WAAT #12: On the Use of Metaphors


MARCH 25, 2022: Beyond cultural specificities, we all bring our own biases, emotions, and perceptions to the same figures of speech.

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Did you know that, typically, we use at least one metaphor every six to ten seconds?

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As a reader and writer, I confess I love metaphors, similes, and analogies because they’re way more interesting than adverbs and adjectives. I mean, I’d rather have “she ran off like a frightened sheep” than “she ran very fast”, wouldn’t you?


As a literary translator, I struggle often with these figures of speech because of cultural specificities that can get lost. Also, regardless of the original language, we all bring our own biases, emotions, and perceptions to the same figures of speech. This week, for example, I translated a few dialogue-heavy scenes from rich, dialectical Gujarati. Naturally, there were a lot of metaphors, similes, analogies. And, given that the scenes were set in the 1920s, they were also from a time when deep gender, class, and caste hierarchies were accepted as the norm. So that added to the usual challenges of how to stay true to the text and yet make it all meaningful to a contemporary reader. With apologies to Shakespeare: to translate or to transliterate, that is the question. 😉

Aside from all of the above, though, in my everyday life, I’m way more aware of the figures of speech I use because of what it does to my emotional energies. During my corporate years, we used a lot of competitive metaphors and similes related to sports and war. I was never comfortable about making everything about winning-losing, living-dying, and such. Susan Sontag’s canonical book, Illness as Metaphor, called for getting rid of the military metaphor altogether when speaking of cancer. More recently, we’ve seen, heard, and read how media folks have been using such language for the global pandemic.

In everyday conversation, there’s something to be said for using “clean language” to reframe how we think about events and approach challenges in our lives. Here’s a little video about it.

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Coming back to the use of these important figures of speech in our writing and translating because they do allow us to do interesting things with characterization, subtext, and a lot more in both fiction and nonfiction. For example: one of my advanced fiction workshop participants (hi, Cindi!) brought this up from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye:

Their voices blended into a threnody of nostalgia about pain. Rising and falling, complex in harmony, uncertain in pitch, but constant in the recitative of pain.”

Morrison was describing how women get together in the evenings after all the housework is done and describe their pains to each other and how it’s a kind of music. “Threnody” works here because of how she follows it with “rising and falling”, “harmony”, “pitch”, and “recitative.” A lesser writer might not have been able to pull off this extended metaphor. Morrison always gives us a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, though. I recall reading in her introduction or in some interview that she got inspiration for such scenes from the women she’d grown up with in Ohio. They’d all sit with her mother in the evenings and she wouldn’t understand what they were saying but the aurality was like some kind of music. Actually, she describes the sound of women talking amongst themselves as a kind of music in many of her books.

Here are some interesting links:

The Language Plague by Jyoti Thottam (Believer Magazine)

How to cope with pandemic fatigue by imagining metaphors by Beth Daley (The Conversation)

Interview with Scott B. Noegel on “Wordplay” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts by Rick Aguilar (free downloadable book link there; Washington.edu)

Spring Multilingual Translation Workshops (ALTA)

Translating Multilingualism: Judith Woodsworth and Ros Schwartz in conversation. An online discussion followed by a Q and A session.

Over to you. Tell me about a recent metaphor or simile you read, wrote, or translated that stayed with you and why? Please let me know via the social media links or in reply to this newsletter.

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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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