Cross-dressing for Workshop: Or, The Uses of Translation in Creative Writing

Russell Scott Valentino | November 2015

Russell Scott Valentino


Isaiah Berlin once famously set out hedgehogs and foxes as categories of thinkers on the basis of a Greek fragment from the poet Archilochus: The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. “Taken figuratively,” Berlin wrote, “the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single, central vision […] and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory […]. The first kind of intellectual personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.” And so Plato was, according to Berlin, rather a hedgehog and Aristotle rather a fox; Dante, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky were clearly hedgehogish, while Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Joyce were all foxy.1 But when Berlin then turned to Lev Tolstoy and asked whether he was “a monist or a pluralist,” whether his vision was “of one or of many,” the question didn’t seem to apply. It seemed to “breed more darkness than it [dispelled].” What sort of a thinker, Berlin asked, was the man whose work his essay was intended to explore? This was a terribly clever move for the start of an extended analysis of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, a subject that very likely required a bit of cleverness to engage his readers. When faced with the question of what Tolstoy was, Berlin turned his little intellectual personality game into a profound psychological tool: Lev Nikolaevich was, he suggested, by nature a fox, but a fox who believed in being a hedgehog, a fox who really wanted to be a hedgehog.

I borrow Berlin’s gambit here partly because of the equivalently dry word “translation,” which has a powerful way of turning people’s eyes up into their foreheads whenever it’s brought up; and partly because the activity of translation, like Berlin’s enigmatic Tolstoy, does not fit comfortably in any of the varieties of creative writing usually treated in these pages. On one side, theorists, critics, and practitioners of translation remind us that we read translations differently than we do non-translations,2 and commentaries on the specific nature of translation practice, as opposed to the practice of fiction or poetry, are legion.3 But another side suggests that we routinely forget about the fact of translation while we’re reading; we read over or through it, thinking that we are somehow communing with the author through a magically or inspirationally channeled version of that author’s voice in English.4 Some on this other side would have us see translating as akin to dual authorship,5 where translators and authors differ “in name alone,”6 or where translation is a form of “rewriting” if not “pure writing.”7 The question of what sort of activity literary translation is vis-à-vis authorship does not seem wholly appropriate; it, too, seems to “breed more darkness than it dispels.” Yet it is not lack of information that makes us pause. Translators, translation historians, and translation theorists have told us a great deal about the practice and its history in many different language traditions. Nor can translation be considered obscure in any usual sense of the term: you read the source text, look up the words you might not know, then start shaping lines in the receiving culture’s language that correspond to the qualities you want to bring out. Why then does the question seem out of place? When asked what translating is in relation to authoring, what are we to say?

I do not intend to propose an answer to this question here, since doing so would require a systematic comparison of the activity of each. Instead, I shall limit myself to suggesting that the difficulty may be due, at least in part, to the fact that translators are not unaware of the problem and often do their best to obfuscate rather than clarify any demarcation between the two practices. In other words, just as Berlin’s Tolstoy practiced being a hedgehog while really being a fox, so translators practice being authors, deploying the skills of authorship and, in effect, wearing the garments associated with authorship, without totally committing to being authors. When pressed, they will step back, raising their hands, and say, “I’m not making this up!”

…translators practice being authors, deploying the skills of authorship and, in effect, wearing the garments associated with authorship, without totally committing to being authors.

And this, in fact, is why translation is such a powerful tool for all writers and teachers of writing. It provides a means of continually sharpening our awareness of the possibilities of our own language, and in a much more engaging way than any sort of invented exercise—because the texts are real, the results can be published in their own right, and the focus on writing is especially, all-consumingly, performative. Translation thus opens avenues into experimentation with style and genre, for instance, especially styles and genres into which one might be less inclined to open avenues without translation’s mediating power. It also provides a model of stewardship and careful listening to another’s words that authors with a good ear can turn to the development of character and dialogue. And finally, it expands the now pervasive workshop environment, lowering but not eliminating the problem of the wounded ego, by allowing everyone a constructive “out” that is the source text.


Translation and Style

Paraphrasing is a powerful and widely employed exercise for honing stylistic skills and increasing one’s range. One of its most useful source texts is Barbara Wright’s tour-de-force translation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. Queneau rewrote the same short passage in ninety-nine different stylistic variations from metaphor and hyperbole to retrograde (reversing the order of events), gustatory (culinarily inflected), and litotes (understatement). Wright’s translation, like those of Danilo Kiš into Serbian and Umberto Eco into Italian, to name just two of the more famous ones, adapts as much as it translates, since, as a stylistic tour de force, the source text needs to be created anew in the receiving culture’s language in order to achieve anything close to its original power. Wright’s English-language book is a delight to read and also lends itself to easy application as a writing exercise: take any short passage from just about any work, choose five styles and their examples from Wright’s (Queneau’s) variations, and go for it. This is of course a useful exercise unto itself, but thinking of it through the prism of translation—in effect, as an exercise in “intra-lingual translation”8—adds an important dimension and implicitly invites a next stage.

With or without the source, as soon as you have multiple versions of any text available, they can become the basis of an intralingual translation. And it just so happens that by far the richest source for finding multiple versions of literary works is among the ranks of interlingual translations, that is, in translations from other languages into English. Look at all the Dantes, all the Sapphos, all the Bashos, all the Akhmatovas available! These provide passage upon passage of multiple attempts with different emphases, different stylistic choices, different interpretations and effects. Together they constitute an extraordinarily diverse and detailed subject for the analysis and discussion of style. When approached in the framework of translating, they can be made to extend analysis and discussion to practice.

Take, for instance, the first paragraph of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. We read five versions, discuss their differences, identify points at which they part ways (e.g., “wicked” vs. “spiteful” or “nasty”), and then create our own version, or ask our students to do so, either selecting from those available or creating something altogether new. Alongside this new English work, students might create a commentary about what it is that they’ve done, indicating their imagined audience (e.g., 3rd-graders, Twitter fanatics, lovers of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange or LOL Cat speak) and what stylistic effects they hoped to achieve by choosing X word over Y. This is a ratcheted-up version of intralingual translation, paraphrasing on steroids, and an extremely compelling tool for getting aspiring writers to understand both how translating works and how writing works.9

It is also one of the best ways I know for breaking through just about any variety of writer’s block. It helps you to get words on the page, lots of them, and not just any words. This is not a free-writing exercise, the sort of open-ended word generation that, no matter how self-important one might like to feel, often rings with a sort of hollowness that makes one question the point. No, this is something important from the start. We are translating Dostoevsky—hating him, loving him, advocating for or fighting against, stylizing, ironizing, toning down, ratcheting up, making minute and poignant choices about how to shape and pace—but translating Dostoevsky, and if that doesn’t get us writing, then there are plenty of other inspired choices just waiting to be adopted.

We can take this a step further, disturbing our English-language complacency in the process, by incorporating other source languages, even when we might not happen to know them, or know them well. This is an important step toward inter-lingual translation proper, and one of the ways that anyone can learn to see how the creation of works in English depends fundamentally on many of the same sorts of skills that authoring in English does. To take this step we need a trot or “pony” of a text in another language, and enough commentary to help us understand its basic context. I know several teachers of translation who use Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself with their students.10 A major virtue is its layout, with a source version on one page, followed by an interlinear translation and brief commentary on another. With such an apparatus in hand, anyone can make her or his own publishable version of a poem or prose work, though obviously, the longer the work, the more arduous the task of creating the trot and commentary.

One caveat applies to this kind of writing that is likely to disturb one’s creative, authorial complacency. All translators own the rights to their English-language works—meaning that if you make it, no one else can use it without your permission. But if the source is not in the public domain (like that new Dostoevsky you just created), or if you haven’t received permission from the rights holder of the original work, neither you nor anyone else has the right to publish your translation, no matter what sort of a fox you might be.

There is much more one can say about the performance of style in translation as a way of learning to manipulate style, but I want to emphasize just one because it relates to the other topics I touch on below. This is its organic connection to reading and interpretation. John Nathan, the exemplary translator into English of works by Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe, recently noted what he called “Jamesean moments” in the work of the Meiji Era Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki. Right at the moment when he made his observation—and there were reasons to support an assumption that Henry James might have influenced Soseki—he was faced with a writing problem. Could he write prose like Henry James? Could he write prose that suggested the influence of Henry James? Could he write prose that suggested the influence of Henry James on an author who happened to have been writing in Japanese? Once you start thinking about the performance of style in translation, it is hard to stop.


Translation and Genre

In contemporary writing and publishing circles, as opposed to those of literary history and theory, the term genre is rather loosely applied. On one hand, genres are the categories of the literary magazine, as in poem, essay, story, review, and so on. Once inside the slush of a category, these get closer to the language of literary historians, where a sonnet or a lyric essay might contrast to a ghazal or a flash fiction (and potentially get tossed into someone else’s reading pile as a result). Distinctions like these become especially productive when contrasts and clashing expectations are deliberate, e.g., an epigraph that reads like an epitaph, or a sestina on the Holocaust. Such distinctions apply to translation in exactly the same way and, also, not at all. In other words, translation is not a genre or a formal category, but it can stand in for, play the role of, assume the contours of any genre, any kind of text, just as translators can stand in for, play the role of, assume the contours of any kind of writer.

And yet translation is not parody. The moment one starts to read a translator’s work as if it is parody—as if, let’s say, this were some sort of Nabokovian play with roles—that is the moment when the translator loses all credibility as a translator. Translators cannot be tricksters; otherwise, how can they be trusted to convey what is in the source? Trust can be lost only once. Translation is its own kind of activity, its own practice, and this suggests, in fact, that we read translations differently than we do other kinds of works, just as we treat translators differently than we do other kinds of writers.

Translation is its own kind of activity, its own practice, and this suggests, in fact, that we read translations differently than we do other kinds of works, just as we treat translators differently than we do other kinds of writers.

A better title for this section might in fact be translation and form. This is how W.S. Merwin discusses his work in the prefaces to his 2013 Selected Translations. In three poignant essays that contextualize and attempt to make sense of more than fifty years of rendering the voices of others, Merwin engages in an extended, searching analysis of his own practice, ending in a principled abandonment of formal consistency with the source. Embedded within this exploration is also a drama of poetic independence as played out in translation practice. Merwin seems to approach this practice with Pound, who once spoke to him “of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of his own language”11; but he also struggles over the next fifteen years to free himself from the idea, advanced by Pound and many others, that “fidelity in translating a poem should include an ambition to reproduce the original verse form.”12 By the end of this struggle, he notes, “I had come to consider the verse conventions of original poems as part of the original language, in which they had a history of associations like that of individual words—something impossible to suggest in English simply by repeating the forms.”13 Such a statement suggests that the translator is looking for something deeper than formal equivalency or what is sometimes loosely called equivalency of effect. Here translation clearly slides into authorship once more, or at least the performance of authorship, where one might try on for size, as has Merwin over the course of his career, a variety of national cuts and textures.


Translation and Character

Maureen Freely discussed the relationship between her own fiction and her translations of the fictions of Orhan Pamuk at the 2013 annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association. At an early point in her own writing, she said, the novel she had begun writing seemed to be going nowhere: “My characters were just standing there smoking and staring at me.” She turned to Pamuk’s characters and they had a lot to say. Translating their words into English helped her hear what her own characters had to say, too. This is a direct relationship that might not apply to many people—Freely’s novels happen to be set in Turkey, just like Pamuk’s.

But her example is illustrative in a more fundamental way. Even in the grip of expressive volubility, when the words are flowing out onto the page, the translator cannot stop listening. This is a lot like playing an instrument or singing a part in an ensemble. If you stop listening and focus on the sound of your own voice too much, you will lose track of what’s happening around you, risking at least dissonance and possibly complete disconnection. When the listening aspect of translation diminishes, then I suspect the writing becomes something else and perhaps that is the moment when the writer who has been hitching a ride with translation might want to go her or his own way. (Good-bye, author! Translation will miss you!) Seriously though, this seems a much greater problem for authorship than it does for translation if indeed translation and authorship part ways when the author’s hearing grows hard.

Even at the most mechanical level, in choosing punctuation or the markers to use for dialog, translation provides an intensive, skill-based workshop. This is because other languages and other literatures weigh punctuation and mark speech differently, which means that every instance of a comma or capital letter, splice, semi-colon, or dash, becomes a decision about how to write in English, how to build a voice, create an image, contour a page. The stakes, moreover, are another author’s lifeblood.


Translation and Ego

Whether they intend to or not, translators invariably end up being advocates for their works, so translating usually comes to entail trying to find the best, most effective way to make a character’s and an author’s voice compelling, to sell it and make it sing. This means listening carefully and writing skillfully. As inevitable advocates, we care about our chosen works and the words in which we have chosen to express them and make them effective. But if someone says, “That’s not working for me,” or any of the myriad similar ways that critics use to say “I don’t like what you’ve written,” you can always look to the source, explain it in other words, and try together to make what you’ve written on its basis better. This can lead to an especially productive writing workshop, one that is likely to build community, sometimes a rare occurrence in the world of creative writing. It can also help to show where one’s own creative impulses might in fact differ from those of one’s source author, where, in effect, a writer might choose to branch out from the source, taking a new direction.

We have probably all witnessed how public discussions of controversial topics can become so heated that constructive debate is no longer possible. One way of diffusing such emotional bombs is to focus on wording, style, accepted formulas, and the effects of such rhetorical features on an audience. For instance, rather than discussing the politics of the war on terror or no child left behind, we can talk about the “war on terror” and “no child left behind”—in other words, on how such arguments are put together, by means of what words, suggesting what things, relying on what assumptions, pushing what buttons, and how. This in turn enables us to discuss the arguments and how we might understand and use them, without coming to blows in the process. In much the same way, many creative writing workshop participants have witnessed, or experienced for themselves, the deterioration of a writing community when personal stakes have overwhelmed everything else. People write what they care about and if others don’t like it, or if just about any of a million other possibilities come to pass, the results for a workshop, and perhaps for a career, can be tragic. Translation provides something of the same constructive misdirection as does focusing on the rhetoric of controversial public debate. You are still talking about the issues in such cases, but you raise everyone’s awareness about the ways in which language affects how we shape them, make meaning from them, use them, and feel about them, and all this in fact makes it possible to talk about them. And so in the workshop, translation provides a constructive way to write and talk about writing that, like trying on someone else’s garments, can lower the existential stake, make it clear we are all in some discomfort, all expressing thoughts that are ours but might have been another’s, advocating for our words and for someone else’s words, too, trying out authoring, in effect, in a manner that is one step removed from baring our souls.

The delicate play between one’s own words and someone else’s, which is what both inspires and limits translation, likewise can enable writing to flourish outside the usual narrow category of pure creation that authors have struggled with since at least the Romantic era. The performance of authorship can thus serve as a healthy corrective to the demons of authorship, encouraging the sort of responsibility and commitment to others that monolithic ideals of pure creation can sometimes eclipse.


Russell Scott Valentino is the author of two scholarly monographs and translator of seven books of literary fiction and nonfiction from Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Italian, and Russian. From 2009 to 2013 he served as Editor-in-Chief at The Iowa Review, and he is currently Chair of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Senior Editor at Autumn Hill Books, and President of The American Literary Translators Association.



  1. Berlin’s 1950s lists are clearly marked by their lack of diversity.
  2. Lawrence Venuti’s short “How to Read a Translation” ( points to the difference in reading practice, as does Eliot Weinberger’s  “Anonymous Sources” (
  3. See for instance William Weaver’s “The Process of Translation,” in The Craft of Translation, John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, eds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 117-124.
  4. Lawrence Venuti famously finds fault with such simpatico assumptions in his The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (New York: Routeledge, 1995).
  5. It is worth noting that currently lists nearly all translations as “by [author’s name] and [translator’s name]”; more substantively, the historical connection between poetry and translation was noted by Horace, who took translation as one aspect of the activity of the poet, a claim that rings true in the work of Anne Carson, Cole Swensen, W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Rosemarie Waldrop, and many other poets today.
  6. Quoted in The Art of Translation: Kornei Chukovsky’s A High Art, Lauren G. Leighton, trans. and ed. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984, p. 18.
  7. Andre Lefevere uses the concept of “rewriting” in his works on translation. See for instance Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (London, 1992); Elizabeth Harris suggested the notion of translation as “pure writing” in a 2011 interview ( The concept formed the basis of a 2014 AWP panel featuring Harris and fellow translators Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky, and Bill Johnston.
  8. This is Roman Jakobson’s term, which he contrasts to inter-lingual (from one language to another) and inter-semiotic (from one signifying system to another, e.g., print to film). See his essay “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” in The Translation Studies Reader. Second Edition. Laurence Venuti, ed. New York: Routeledge, 2004, pp. 138-143.
  9. Translator-directors of dramatic works do this all the time, selecting and shaping a new translation on the basis of several existing ones, inviting different emphases, nuances, settings, and so on, depending on one’s intended audience and effects.
  10. The first to mention this to me was Michael Henry Heim.
  11. W. S. Merwin, Selected Translations (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2013), 12.
  12. Merwin, Selected Translations, 168.
  13. Merwin, Selected Translations, 169.

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