On Swimming in Language

I will confess to having a fondness for astrology. Stars, Greek mythology, and the leftover trappings of the New Age movement captured my imagination at a young age, so that’s hardly surprising. I know enough about the topic to know not only my Sun sign, but all the rest of them. And perhaps—because my horoscope contains a good deal of Pisces, the dual fishes swimming in opposite directions, and I’ve consequently steeped myself in fishy lore—that’s why I think about editing and translating as swimming. Or maybe more like deep-sea diving.

(Not teaching, as much. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the interactive and interpersonal nature of teaching means that I don’t have to imagine myself into someone else’s thoughts quite as often. They’re right there to interact with me, in the full spectrum of in-person communication.)

One of the psychology rockstars of the last forty years or so is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow” model. If “flow” is a new concept for you in this context, you might better know it as “being in the zone.” Unsurprisingly, since I enjoy my work and am competent at it, I find myself “in the zone” quite regularly. It would be easy enough to simply describe this “swimming” state of being as flow, as being in the zone. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though. Swimming in language isn’t like getting lost in my own writing, or working on a new piece of jewelry. Swimming in language is something above and beyond “the zone.”

In any writing-related work that I do, there comes a point where I reach out to original writer, or speaker, or whoever generated the text I’m working on, and connect with them in my own head. I’m sure everyone in the field has their own personal metaphor for that connection; the arbitrary one that my consciousness and my physiology has lit upon is swimming. It’s like diving into an ocean with various currents that can carry you different places.

One current is the author: what did they mean? what tone are they trying to convey here? is there a better word to express what they’re getting at?

Another current is the reader: is this construction clear enough? will they get the author’s intention here? will this word disrupt their reading in any negative way?

Translating has a few more currents: the source language and all of its history and metaphors and idioms, as well as the target language. The tension between the two is yet another third stream that can catch me and send me circling for hours without going anywhere.

And beneath all of them is always my own curiosity, a nefarious undertow. A quick check on a given word’s etymology can, if I’m not careful, lead to a half-hour trip down the Google black hole: if these two are related, how about this third term? is there a Swedish equivalent of this idiom? what’s the name for this kind of grammatical construction?

(By now, anyone else familiar with Pisces as a metaphor for the dissolved ego and the collective unconscious can read a deeper meaning into all of this. But without the woo, the metaphor still holds.)

Conversely, if I can’t dive into the language and swim in the words, then work gets much, much harder. Not that editing or translating is all about inspiration and muses, of course, but when I’m properly swimming, the right word or phrase, the right comma or recasting, comes almost effortlessly. When I have to sit and consciously chop things up or look up word after word in the dictionary, the result is always noticeably worse (in my opinion). Most of the time, that belabored solution just gets replaced by something that comes to me, out of nowhere, hours later.

Like deep sea diving, some adjustment is needed to avoid getting the bends. “The bends,” in this case, being unable to communicate and express myself. Trying to think about something other than words, and trying to articulate what I’m thinking and what I want, is a little challenging after a long stretch of language work. It gets even weirder when I’ve been translating; that’s when I switch to an incomprehensible pidgin full of “non-standard” (that is, awful) pronunciation and rookie false friend mistakes I would never make in my professional work. I have to remember who I am, remember how to be myself.

Editors, translators, and other language professionals, I’m curious: what does your work feel like to you?

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