Lost in Translation

I was once told, “If you want to be a decent writer, you’d better be a good translator too”. I am not sure of how veritable this advice is, but personally I am convinced that possessing strong ability in translation can elevate my own writing because of the process’ requirements for linguistic sensitivity and the cultural susceptibility.

Last month I finished the book, Maya’s Notebook (El Cuaderno de Maya), written by Isabel Allende and translated by Anne McLean. The smooth rhythm that is the book’s narrative made my reading experience seamlessly pleasant. I was showered with splendid sentences such as this one:

“The tongue is a daring and indiscreet snake, and I’m not talking about the things it says. The heart and the penis are my favorites: indomitable, transparent in their intentions, candid, and vulnerable; one shouldn’t take advantage of them”. (pp.228)

I can’t help but wonder whether the original is as biblically poetic as the one christening my mind.

Growing up bilingual, if not bicultural, I have my fair share of running across bad translated materials. In Taiwan blemished translation novels and poetries from foreign countries are endemic, except Japan. Haruki Murakami, the most influential Japanese writer in Taiwan (and New York), has an ordained Taiwanese translator, who not only captures his writing quirks but essences. However no one here dares to touch Edith Wharton. My first introduction to this magnificent writer was back in 1993 when Martin Scorsese’s movie, “The Age of Innocence,” came out. Greatly impressed by the elegant movie, I dug out the novel’s sole translation available in the market place. Sadly I vomited in the midst of reading it, decided to go kaput and burned the book in my garage. There was zero complete sentence; the translation of “absence” as in “Absent—that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him…..” was unfortunately explained literally as ”AWOL”.

Last year I spent some time translating the book (The Age of Innocence) and had to stop after a few weeks. I was stuck in building the connecting bridge between two languages (English and Chinese). Some terms, such as “shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy,” was difficult to find comparable equivalence. The word, shabby, can be easily misinterpreted as contemptible in Mandarin.

What’s the best translation novel you’ve ever read? Why do you think it’s successful?

Leaving Space for Small Inspirations in My Writing

I’m not a very organized writer. Far from it, in fact. That’s not to say that I don’t plan ahead in any manner or have an outline… well, “outline” is giving it too much credit. It would be better described as a start point, and end point, and a to-do checklist of important markers that ensure that I stay on the rails and keep a linear narrative.

Chapter notes

My checklist for what needs to happen in a chapter.

The rest of my writing is what I once heard a peer Jeremy TeGrotenhuis refer to as Discovery Writing. He has a college degree tangential to writing. I have one more involved with upsetting end users with bad UI design, so I tend to trust that discovery writing is an actual thing.

In a “big picture” sense, I start with a story in my head, typically birthed from the intersection of a number of influences. I also begin with my primary protagonist and antagonist, along with any supporting characters that I feel are required for the story, starting with supporting characters needed to offset deficiencies in the major characters or who can speak to the audience where a major character can’t. The rest is left to discovery writing, fed in no small part by leaving myself open to continued inspirations.

Often, this comes from being involved in an active writer’s groups such as this one and not only from their critiques and discussions around my submitted work, but also their submitted work. A personality trait exhibited by one of their characters, an environment or the wordcraft the author uses to portray it, and other bits have worked their way into the details of my own stories.


A creation of a student that has inspired a creature in my current book.

At other times, classroom sketches done by my students, who are all Elementary-aged, and the Lego creations of my own children have become inspiration for alter-dimensional creatures. The idiosyncrasies and peculiarities I notice in the people I pass in transit on any given day also regularly influence story details. I have had a heavy interest in street photography for some time and feel that the influence I derived from observing random strangers there I apply in equal measure with my writing. The only difference is that instead of their positions relative to each other and motions, I pay closer attention to their communicative interactions.

Because I only plan the major points of a story at the outset, I am able to implement each of these small inspirations as the come, sometimes frequently, without them feeling rushed, forced, or as if they came from left-field. They become the creative fuel I use to drive between the major markers that I have laid out and, I feel, results in a story that reads with more realism.

From Reality to Fantasy (Part 2): Ancient Alchemical Fuel and the Inuit Lamp

(Part 2 in a series on how non-fiction can enliven fiction)

A few hundred years from now, authors will be writing historical fiction about the late 20th century, and the incandescent bulb will make an appearance as a quaint antique. Maybe the fluorescent, compact fluorescent, and LED will also be out-of-date.

Take your average medieval or prior fantasy setting. What do you have to work with for lighting? Torches, sconces, braziers, candles. In short, fire, fire, and more fire. Throw in magic as it’s thrown into video games and we can add magic orbs of light, glowing crystals, etc. Get fancy and you might have an underground labyrinth lit by skylights and mirrors that reflect it around. Jars of lightning bugs? Tanks of biolumunescent algae, squid, or fish? That gives me a …

Worldbuilding Idea: how about a common fish whose bioluminescent headstone keeps bright for years and which fisherman procure for the lighting of their society? Maybe it catches sunlight during the day and exudes it when the sun goes down. Maybe it has to be recharged by being lain outside on sunny days. A handful of stones can be put in glass or held in the hand to provide non-smoky, quality light.

That idea comes from my head and a middle-school or lower level of biology. But as I set out to prove in this series, a little research can yield wonders. The real world is much more interesting and creative than my unaided brain.

Today, I’ll talk about things for antiquity and medieval settings. Next time, I’ll get to the steampunk stuff.

Ancient Kerosene: Not all “alchemy of the ancients” was total nonsense. Some of it was practical chemistry, truly magic at the time. According to the Kitab al-Asrar (“Book of Secrets” in Arabic, how’s that for a book title?), people in the Arab world were using alembics to create kerosene (paraffin) from surface deposits of crude oil. How a person would figure out to use ammonium chloride as an absorbent, then distill the stuff over and over again until it looked like water (high-grade kerosene, basically rocket fuel) is one of those mysteries of the ancient world. Or again that people in other areas of the Middle East would figure out to heat rocks of oil shale to extract the oil, then distill it for lighting fuel shows the same kind of genius from which our numerals 0-9 originate. Now, that’s alchemy, and through chemistry you can get kerosene lights in medieval fantasy if you so choose. Check out Wikipedia and AramcoWorld.com for more.

Anbig 001

Inuit Lamp: Ever heard of a kudlik? Neither had I. It is an Inuit device for heating, lighting, cooking, drying clothes, and yielding potable water from snow and ice. Sounds pretty ingenious, right? This device is made of soapstone, looks like some cross between a candle and the filament of a lightbulb, and burns blubber from whales or seals. The wick is made from types of arctic grass and moss. If it could work for the Inuit, I’d say we could make it work for fantasy in Nordic regions as well. See more on Anthropolis and Wikipedia.

Here is a video from some intrepid campers using a kudlik while camping in a snow cave:

One reason why I write steampunk stories or fantasy in a 19th century setting is because there is just so much more to play with. Next time, I’ll post some awesome lights from the 1800s.

-Bradley Verdell

Carl Sagan on Books and Magic

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

[Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980)]”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos