Translating from Ideas to Paper

In the New York Times this weekend, writer Michael Cunningham has a wonderful essay called “Found in Translation.” In it he talks about translating from one language to another. But then he talks about a very different kind of translation: the act of writing itself.

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.

The all-encompassing epic you imagine in your head is so difficult to put down on paper. It never lives up to what you imagine and feel.

The only book by Cunningham I’ve read is The Hours and I liked it. Though it’s one of those rare books whose movie version I liked just as much. Both made me want to read Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but sadly I’ve yet to get it to the top of my TBR pile. I keep getting sidetracked onto one thing or another.


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