WAAT #05: “Microsuspense: The Desire to Keep Reading, the Drive to Turn the Page”


On balancing syntactical fidelity with propulsiveness in a literary translation using both literary and linguistic devices.

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When I first began doing literary translation, I had already been writing my own fiction for several years. And, of course, I’d been a demanding reader and book reviewer for many years already too. With my first literary translation, though, I made some stumbles. Looking back, I see two main reasons. First, I was so in awe of the legendary Gujarati writer, Dhumketu, whose works had never seen a book-length translation like this one. Second, the stories are set in historical time periods and written during an earlier time with more archaic dialects, idioms, and syntax and I wanted to bring as much of that over as possible. I was lucky to work with a strong editor who was far enough from the writer and the text to help me make the necessary changes. Still, with the US edition of this first translation, I’ve grown more confident about what to edit and how. This upcoming US text still has the music of the original but also beats to a new rhythm.

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Last week, I had mentioned that I would share some journal notes from when I was translating this first book of stories. Here’s one brief example from 2018. The story, as I had mentioned in the last newsletter, was published in 2021 at Asymptote Journal. Looking at these journal notes now, I see how I was more focused on literary devices versus linguistic ones. And, with my ongoing translation project, I’m thinking more deeply about both literary and linguistic aspects. I’ll probably share the journal notes of this current work-in-progress down the road when I’ve gotten into a good rhythm and cadence with the work.

Speaking of linguistic devices, Jennifer Croft, the award-winning translator of the amazing Olga Tokarczuk, has a new book out: The Book of Jacob. And a new essay over at Literary Hub where she discusses the challenges of bringing the book into English. One that will resonate with most translators is the ordering of clauses and phrases in long sentences. Each language has its own particularities with tenses, grammar, etc. and how we order phrases and clauses can change the original emphasis and meaning even though the sentence may read correctly in English. And, as Croft writes:

“What we know when is extremely important to narrative; if we were told in the first sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca what had really happened to Maxim de Winter’s wife, and how, and why, and what would become of Manderley, would we even keep reading? The reader has to live the process of apprehension, experience a world in an order, not all at once.”

Croft closes her essay saying she does not aim for syntactical fidelity but for a translation that generates “microsuspense: the desire to keep reading, the drive to turn the page.”

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I think about that a lot with any kind of writing, whether it is a translated or an original language text. It may seem like a simple heuristic but it’s the most important one in the end that needs to guide us all as translators or writers or editors. A “good” literary translation, like any literature, means a lot of different things but it must always have this one basic quality of making the reader want to turn the page.

Last week, I asked about your favorite translated work. This week, I’m wondering if you’d like to share what about that work made you want to keep turning the pages. Feel free to tag me on social media at the links below and I’ll share it.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas. (Photo Credit: Pixel Voyage Photography / Arushi Gupta)

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