Lost in Translation

Erika_9_typewriterEvery time I go for a run, I think about Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. It’s not particularly good. I only read it once, probably around age fifteen or sixteen, and I don’t remember much about it, except that it involved aliens, and Jimmy Smits played the protagonist in the movie version. Honestly, the single detail from that book that stands out at all is the typewriter. It’s an invention put together by the Jimmy Smits character, a writer who becomes possessed by aliens (I think) and begins to create all kinds of contraptions, including a typewriter that’s capable of understanding exactly what he wants to write and how he wants to write it, then does the work for him. I would kill for that typewriter.

Last night, I watched the movie The Hours for the first time in years. I discovered that it’s really overwritten, with characters philosophizing and despairing and talking at each other in a way that no one ever actually talks. But there’s a part where the Ed Harris character, a poet, says, “I wanted to be a writer, that's all. I wanted to write about it all. Everything that happens in a moment. […] And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with it ends up being so much less.”

That’s why, when I run, that typewriter pops into my head. I try not to think when I run. I breathe, and watch the snow fall, and let my feet touch the ground in time with the beat of music in my ears. But you can’t shut the brain off. It chatters. Nonsense, worries, lists of things to do and places to go.

Or sometimes it works with an actual purpose: I begin to think about something I want to write. Running, it all seems clear. I can find the words—not because I actually find them while I run, but because the feeling of what I want to write is clear, and that clarity makes the right words seem possible. I can hold two, three, twenty, a hundred thoughts and feelings in my head simultaneously. All the everything that Ed Harris talked about: all of it mixed up, impossible to pull apart. I run, and my brain churns, and it seems easy. It's all there. Just go home and put it on paper.

But it’s never that easy. The minute I try to put into words whatever it was that seemed so clear while my shoes pounded pavement and the breath rushed in and out of my lungs, I start to fail. That’s the hardest part about writing. The translation of what’s in your brain to words on paper—words that other people will (hopefully) read and not just understand but know, down to their bones. As with any translation, though, something is always lost.

Language isn’t always enough. Which is why it’s exciting when you do read something that exactly captures a feeling or a thought or a way of seeing the world that resonates—that makes you feel like someone crawled inside your head and translated what they found there and got it exactly right. There’s joy in discovery, too, of lighting upon a new way to think about something. But I think that feeling of recognition is the greatest triumph of good writing. It’s the thing that makes it possible for reader and writer to understand each other—for us to speak the same language.