Translating "in the zone"

Translators, writers, other creative people all know the wonderful feeling of working "in the zone". It's that blessed feeling when you're at your best, on a roll, seemingly without putting any effort into it. Your thoughts and ideas flow smoothly, your fingers touch the keyboard (or pen, brush, strings, keys -- whatever your medium) and produce exactly what you want.

When this happens to me as I translate, I feel as if my fingers have a will of their own... My eyes see the Hebrew text, and my fingers produce the English without "asking" my brain what to do next. It's a wonderful, exhilarating state. I think there's a name for it -- one's mind is in its Alpha state, or something like that. I read about that many years ago, when I was enamored with the idea of the Silva mind control method. For a while I tried practicing guided imagery according to Silva's instructions. I don't think I persevered long enough for it to have any effect.

One memorable period wherein I enjoyed this "in the zone" feeling was about 7 years ago. The end-client was The Israel State Archives, and the project was "Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel" -- something that ordinary folks never think about. But it's there, and it's fascinating stuff. I found the series of documents which I was asked to translate particularly interesting, because I remembered the period involved: the time just before, during and after the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Though I was just a child at the time, a schoolgirl, various names and expressions were etched in my memory. U.N. Secretary Dag Hammarskjold was a household name, mentioned daily on the radio (no TV in Israel at the time!). Finding out, as an adult, what went on behind the scenes, reading (and translating) correspondence between Israel's top politicians (e.g. Abba Eban) and major European and American political figures (e.g. Ralph Bunche, Guy Mollet, Anthony Eden) was riveting to me. I suspect that just hearing these names helped throw me back to a different era, making it come to life. Maybe this immersion in the past helped me glide into "the zone". Work proceeded with record smoothness and speed.

I was reminded of this near-hypnotic state recently, when working on a chapter of the non-fiction book I'm currently translating. At some point, it began to flow, I was in a sort of daze, suddenly "waking up" to realize that the hours have flown by and I'd done ten pages without thinking.

But of course, nothing so good lasts for long.
This time I mentally tripped over a simple little expression which catapulted me out of the zone.
The Hebrew expression was "zeh lo zeh". The context was, roughly: The writer is planning a "roots" trip to Poland and is searching for a guide, preferably from his parents' home town. At first, all he finds online is tourist guides from a town some 200 km away from Home Town, and he feels that "ze lo zeh" -- it just won't do. But guess what -- I  couldn't for the life of me think of the expression "it just won't do", which came to me without thinking now, as did a couple of alternatives.
So I snapped out of the zone.
Never mind -- it was time for dinner anyway :-)

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1. To read more about guided imagery and mind control, see my post about hypnotherapy.
2. Alternative translations of "zeh lo zeh" include: not good enough; not the real McCoy, not quite right, not the real thing, etc -- all depending on context, of course.

Choosing between different translations

The other day I was contacted by an Israeli book publisher. "Dear Nina," the email read. "I was referred to you by Such and Such", and from there on it was obvious that the same letter had been sent to several translators. Mr. Publisher attached a chapter from 3 novels and asked for a price quote, a time estimate, and a translation sample for each.

It's nice when [potential] work falls into my lap without my having to chase it. I acknowledged receipt and went about my business. By the time I had gotten around to reading the samples and thinking seriously about them, it was too late -- Mr. Publisher told me not to bother, he'd already received a few translation samples that seemed good to him. However, he assured me that there was plenty more where that came from, so we could still work together.

In a sudden fit of generosity -- stemming mainly out of curiosity, plus the fact that this was a good excuse to procrastinate on various chores -- I offered to look at the translations he received and tell him, free of charge, what I thought of them. Comparing translations was part of my work when I was employed at a large translation agency, and I'm quite adept at it. No wonder he jumped at the opportunity and sent me 3 translations of a couple of pages from Novel #1.

Translation #1 was easy to judge: The language did not flow naturally; the Hebrew syntax was too rigidly maintained, making the English sentences long and cumbersome; and the translator made abundant use of "fancy" words, either to show off his/her command of the English language (or of using a thesaurus), or to... I don't know what.

Translations number 2 & 3 were both better. Each had its own style, each sounded right, even though each translator had a distinct voice and style of her own. One was slightly more formal-sounding than the other. Here is a brief extract from translations 2 and 3:

"In the end, art gives itself over to capital. Money can always seduce the artist, greed subjugates the work of art, harnessing and domesticating it. When a piece of art is displayed in the tycoon's living room or in a bank's conference room, the passion and burning conviction is taken from it and it hangs there as if crucified, or like a domesticated hunting dog," X thought, distracting himself from the long, monotonous report given by Y, the director of the bank's credit department."

“Art eventually succumbs to riches. Money will always tempt the artist; greed subordinates creativity, controls and domesticates it. When art is shown in the parlors of the rich, or in the conference room of a bank, its burning passion and conviction is removed and it hangs there almost crucified or like a tamed hunting dog,” thought X, diverting his attention from the Bank’s Director of Credit, Y, and his long monotonous report, while his eyes brushed over the paintings."

I sent my opinion of all three translation samples to the publisher.
Do you want to guess which translation he chose?
He chose the translator who quoted the lowest price.

End of story.