WAAT #59: Stepping Through the Twelve Levels of Literary Translation


Here’s a potential twelve-level framework for cultivating and maintaining a personal discipline of literary translation. With a hat tip to the scholar who shared the twelve levels of friendship in Arabic on Twitter.

WAAT Post Header
Like this? Share it on.

Recently, I was asked about how I got into literary translation and the journey from when it was but a desire to when it became a way of being in the world. It’s a common enough question. I’ve even asked other literary translators about their origin stories (see WAAT Sessions, and my interviews at Words Without Borders.)

New reader? Browse through the free newsletter archives and subscribe.

I thought about how to explain this easily and, well, that proved to be a challenge in itself. How do you describe a process or discipline that has involved many stops and starts, detours, and self-education in other related disciplines like ethnography, linguistics, anthropology, history, and more?

twelve levels of literary translation

The engineer in me wanted to give the questioner a framework of some sort. So I adapted one from Arabic (shoutout to the Arabic litterateur friends out there. Hiya, Sawad!)

Some Quick Housekeeping

For those of you reading this via email: there have been a few reading-related improvements on the website. If you click the title above, you will see the following:
1) Reading time in minutes at the top
2) A % reading progress tracker that stays at the bottom of the screen as you scroll.
3) Ongoing conversations where readers have left feedback or questions.
4) Links to archived newsletters that are related to this one by topic/theme.
5) A link for the fully searchable (by category and language) archives.

New to my work? Check out my books and publications.

I hope you’ll take the time to browse around. With this newsletter, I’ve written about 52,000 words in 2022 and about 16,000 already in 2023. Enough to fill a book. So there are plenty of meaty topics if you’d like to read more (and, I hope, share with friends and family.)

A Framework Disclaimer Upfront

I realize that Alcoholics Anonymous also has a twelve-step framework for recovery. I didn’t start with that framework in mind, clearly. But, well, maybe there’s something about the number twelve. I’m not going down that rabbit hole this time, though.

The Twelve Levels of Friendship in Arabic

A couple of years ago, when I was way more active on Twitter, I chanced upon this viral thread by the scholar, Taariq Ismail. That’s his text verbatim below.

In Arabic, there are 12 levels of friendship. Most of our ‘friends’ are level 5 or below, and many of us don’t have a single level 12 friend 🤯

Here are the levels:

1. Zameel someone you have a nodding acquaintance with

2. Jalees – someone you’re comfortable sitting with for a period of time

3. Sameer – you have good conversation with them

…this is where things get serious

4. Nadeem – a drinking companion (just tea) that you might call when you’re free

5. Sahib – someone who’s concerned for your wellbeing

… now we’re in the real ranks of friendship

6. Rafeeq – someone you can depend upon. You’d probably go on holiday with them

7. Sadeeq – a true friend, someone who doesn’t befriend you for an ulterior motive

8. Khaleel – an intimate friend, someone whose presence makes you happy

9. Anees – someone with whom you’re really comfortable and familiar

10. Najiyy – a confidant, someone you trust deeply

11. Safiyy – your best friend, someone you’ve chosen over other friends

12. Qareen – someone who’s inseparable from you. You know how they think (and vice versa)

Originally tweeted by Taariq Ismail (@TaariqIsmail) on Jun 09, 2021.

And I wondered about doing something similar for literary translation. I’m sure that my version below can be refined and improved. So please chime in.

The levels below also go beyond the usual ways that we speak of language proficiency in everyday conversation. For example, in educational contexts, we may think of these levels as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In professional contexts, we may think of these as elementary, limited, professional, and bilingual/native proficiency.

The Twelve Levels of Literary Translation

NOTE: Please forgive what started as unplanned alliteration with all the “C” words and then became an inexplicable need.

1. Consciousness: When you have a general awareness of a language and its culture such that you understand basic words, sentences, and questions.

2. Cognizance: When you have a cultivated appreciation for the literature and history of the language from reading in translation.

3. Conversance: When you can translate just enough to understand and have basic conversations (with the usual phonological, syntactic, and semantic errors.)

4. Cognition: When you are regularly reading entire texts in the original/source language though not always understanding all the nuances fully.

5. Context: When you understand enough about the original/source language, literature, and culture(s) that you can think critically about them.

Looking for help? Check out my writing workshops and book consultation services.

6. Connection: When you have cultivated a sufficiently meaningful connection that you are translating purely for your own pleasure.

7. Contribution: When you are willingly translating for others but without any (or with little) return.

8. Competence: When you are proficient enough to read, understand, and translate across a wider range of topics about personal life, current events; even technical business and finance topics.

9. Comfort: When you are so familiar with the language, literature, and culture(s) that you can back-translate other complex translations and pick up on the translators’ linguistic choices and challenges.

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

10. Confidence: When you are strong enough that you could pass off as a native or heritage speaker if you are not one. And, if the source language is your mother tongue, then you are able to work with it in an increased professional capacity too (e.g. teaching others.)

11. Compensation: When literary translation is your chosen profession over others; your primary mode of making a living (allowing for other related streams of income, of course, because we know this work does not pay nearly enough.) And you are being duly rewarded and awarded for it.

12. Championship: When your level of immersion is so significant that you are now a credible advocate and activist in the language, literature, culture(s), translation and publishing ecosystems, and more; when you are seen as a leading authority figure in various adjacent communities as well; when you can answer all of these twenty questions easily.

Mapping One’s Own Journey

As I map my own journey across these twelve levels, I see how much I’ve bounced back and forth haphazardly across each. Some of that should be expected, of course, with any organic, self-learning approach.

Also, I’m sure that not every literary translator will want to progress through all twelve levels. For the longest time, I was happily sitting at level five. I only began level six after my mother passed away. Translating from her small collection of Gujarati books was a way to stay connected with her. And, in hindsight, I’ve done a lot more of level seven than I should have.

I also see how this has cost me in terms of my own productivity, efficiency, and, well, credibility and income. There are gaps in my translation discipline and practice because I’ve skipped some levels entirely or in part. So that’s something to work on now that I have more clarity (the brain just won’t stop with the “C” words, you see?) I’m already making an action plan for projects that will help me strengthen some of these levels.

By the way, as you see from the graphic, I veered away from showing this as any kind of hierarchy or even cyclicality. I do think of these as levels. But I don’t want to imply that progress can only happen in a particular manner. Sometimes, that progress may have vector (direction and magnitude) but not acceleration. Or, vice versa. As with everything in life, we can only map our individual journeys to fit our particular needs and resources. Having a framework gives us one possible way to approach it all with deliberate care and intention.

If you’re a literary translator or working in the ecosystem in some capacity or other, I’d love to know your thoughts about these levels. Agree? Disagree? What would you change, add, or remove? Did you find it useful/thought-provoking/interesting? How would you map your own journey against this framework? Please drop me a note in the discussion area below. I always respond.

P.S. About Style Guides

Can anyone tell me why all the official style guides don’t agree on how to deal with numbers? Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style unless I’m working with an editor who needs otherwise, says to spell out numbers zero through one hundred. APA says to spell out numbers below ten. And MLA says to spell out numbers that can be written with one or two words. Oh, I know there are all kinds of other differences in these style guides too. But this numbers thing has always bothered me. Someone, please fix this.


Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. Here are some ways you can support the work:

books cta
events cta
waat cta
kofi cta

Share this newsletter.

Author picture

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.

You might also enjoy reading these. Or, browse the archives by category: WAAT; HFCN.

Topical deep dives, curated ideas, inspiring conversations

Archives | No Spam Policy

I earn a tiny affiliate fee if you buy a book using one of the links here. It goes toward funding the free newsletters. All content is the copyright © of Jenny Bhatt and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Please ensure proper linkage and attribution (e.g. Bhatt, Jenny. [Newsletter Heading], [Newsletter Name], [mmm-dd-yyyy]) and do not transform, adapt, or remix. Thank you. Contact here if you have questions.

Start or Join the Conversation.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Notify of

Inline feedback
View all responses

Topical deep dives, curated ideas, inspiring conversations

Archives | No Spam Policy

Like my work?

Recent Conversations

Like my work?

Topical deep dives, curated ideas, inspiring conversations

Archives | No Spam Policy

What do you think? Share your thoughts?x