Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lost in Translation


When you think of an event that really happened, whether you were there or not, your mind begins to form a scene, set in a particular place with a particular group of individuals.  You are in effect scrolling through it to see if you’d missed anything had you been there or relying in a most unreliable way on someone else’s interpretation of it.

When you think of an event that has not yet happened yet, but which you wish to make happen, you become aware of what a danger expectations of future events can be.

And yet, when you set an imaginary group of individuals into a place, quite real or an entire product of your imagination, you are not restrained by memory or version, but it may still take you a number of drafts to get the situation to your liking.

Describing actual events is in a real sense the act of performing a translation of history.  Someone is sure to object to a verb tense or mood.  Someone else will not like the verb you chose to represent the action you thought you saw or think you remember.

Once, early in your brief career with journalism, you were sent to report on a speech.  You had what you thought was a good enough reason for not going—a copy of the remarks the speaker was to make.  You had another place you’d rather go, and so you did.  Forget that you turned your copy in on time.  Forget that the managing editor informed you that the speech was not given.  Forget your smartass response that what you turned in was what the speaker would have said.  Do, however, remember that your presence was required not only to check the possibility of the speaker straying from the script—how many times has you deviated with great swerves of energy from lecture notes and intent? —but to verify that anything was said at all and to be a witness to potential responses.

Once in your brief career as a romance writer, an editor sent you a note telling you she was accepting a story of yours, then asking why you continued to write such stories because your rate of acceptance from her was perhaps one out of four or five.  This meant you only had the groove for this kind of story at a low rate of connectivity.  Both editors pointed out something vital to you which is the importance of a particular kind of presence being required for two almost diametrically opposed types of story.

Even if you are artistically and emotionally present when you compose fiction, there is the need to make sure your translations reflect with some accuracy the feelings, goals, and visions of the invented individuals of whom you write.  You’d not think to tell a fiction editor, This is what my characters would have said.  You are in fact saying, This is indeed what they said, and in a real sense, it matters not if I were there to hear it or not. There is a good deal of psychology and philosophy to be snowplowed out of the way when composing fiction.

A student asked you last night in all earnestness, “You said all my characters sound alike.  How do I change that?”

There were any number of things you wished to say, but each one of them would be you, replying to you, which is not where the question came from.  “They have to want different things,” you said.  “But they have to believe they want the same thing.”

The student blinked.

“It does not stop there.”  The reader has to understand the gap in their vision.

The student blinked again.  “I just want—she began.

You stopped yourself a scant instant before lecturing her about using the word “just.”

“Don’t try to explain them to each other or to us,” you said.

“How do I avoid that?”  She said.

Day one of Lent and already with the catechism.

There are more things you do not understand about the process of inventing, then portraying events, than you do understand about plucking them often simultaneously from things you actually experienced or were told about or read about or invented.

Things get lost in translation.

Reality often becomes lost in translation.

You often do.

This morning, in a conversation, you were recounting an event that seemed to you to serve as an excellent illustration of a point you were trying to make.  For a while, the person you were in conversation with looked at you in a way that reminded you of the managing editor who told you the speech you’d reported had not in fact been delivered.

You could not recall then, nor can you recall now whether the event you recounted happened in actuality where you were a witness, whether you’d heard or read the story at one remove, or whether you’d invented it out of whole cloth in the most ironic way of all, using individuals you knew in reality as characters in make-believe.

Romantic notions fill and fulfill you when you tell someone you love them, when one or more of your characters exchange that observation with another.  Now you can embark on the remarkable journey of discovering how those observations translate from one language to another.


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