Translations as creative writing might sound like a peculiar idea on the surface, specifically when it comes to translating texts from one language into another. There is the tendency to assume, or so I used to assume, that the process was simple and straightforward. The best known translation for the Japanese-language sentence “Watashi no Tomodachi wa yume o mita,” for instance, in American English, is “My friend had a dream.”
But translation, like creative writing in general, is in fact an intricate undertaking—where the knowledge of another language, a sensibility for the culture where the language is in use, and the filter of the translator’s perspective intersect.
For example, consider the “Watashi no Tomodachi wa yume o mita” sentence once again. While the closest equivalent usually agreed upon in American English is “My friend had a dream,” the actual words in Japanese basically read, “My friend saw a dream.” A translator who felt the word-by-word translation was the most faithful might then set down saw in the sentence, perhaps alongside a footnote explaining the difference in structure and ideas between the Japanese and English languages.
In other words, it’s a deliberate choice on the part of any translator as to how a sentence gets translated. An arguably creative act.
With the above said, we can now delve into 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, edited by Eliot Weinberger—which exemplifies the use of translation as a form of creative writing. Weinberger gives us one four-lined poem from the Buddhist, painter, calligrapher, poet, and philosopher Wang Wei, and then proceeds to include 19 distinct translations, from translators of various backgrounds and native languages, of the exact same poem. While similarities are abundant between the various translations, what stands out are the wide range of approaches taken (including some of which rearrange, add to, or cut out parts of the poem). Yet they are all solid translations for the reader to enjoy.
The basic idea of Wei’s poem is of an unnamed character who wants through an inhabited forest.
Here is one translation by Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-Hu of Wei’s work (Pg. 5):
There seems to be no one on the empty mountain . . .
And yet I think I hear a voice,
Where sunlight, entering a grove,
Shines back to me from the green moss.”
However, here is another translation by W.J.B Fletcher (Pg. 4):
“The Form of the Deer
So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.
But whence is the echo of the voices I hear?
The rays of the sunset pierce slanting the forest,
And in their reflection green mosses appear.”
Then here is my own translation of the poem:
“Of the Deer by Wang Wei
In mountains where people seldom venture
Voices resound amid the gentle solitude
Returned as sunshine into a dark forest
That shines upon green mossy spreads.”
It’s clear from the above three translations just how wide a range the perspectives on a poem can be, and the even wider range of texts that can then result. This variety of understandings is something to keep in mind as a creative writer, I believe, and as a translator. Of course, the same is also true of English-to-English translations of creative pieces (which are apparently viable translations as well)—as long as credit goes to the originator of the text.
So I would recommend 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei as a means of exploring translation at work, and the ways in which translations truly are creative writings as well.