Our writing task this week was two kinds of copying, and discovering what it can teach us about translation and writing more generally. We first read an extract from Ali Smith’s novel Autumn (2016) on the Brexit referendum result in the UK:
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.
All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipped about in the air above the trees, the roots, the traffic.
All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: What is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.Ali Smith, Autumn, 2016
We had a couple of minutes to read and attempt to memorise this extract. Then, we attempted to copy out the text from memory. This was my attempt:
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.
All across the country, people emerged, shocked, when the news whipped around like an electric pylon after a storm when one of its wires had been snapped and was whipping around everywhere.
All across the country, people thought it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people thought it was the right thing. All across the country, people thought they’d really lost. All across the country, people thought they’d really won. All across the country, people turned to Google: what’s the EU? Google, move to Scotland. Google, how to apply for Irish passports.
As you can see, I didn’t get everything, but I got the main ideas. I struggled with the extended simile, and missed some of the middle of the final paragraph.
Learning from Copying
So, what’s the point? What did I learn?
In short, repetition is memorable. Texts with a specific pattern of foregrounded words can be repeated from memory more easily. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it does teach you how important repetition is when appealing to a reader. It’s not the mark of bad writing.
The extended simile, on the other hand, was difficult to remember. It’s not difficult to see why. It stretches over several lines and uses some confusing imagery. However, not being able to remember something isn’t a mark of bad writing either. The pylons whipping around: It’s a long image. You can argue that this is a kind of stretching the metaphor. It lengthens the experience, and sometimes also the aesthetic effect, of reading. A simile or a metaphor invites us to put together two ideas which don’t usually belong together. Shklovsky’s ideas on defamiliarisation are linked to this. We need strangeness in art, and by extension literature as a form of art. It’s only through experiencing the strange, of juxtaposing ideas together, that we can feel and form something new.
I’ve also learned that syntax can be an expressive tool, a stylistic device. The order the words come in and the way they are arranged go a long way to whether we remember them or not. We tend to remember the beginnings and ends of sentences and not the middle section, and the same goes for paragraphs. It’s best not to hide my main ideas somewhere in the middle of my text.
Copying by Hand: What can it do for us?
Now we’ve talked about some of the benefits of copying, we can come onto some of the benefits of copying by hand.
Over the last year, I’ve turned into a bit of a writing purist. I’ve gone from hardly ever writing by hand to writing all of my first drafts manually. I have a specific type of pen I love (the Works, cheap blue or black gel pens), and specific types of notebooks (A5, hardback, not ringbinder, not too many pages, thick pages, narrow lines to keep my handwriting under control). I love the physicality of it all – I’m at my work desk, crafting something. I love filling up notebooks, I love how timeless and analogue it is. I love riffling through the crispy pages afterwards. I love stashing them on my bookshelves and pretending to be a published author, with my works nestled between Mantel and Harper Lee. I love how notebooks get thicker and fatter as you fill them up. I love how it forces me to slow down and think about my choices, and I love how all of my thought processes are visible, the editing is visible. If I add a word, if I take one away, this can be seen on the page. Drafting in a Word or Google Doc, is, on the other hand, invisible. The process has vanished. Creating a first draft by hand and then typing it up also forces you to edit. You suddenly notice which word choices feel clumsy, which arrangements fall short of lyrical. I like to put lots of word choices in a first draft of fiction or translation, and then pick one when typing it up. You edit as you transpose your text from the page to the screen. You realise what needs elaborating, and which passages are unnecessary.
But I digress, this was supposed to be about copying specifically. Copying this passage made many of us realise how laborious and unnatural the repetition feels. There’s so much repetition in this extract, and when reading it, we tend to just skip over the repeated words without giving them much thought. But when it comes to actually writing each one, that’s when we realise the weight of it. Copying repetition also meant that some of us, including me, were losing our places, forgetting which sentence we were on when a lot of it looked the same.
Copying by hand helps us to gauge the effect of some stylistic features on the reader. Some translators swear by copying some passages from the source text before they embark on a translation, just to see and understand what the author is doing, to get inside the text, so to speak. We can gauge the words better. Copying can be used in this way as a translation resource.