51. Nature + Nurture + ?

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DECEMBER 12, 2022: A reader asked, “How do I know if I have it in me to become a good literary translator?” In my response, I got into the deeply divisive nature and nurture discussion.

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Dear Reader,

It’s been three weeks since the last newsletter. Thanksgiving break here in the US was followed by some much-needed family time. And I’ve been catching up with some of my end-of-year deadlines too (more on these below.)

That said, look! We’re at the 51 mark already for the year. Thank you, as always, for being on this journey with me. I never take this newsletter community for granted because I know there are so many newsletter choices and plenty of other media distractions out there.

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Every now and then, I get an email from a reader with a question, a thank you for how the newsletter is helping them, or some good news about their own translation efforts finally paying off. I love these moments of connection because they remind me of how we’re all working toward similar ideals. One recent question has stayed with me for a while. A reader asked, “How do I know if I have it in me to become a good literary translator?”

First, I avoided the usual response that some MFA instructors give to their students when asked something similar. The flippancy of “If you have to ask, then the answer is it’s not for you” is beyond ridiculous. There are all kinds of reasons why an emerging creative may have doubts and concerns about their work. Not least of which is because the dominant culture has not deemed their kind of work important enough or they haven’t seen enough creatives like themselves being lauded and celebrated.

Second, although it sounds like a simple question, it made me probe deeper as to why some of us are drawn to translation work in the first place. It’s not glamorous or highly compensated. There are even more hierarchies in the literary translation ecosystem, I’ve found, than in the general literary ecosystem. And I’ve discussed a few times already how it takes a certain perseverance and doggedness to keep at it.

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In my response, I got into the deeply divisive nature and nurture discussion. Note that I’m not using “versus” here as we find typically. I don’t even believe that creative skills, in any discipline, are a simple equation of “Creativity = Nature + Nurture.” There has to be some complex and powerful interaction or synergy between nature and nurture. With translation, it’s not simply about a genetic facility with language (for example, scientists have proved that we can begin to distinguish different language sounds while still in the womb), or how genetically-influenced traits lead us to certain life and career choices that change our environment. Beyond these, we also need to make the most of both our environment and our innate value systems. We also need to do the following:

  1. Find and engage in work that is meaningful to us: projects that allow a certain autonomy, self-respect, character development, and imaginative capacity;
  2. Develop a larger sense of purpose: a forward-looking ideal or intention with benefits that go beyond one’s self (so it’s not the same thing as a personal goal or target);
  3. Cultivate a supportive network: beyond sideline spectatorship or passive participation to active contribution within our communities because networks don’t just evolve without conscious effort and we get back what we put into this world;
  4. Maintain a consistent practice: strategies that ensure disciplined and sustainable ways to fill our own creative tanks.

All of which is to say that it is clearly not enough to have a multilingual heritage and environment. It is also about the appropriate mindsets, habits, skills, and strategies. Whenever I’m not feeling satisfied with my creative work, I look for any imbalance within or across these four aspects. There are times when I have to work more on one or the other to bring them all into alignment. Note, also, that none of these have to do with external validation or accolades, which are necessary for all kinds of reasons but also typically biased toward zeitgeist trends, not in our control, and ephemeral at best.

Over to you. How would you answer this reader’s question? What do you think of these four aspects of a creative life or a translator life? Let me know in the comments section on the website or via email.


Some other quick updates since the last newsletter:

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  1. I shared a few more favorite books at NPR for their annual Books We Love series. You can read about them here.
  2. The Shehnai Virtuoso was featured on this Notable Translations of 2022 list at World Literature Today.
  3. I was interviewed at India Currents by Rajesh C. Oza about literary translation, craft, writing, migration, and more.
  4. The Gujarati literature in translation collection (guest-edited by me) continues at Words Without Borders. This week’s publication is an interview I conducted with the scholar and translator, Dr. Rita Kothari. Some terrific gems there. Especially this: “Very importantly, we also believe that “translation” (a Latin-given English word) has limited use for us, and our multilingual ethos produces its own definition of this transaction.”

If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for a reader friend, perhaps this?

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. The best way to show appreciation is to buy/review my books, hire me for literary events, or share this newsletter with others who might enjoy it. You can also show your appreciation by buying me a coffee at Ko-fi.

Until the next newsletter.

Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.

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Jenny Bhatt

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