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The Face of Thunder: Cristina Schumacher on writing and translating

A small story, in English and Portuguese

 

The Face of Thunder – a Design of Obsession

I was never scared of thunder until the day I dared to imagine what it would look like. That was because I had always known lightning wasn’t the face of thunder; lightning is the face of thunder’s temperament. Fiery. Brisk. Elusive. The imagination of thunder materialising began to haunt me. It was always there, looking at me, and it was not beautiful. Naturally, stormy weather made me crouch and cringe. But eventually even the warm, breeze-caressing days brought me no peace. I decided that such a life was not worth living, and walked toward the abyss as directly as the stones on the way allowed me. But the stones were so many that they made me stray from my destination, and I never reached that longed-for edge of my world.


A face do trovão – traçado de uma obsessão

Eu nunca tive medo de trovão até o dia em que ousei imaginar sua face. Isso porque eu sempre soube que a face do trovão não era o relâmpago; o relâmpago é o seu temperamento. Fogoso. Ríspido. Esquivo. A imagem do trovão começou então a me atormentar. Sempre presente, olhava para mim. Não era bela. Em dias de tempestade eu me escondia, sumia. Mas por fim nem mesmo os dias de brisa e tempo macio me permitiam ter paz. Decidi que uma vida assim não merecia ser vivida, e caminhei em direção ao abismo da forma mais reta e direta que me permitiam as pedras no caminho. Mas havia pedras demais. Tantas que me perdi, e nunca cheguei àquela tão desejada fronteira do meu mundo.


Author commentary
Knowing language like knowing your body: notes about translating my own stories

I have worked as a translator all my life. I’ve I’ve written many books, and translated from and to English and Portuguese countless memos, presentations, reports, articles and several books, along with plenty of proofreading and editing. At the last count I had either written or translated in the order of 4.5 million words, and this is a conservative figure. I have a degree in Translation, which does not make a huge difference as far as translation quality is concerned, because translating is really about committed practice and attention – coupled with deep, thorough, painstaking research. We have to know the languages we’re translating to and from like we know our own bodies. Additionally, because every field of knowledge we work with presents its own peculiar challenges, we need to face each translation task humbly, with an open mind and a tamed ego.

For someone with my experience, one would imagine that translating one’s own stories should be comparatively easier. Yet translating my own stories has been one of the most challenging surprises I have had. Let me explain why. As an aside, I have a problem with the word ‘should’. It is like indicating there is a knot in a part of a rope that must be untied but that has slipped out of reach. This what happens with many of our expectations, which lead us to spend time assuming untruths.

I can only speak for my creative experience, of course, and I’ll focus my comments mainly on the process of translating flash fiction and poetry. There is no one-size-fits-all approach; I believe that there are countless ways of approaching the creative writing process. But in my case, when I write something, an image generally comes to my mind – vocal, visual, textual – and I write it down as a first sentence. Then I ‘wait’ for what comes next and keep writing. In other words, I hardly ever have a plan for a story or poem; my stories write themselves through me. Of course, I sometimes interfere with what I am doing. I understand this might sound a little ethereal ¬– but mostly the fabric of the story is woven in a pattern that surprises me, too.

Now, translating these pieces of unplanned, from-the-depths-or-the-sides-or-the-edges-of-my-mind creative output creates a distinctive challenge because of their spontaneous origin. As my use of language is entirely intuitive at these moments, the creative process draws on natural, unadorned language resources. When I write in Portuguese, there is no concern with what a particular word or sentence is going to sound like in the target language, in this case, English. But I can write directly in English, too, and usually ask for someone I trust to check and help me solve the Portuguese interference. And when I write directly in English, I face the same challenges.

When trying to improve a translation, I find I sometimes have to leave whole sentences out. Or I replace them for others that will only make sense in the new text. And in many cases, it’s not even the sentence that really matters, it’s the focus and the concern that the translated message will reach the reader in the same way. Why would you say this particular thing in the target language? There is a lot of ‘this doesn’t make much sense in English/Portuguese’ and so the translation has to be a recreation indeed.

‘’Traduttore, traditore’ (‘The translator is a traitor’) says the Italian proverb. Maybe translators are betraying their readers when they are not providing them with the exact idea that the original text contains, or they could be betraying the author of the original text by straying from what was originally meant and giving their own opinion about the subject. This discussion can go ad infinitum; it is a permanent focal topic within the field of Translation Studies.

When I translate my own stories there is none of that. I will still be the author even if I do it well enough to make the translation invisible, which is the sought-for and problematic ideal of every translator. Because who has evolved to the point of consciously wanting to do a job that renders them invisible? In any case, I believe my translations can only be treason – or I can only be a traitor to myself – if I fail to favour what I want to say, and end up caught in the how it is said. It will be treason if I forget what that original vocal, visual, textual image that originated the story was really about.

The most important lesson that I learned from translating my stories: because language can be endlessly tweaked, the message can be lost and diverted many times along the way. As author-translator I find it is a key skill to know when to stop and let story complete itself.

Cristina Schumacher is a Brazilian linguist based in New Zealand and an expert in language learning and teaching. With 28 language manual titles published since 1999, she is also a coach, translator, evaluator and consultant to large international companies. Cristina’s work is focused on language awareness and on how language knowledge can become a highly effective self-development tool. She writes flash, poetry and fantasy.

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