Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination

Peeling the Onion


In his insightful essay, Found in Translation from last Sunday’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham peels the many-layered onion of the authorial relationship.

His initial premise is translation, which one immediately assumes means language to language. And it does. Every book is re-formed into something completely new when it is translated, effected by the subtle shifts of meaning and even comprehension that come from refocusing through a different cultural lens.
Peeling the onion
But the layers of translation go deeper than that. Cunningham points to the truth that all of us are writing works in translation – that our conception can never be wrought in concrete form without undergoing a kind of transformation. It is never pure, never precisely what we’d original felt or witnessed in that perfect vision that lives in our minds. Writers learn to accept that we can never quite midwife our imagination into existence here on earth as it is in heaven.

And then there is the translation of our words by our reader. How many of us have discussed a character or scene we’ve enjoyed, only to discover that another reader envisioned the moment quite differently?

I was sharing the experience of a young adult novel, called Fish by L.S. Matthews, with my son. It’s a fascinating, simple story of a family’s escape from a nameless, war-torn village in Africa. What’s interesting is that the narrator is also nameless. About fifty pages into the book, I asked him how he imagined the character. “Oh, he’s a boy, about 7 or 8.”

“A boy?” I said. “I saw it as a girl!”

We both had shared the same words, the same journey. Yet our experience, our translation of the author’s intent (which was, no doubt, a translation of her own archetypal vision) was markedly different.

Our best hope in the struggle to achieve the purity of our vision, is to paint our tales with all the lushness, distinction and visceral truth that we can. Though we cannot create our perfect world here on earth, or in the minds of our readers, the vision they each experience as they read our words is the perfect merging of our imaginations and theirs.


Author: Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

3 thoughts on “Peeling the Onion

  1. As an anthropologist, having spent a year living in another culture, what I faced when I returned was having to render that culture into the linear two dimensions of a book, whereas the culture I had been studying was an all-encompassing sphere. Just as cartographers have to distort reality in rendering the earth into a flat map, I had to tear asunder connections-after all, everything is connected to everything else in such a culture-in order to achieve the linear form in which we communicate.

    It would have been even more difficult had I studied an Australian aboriginal culture which lacks the tenses that we use in English. No past, no future.

    One hopes that the reader will somehow be able to recreate a semblance of the sphere, having read the two dimensional version. And that is imagination.

  2. To counter Mr. Cunningham’s essay, I once read another writer’s essay that says an author should write for just one person (and this person could not be the author). In this essay, the successful writer (whose name escapes me) said that he wrote in a way that he knew would make his deceased sister laugh. That was his audience, and if others liked it, great!

  3. Thanks for this, Judy! I was traveling when it came out and missed it. love, Stephanie

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