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Philology and Stuff

I spent most of my weekend reading up on translation theory and medieval England's view of its neighbors and not-so neighbors. It's interesting stuff (if you're into that sort of thing). It's also incredibly relevant to what we do as writers.

Writing and reading is essentially one very long translation process. I, the writer, translate my thoughts to (arguably) coherent words, sentences, and paragraphs, with the hope that in the end I will have a book. My readers translate those words back into ideas. And they're not necessarily my ideas - my book doesn't exist in the vacuum of my own mind. It engages with whoever picks it up, opens its pages, and takes in what I've written. I could write a story I'd argue is about creating individuality in a world of globalization (I've been reading to much critical theory, okay?), but a reader might pick it up and think it's about something completely different.

Writers don't control the second half of the translation process - how can we? We're situated in our own personal narratives. Our writing is informed by our day to day lives, but our experiences and perception of the world around us. We can't account for what every reader has experienced, how they're going to engage with our words or what they'll take away from our stories.

But (you knew there was going to be a but, didn't you?) that's not an excuse for locking yourself into your experiences. One of the things we learn, especially when trying to think critically about medieval literature, is to read against the grain. In non-smart terms (because I'm not a PhD yet and I don't know how to say it in smart terms that involve words like historicizing and philology) it means question everything. That dress, that building, that boat, that travel - everything is questioned and requestioned. A story tells so much in what it says - it says even more in it's quiet spaces, in what it doesn't say or address.

We do the same thing in our writing - or rather, we should. Don't just stick things in your story, and don't stay comfortable. Question what you're translating out of your head - why that city, or that person, or that piece of dialogue? What does it reveal about your characters? About their thought processes? About their beliefs and prejudices?

Translation shouldn't be easy - it's complicated, and sneaky. There's nothing effortless about it  - nor should there be. Writing easily is fun - but once you do the first bit, I'd suggest to stop and do the second bit, too. Question everything. You'll appreciate the story better, and your readers will discover so many thing when they translate your words back into thought.
Somaiya Daud

Somaiya Daud received her BA and MA from a university in DC in English. She is currently working on her PhD. When not writing or studying, she spends too much time on the internet yelling about comics and robots. Her first novel, Mirage, is coming 2017 from Flatiron Books.

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  1. Sumayyah, I feel like this about this post: <3 <3 <3

    As someone who's two years toward her PhD I would just like to say that fancy words like "historicizing" and "philology" are just words that PhDs use to make themselves seem important and to justify their positions as cultural gatekeepers. They want to be in control of translating their fancy words into language everyone else can understand. OK, maybe I spend too much time thinking about the things that bother me about academia. ;)

    The point is, I like the way you put things. :D


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Item Reviewed: Philology and Stuff Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sumayyah