Translation and Procrastination

If you’re wondering why I did so little blogging over New Year’s, the answer is quite simple: I had four translation jobs all come due at exactly the same time, Dec. 31. Now, “I’ll get it in by the end of the year” seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to promise someone in, say, August. Lots of surplus months in there. I recently heard or read somewhere that we are much more generous with the time of our future selves than with that of our current ones. Our current selves are the ones who don’t have time to grab a quick coffee with you, sorry, and probably didn’t pick up the telephone in the first place because they were doing something urgent, like blogging. Anyhow, having several jobs going at once (we’re talking short stories here, not novels) turns out to work for me, because the older I become, the more incapable I seem to be of getting anything at all accomplished if I am not, at the same time, avoiding some other, preferably even more urgent task. Yes, this is psychological, and therefore no doubt surmountable – I do understand this. So would someone please send me the step-by-step instructions that will lead to my cure? On the other hand, what is procrastination if not a form of what the illustrious Walter Benjamin described so eloquently under the name Zerstreuung (distraction)? See, so it’s a philosophical category; why would you want to mess with it? And the fact is that the faint twinge of guilty conscience produced by the knowledge that one is irredeemably shirking automatically puts one (me) on such fertile soil. I like it here – just look at that view! And these multiple deadlines have served me well these past two weeks. By avoiding two of the translation jobs, I got the other two done lickety-split, and then the sheer difficulty of the fourth (fine-tooth-combing my translation of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s long essay on translation for a new edition of the anthology in which it first appeared) frightened me into putting my nose to the grindstone on the third (an excerpt from Shanghai Performance, the new novel by writer Silke Scheuermann). Then, just as I was despairing of ever getting up the nerve to stare down old Friedrich, a miracle intervened: I received an e-mail from the editor for whom I sometimes translate art reviews, reminding me that I had promised her three short reviews sometime this week. Eureka! Schleiermacher is done.
Oh, and if anyone reading this happens to be a student of mine and you find that these thoughts about procrastination and creativity resonate with you, please note that procrastination works only when you are doing the homework for my class to procrastinate doing something else. Hey, I wrote this blog entry while procrastinating making myself dinner. ’nuff said.

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  1. Anne says:

    Here is a link from PlanetLyrik about a German to German poetry translation project. It raises some really interesting questions about the act of translating, its possibilities and limitations, and the nature of the translated result (is it the same poem, just put differently? is it a new poem altogether?). I thought it fits well with the theme of your blog and that you might be interested in reading it!

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