists, the willing, the key.
Why a map? Why can’t we escape from the mountains,
spirits who block the gifts with their chests? Topography,
typical word. Come and measure, bring calculators,
wink one eye, cover up with eyelashes. Get on the bus,
go down the mountain road. You can’t lose.
Everyone’s a winner. And all of it, absolutely all, seen from childhood
Read the piece below carefully. Then you will do an English-to-English translation of the story. You can use synonyms, or even explain words with whole phrases that convey the same basic meaning. If you want, you can try to maintain the tone of the original piece—or—you can change the tone completely.
Napkin Fiction: “Let X” by Chad Simpson
Let x equal the moment just after he tells her he’s starting a club for people who know something about computers.
It is summer, 1984, and this is their grade school playground. She is idling on a swing over a patch of scuffed earth. He stands just off to the side, one hand on the chain of the swing next to hers.
Let y equal her laughter. Her laughter sounds like a prank phone call at three a.m. It sounds a little evil.
She throws her head back, and even though he is hearing the y of her laughter in the wake of that moment x, he can’t stop staring at her hair. He can’t believe how black, how shiny, how perfect it is.
She stands up out of the swing and asks, “What do you know about computers?”
It is 1984. Nobody at this elementary school—or in Monmouth, Illinois, in general—knows all that much about computers.
Let z equal the face he makes. The face is not a reaction to her question, which has not been given a variable, but to her laughter.
He was trying to impress her with this computer club. He knows she is smarter than he is.
He knows that she was, in fact, smarter than everyone in the entire fifth grade, and that next year, when they start pre-algebra, she will be the smartest person in the sixth grade, too.
He can’t help the z of his face. He feels humiliated. His ears are tiny fires, and her hair and face, both of which he finds beautiful, has always found beautiful, are beginning to blur together. She has stopped laughing, but he can still hear the ghost of it as he searches for a variable that might make it as if none of this ever happened.
In a moment she will step closer to him, recognizing in some way his humiliation, and wanting to make him feel better, but he will think she is about to say or do something even worse than she’s already done, and he will misinterpret her gesture. When she gets close to him, he will kick her in the stomach—harder than he has ever kicked anyone.
He will regret this before she even begins to cry. She will double over, gasping for breath, and look up at him with dry eyes, and he will know that the hurt he has just inflicted upon her is at least equal to but probably greater than the hurt caused to him by the y of her laughter.
He will feel terrible, and he will immediately think back to x, the variable that started this whole rotten equation.
Let x equal not the moment just after he tells her about the computer club, but the moment just before it.
Let x be his saying nothing about this club and instead telling her something he’s always wanted to say.
Let x be a different gesture altogether. Something honest. Tender.