Book Review: Tapping Into Translators’ Creativity


Greek translator Magda Phili has put together an interesting book called Tapping Into Translators’ Creativity, dedicated to fellow freelance translators working hard on their craft. This little book focuses on creativity and how translators’ work really is a creative one, although those outside of the world of languages and even translators themselves sometimes don’t realise it.


Translation can be easily perceived as mechanical and technical. We receive the text in one language and, with our language skills and the help of dictionaries, deliver it to the client in a different language. What’s creative about it? Well, producing quality translations requires a combination of skills and it is certainly not as simple as many might think. Translating involves the gathering of not only linguistic expertise but also cultural and social awareness, a deep knowledge of the subject matter of the document(s) we are working on and really, creativity. When you read the product of a translator’s work you can’t feel it is stiff or hard to follow. How many times have we heard that a translation needs to read like an original and not like a translation? As Else Gellinek wrote on the foreword, translators “connect the dots” by digging “into the minds and worlds of authors and extract[ing] the necessary information to render a concept intelligible to readers”.

Different languages are constructed differently. Direct equivalences are scarce so the professional translators need to get their creative juices working to make it work.

The business of an independent translator goes well beyond the linguistic work of translation. Oftentimes, translators are also copywriters, transcreators, writers of blog posts, and authors of books and ebooks. They often create courses and presentations, and design beautiful websites. Translators create. A translator’s work is somewhat invisible, but many translators are making themselves visible through investment in a solid online presence. Magda stated that translation work is “a constant source of inspiration” so translators’ are naturally motivated into producing their own writing materials. It is a way of sharing knowledge and showing one’s linguistic and technical skills.

Translation as creation

Going back to our main art, translation, the author defends it is not simply a derivative work. Translation is separate from the original. That is why there are translation awards such as the PEN Literary Awards or The Man Booker Prize. And that is why there are translation degrees and professional associations. Even with the constant development in technology, machine translation is still not solving companies’ communication problems worldwide. Only human translators can add their linguistic skills, cultural knowledge and awareness, spot and overcome errors in the original, and secure language is adequate for the intended recipients.

Translation can be considered a work of art. Magda Phili dedicates a whole chapter to this idea by showing how Johannes Vermeer’s best-known painting Girl in the Pearl Earring has been reinterpreted by different artists. The outcomes of some of these reinterpretations have been: the remaking of the portrait in mosaic, a digital painting with the female character in Vermeer’s masterpiece in a more modern setting, the well-known novel by Tracy Chevalier, or even its adaptation to film, starring Scarlett Johansson.

Creation as translation

In our daily lives, our experiences are interpreted and translated according to how we see and what we know of the world. For example, Truman Capote created the character Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s from his interactions with many different women he knew as friends or acquaintances. He created something new from his experiences of what was already present in his life.

Are we ever in a state of creating from a tabula rasa? Can we create something absolutely new? Or are there inevitably influences from the past?

As Magda says, I too believe that

Creatives will always come up with fresh ideas and solutions that keep renewing the world we live in. They do this by connecting the dots of the past, the present and, sometimes, the future.

Why are translators creative?

A significant number of translators are involved in creative activities outside of the translation work. Some use their creativity to find different sources of income. Others invest in creative activities for leisure and fun.

Magda details some reasons why that is so. So, translators tend to work alone all day, with not much chance of interaction with others. That may lead to a need of becoming visible and of ‘being out there’, so to speak. When they take time from work and from the computer, translators tend to enjoy creative activities, such as playing an instrument, singing, baking, or painting.

Also, due to the nature of their work, translators are active researchers and learners. They work on projects on different subjects and for different companies. The need to keep updated on the latest news and trends makes it a must to absorb new information daily. Translators are often among the first to learn about new products, for instance.

Being self-employed, the creation of a reliable brand for our business is quite important. This is when writing content for our website, blog, and marketing materials comes in. Translators are business owners and entrepreneurs. Most of us do not own a degree in marketing or management but we make it work. With few resources, often as a one-(wo)man show, translators run successful businesses and get the world communicating.

Summing it up, in the words of the author, “[i]f you work as a freelance translator you are driven to create”.

If this post made you want to read more about translators’ creativity, go here and buy Magda’s book.

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