Translation and transition

There it was this morning, on the front page.

Un jury unanime plébiscite le nouveau stade de Lausanne.

Lausanne is going to get a new stadium with an Olympic-size swimming pool. I’m happy about this, because I like to swim laps. I love doing flip-turns at the end of the lane, stretching out for that long glide off the wall. I love the baby-blue of pool water and the crisscrossing, wavy lines of light that form on the bottom. I love doing breast stroke and watching the bubbles form at the tips of my fingers as I carve out the water in front of me.

But I digress. What really caught my attention was the word plébiscite. No matter how many times I see it, I still do a double-take. Is it just me, or is there something icky about this word?


Usually when I read in French I have a good sense of what a word probably means. But this word? Undermine, infiltrate, infect? It almost sounds like someone blowing their nose loudly into a handkerchief. tells me that to plébiscite something means: To elect it in a huge majority, to vote overwhelmingly in favor of it, to give it “two thumbs up.”

Indeed, the word comes from the Latin plebis scitum or law voted by the comitia, literally, “decree of the common people.”

Far from being icky, plébiscite is a roar of approval. I was way off the mark on this one. To be fair, the English adjective plebeian has a negative connotation: crude or coarse in manner or style. That’s might be where my distaste came from. But whatever the reason, it’s just one of those words I have to look up while I’m translating, because no matter how often I see it, I still don’t get it. It’s a reminder that no matter how fluent I am, French isn’t my mother tongue. English is. It just feels right.

Over the past few years, I have done a lot of translating from French into English. I’ve built up a tidy little business in the process. And it has been very good for my writing.

Until I translated, I rarely consulted the dictionary and the thesaurus. Now, I carefully weigh every word I use, comparing it with a multitude of possible synonyms. I’m not satisfied with a “good enough” word any more. I have to find just the right word, just the right phrase.

I also think a lot more than I ever did before about sentence structure. French is a very flowery language. More often than not, direct translation sounds ridiculous in English. So I start by deconstructing each French sentence into the bare bones of its meaning, and then I reconstruct that in English. Each language has its rhythm, and translating has helped me internalize the unique music of English. I’ve learned the ups and downs of our beautiful tongue, what can propel the reader on to the next sentence and what can stop him dead in his tracks. I love English so much more than I ever did before.

The other day, as I was thinking, what is it I really want to do?  I realized I was becoming a translator. I imagined myself ten years from now. Hello, I said at my imaginary dinner party. I’m a translator.

That’s when I read that Seth Godin blog post, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

If you think you have no choice but to do what you do now, you’ve already made a serious error.

I like translating, and I am getting really good at it. But it isn’t who I am. I know this point might be arguable, but to me, a translator is the quintessential wordsmith. Like an artisan, I craft sentence after sentence like so many bowls or necklaces or picture frames. But the thing I’m translating is not my idea. It wasn’t me who decided to illustrate it with this particular example, that particular metaphor. That was the author. My role is to do the best possible job of making that idea, that example, that metaphor come across in English as powerfully and seamlessly as it did in French.

I realized that I was at a fork in the road. Keep on the path I’m currently on – translator –  or veer in a slightly different direction – writer. It’s up to me. I have to make a decision about how I spend my time.

If I want to be a writer, I have to do my own writing. I have to put down my own ideas, use my own examples, develop my own metaphors. And there’s no getting around it – that takes time. I can still translate – and I will, because it’s fun. But I have to be the one setting priorities, the one setting the limits, the one saying, occasionally, “no, sorry, I don’t have the time.”

Translating has gotten me in great shape. It’s like doing linguistic pushups, situps, squats and planks. It’s fantastic conditioning, but for me, it’s not an end in itself. Now it’s time to get out of the gym and go climb the mountain.

So that’s my decision. I’ve cut back my translating commitments, and freed up some time to write. I’ll be posting more frequently on the blog, and I’ll include some stories and ideas from my book.

My dear friend and staunch supporter, Jo Ann Hansen Rasch said – “that fork in the road? It can’t be plastic. It’s got to be metal. Get a move on, Mary.”


image credit: fbaett

3 thoughts on “Translation and transition

  1. Hi Mary,

    You have set yourself an onerous task: merging the art of creative prose with the constructs of your imagination, to produce an enlivening experience for your readers.

    I look forward to the child of your labors, as much as I enjoy your blogs.

  2. Going public is a big step Mary and now that you’ve done it, don’t worry that the writing path doesn’t seem to rise up to greet you. It’s there anyway and you’re on your way.

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