Writing as translation and translation as commitment: Why is (academic) writing so hard?

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This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text-book. Its object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure.
(opening sentence of the preface to Tractatus Logico Philosophicus by Lugwig Wittgenstein, 1918)

Background

I’ve recently been commenting quite a lot on the excellent academic writing blog (which I mostly read for the epistemology) Inframethodology by Thomas Basbøll. Thomas and I disagree on a lot of details but we have a very similar approach to formulating questions about knowledge and its expression.

The recent discussion was around the problem of ‘writing as expressing what you know’. While I find it very useful to distinguish between writing to describe what you know and writing to explore and discover new ideas (something I first reflected on after reading Inframethodology), I commented:

I still find that no matter how well I think I know my subject, I discover new things by trying to write it down (at least with anything worth writing).

Thomas responded in a separate blogpost, first picking up on my parenthetical:

Can it really be true that the straightforward representation of a known fact is not “worth writing”? Is the value of writing always to be discovered (by way of discovering something new in the moment of writing)? I think Dominik is thinking of kinds of writing that are indeed very valuable because they present ideas that move our own thinking forward and, ideally, contribute positively to the thinking of our peers. But I also think there is value is writing that doesn’t do this, writing that is, for lack of a better word, boring.

With this, I agree wholeheartedly. 110% coach! Yes, this was a throwaway line I wasn’t comfortable with even as I was writing it. The majority of my writing is mundane: emails, instruction manuals, project proposals, etc. They may or may not be “worthy” but they certainly have a worth. And people who do nothing but that sort of writing certainly do not do anything I would find ‘beneath me’ or not worthy. I might have been better served by the term ‘quotidian’ or even ‘instrumental’ writing.

I agree even more with Thomas’s elaboration (my emphasis):

In fact, I think it’s the primary of value of academic writing and one of the reasons that so many people (and even academics themselves) almost equate “academic” (adj.) with “boring”.The business of scholarship is not to bring new ideas into the world, indeed, the function of distinctively academic work (in contrast to, say, scientific or philosophical or literary work) is not to innovate or discover but to critique, to expose ideas to criticism. In order for this happen efficiently and regularly, academics must spend some of their time representing ideas that are not especially exciting to them along with their grounds for entertaining them. They must present their beliefs to their peers along with their justification for thinking they’re true. And they must do this honestly, which is to say, they must not invent new beliefs or new reasons for holding them in the moment of writing. They must write down, not what they’re thinking right now, but what they’ve been thinking all along.

I find this an incredibly valuable perspective and when I think of my own writing, I think this is precisely where I’ve often been going wrong. This is partly because academic writing is more of a hobby than a job, so I don’t have the time to do more than write to discover. But it is partly because of my temperament. I don’t enjoy the boring duties of writing things I know down and then formatting them for the submission to a journal. I prefer to work with editors which is why the bulk of my published writing is in journalism or book chapters.

But there is still another aspect that needs to be explored. And that is, why do most people find it so difficult to write down what they know even while taking into account all of the above.

Writing as translation

I propose that a good way to think about the difficulty of writing to describe our thoughts is to use the metaphor of translation. We can then think of the content of our thoughts in our head as a series of propositions expressed in some kind of ‘mentalese’. And when we come to write them down, we are essentially translating them into ‘writtenese’ or in this case, one of its dialects ‘academic writtenese’.

This is made more complicated by the existence of a third language – let’s call it ‘spokenese’. We are all natively bilingual in ‘mentalese’ and ‘spokenese’ even if not everybody is very good at translating between these two languages. In fact, children find it very difficult until quite late ages (10 and up) to coherently express what they think and even many adults never achieve great facility with this. Just like many natively bilingual speakers are not very good at translating between their two languages.

But nobody is a native speaker of ‘writtenese’. Everybody had to learn it in school with all its weird conventions and specific processing requirements. It is not too outlandish to say (and I owe this to the linguist Jim Miller) that writing is like a foreign language. (Note: see some important qualifications below).

When we are translating from mentalese to academic writtenese, we are facing many of the same problems translators of very different languages faces. The one I want to focus on is ‘making commitments’.

Translation as commitment: Making the implicit explicit

Perhaps the most difficult problem for a translator (I speak as someone who has translated hundreds of thousands of words) is the issue of being forced by the way the target language operates to commit to meanings in the translation where the structure of the source language left more options for interpretation.

Let’s take a simple paragraph consisting of three sentences (Note: this is a paraphrase of an example given by Czech-Finnish translator at a conference I attended some years ago):

The prime minister committed to pursue a dialogue with the opposition. This was after the opposition leader complained about not being involved. She confirmed that he would have a seat at the table in the upcoming negotiations.

The first commitments I have to make at some point is to the gender of the participants in the actions I write about. In English, I can leave the gender ambiguous until the third sentence. In Finnish, which does not have gendered third-person-singular pronouns, I don’t have to express the gender at all.

In Czech (and many other languages), on the other hand, I have to know the gender of the prime minister from the very first word. Like actor and actress in English, all nouns describing professions have built-in genders (this is not optional as in English because all Czech nouns have assigned some grammatical gender). I also need to express gender as part of the past tense morphology of all verbs. So even if I could skirt the gender of the ‘leader’ (there are some gender-ambiguous nouns in Czech), I would have to immediately commit to it with the verb ‘complained’. Which is why knowledge of their subject is essential to simultaneous translators.

But this is a relatively simple problem that can be solved by reference to known facts about the world. A much more significant issue is the differential completion of certain schemas associated with types of expressions. Let’s take the phrase ‘committed to pursue’. The closest translation to the word ‘commit’ is ‘zavázat se’ which unfortunately has the root ‘bind’. It is therefore ever so slightly more ‘binding’ than ‘commit’. I can also look into something like ‘promise’ which of course is precisely what the prime minister did not do.

Then, there is the word ‘pursue’. One way to translate it is ‘usilovat o’ which has connotations of ‘struggle to’. So ‘usilovat o dialog’ is in the neighborhood of ‘pursue a dialog’ but lacks the sense of forward motion making it seem slightly less like the dialog is going to happen. So here each language is making subtly different commitments.

When you’re translating academic writing, there are hundreds of similar examples, where you have to fill in blanks and make some claims seem stronger and others weaker. And even if you know the subject intimately (which I did in most cases), you often have to insert your judgement and interpretation. And the more you do that, the less certain you feel that you got the meaning of the original exactly right. This is even when while reading the original, I had no sense of something being left unexpressed. The only way to get this right is to ask the author. But even that may not always work because they may not remember their exact mental disposition at the time of writing.

Writing as filling in holes in our mind

I believe that this is exactly the experience we have when we write about something that only exists in our head or something we’ve only previously talked about. Even when I’ve given talks at conferences and had many conversations with colleagues, writing my ideas down remains a difficult task.

When writing, the structure of ‘writtenese’ (as well as the demands of its particular medium) forces me to make certain commitments I never had to make in ‘mentalese’ (or even ‘spokenese’). I have to fill out schemas with detail that never seemed necessary. I have to make more commitments to the linearity of arguments, that could previously run parallel in my head. So when I write it is not clear what should come first and what last.

When I just write down what’s in my head (or as close to it as it is possible), it is unlikely to make any sense to anybody. Often including myself after some time. I need to translate it in such a way that all the necessary background is filled out. I also need to use the instruments of cohesion to restore coherence to the written text that I felt in my mind without any formal mental structure.

But during this process, I often become less certain. The act of writing things down triggers other associations and all of a sudden I literally see things from a different perspective. And this is often not a comfortable experience. Many writers find this a source of great stress.

This is, of course, true even of writing instructions and directions. Often, when describing a process, we find there are gaps in it. And when writing down directions, we come to realise that we may not know all aspects of the familiar sufficiently well to mediate the experience to someone else.

Teaching writing as translation

Translation is a skill that requires a lot of training and practice. In many ways, a translator needs to know more about both languages than a native speaker of either. And then they need to know about different ways of finding equivalent expressions between the two languages in such a way that the content expressed in the source language produces similar mental effects when reading in the target language. This is not easy. In fact, it is frequently impossible to achieve perfectly.

When I translate I often refer to a dictionary (such as slovnik.cz) that lists as many possible alternatives of words even if I know exactly what the original ‘means’. This is because I want to see multiple options of expressing something which may not be immediately triggered by my understanding of the whole.

But for this to work, I need to have done a lot of deliberate reading in both languages to know how they tend to express similar things. At the early stages, I may approach this more simply as learning to speak a language. I may learn that ‘commit to pursue’ is best translated as ‘zavázat se usilovat o’. But I have to back that up by a lot of reading in both languages, studying other translators’ work and making hypotheses about both languages and the differences between them. Eventually, this becomes second nature and to translate fluently, we need to ‘forget’ the rules and ‘just do it’.

So how could we apply this to teaching (academic) writing? We need to start by ensuring that students have enough facility in both the source and the target languages. We usually assume greater fluency in the source language (most translators work primarily in the direction of native to non-native). So in this case, we need to focus on the structures and ways of ‘academic writtenese’.

We can very much approach this as teaching a foreign language. Our first aim should be to help students acquire fluency in the language of academic writing. We need to give them some target structures to learn. This should ideally be based on an actual analysis of that writing rather than focusing on random salient features. But ultimately, the key element here is practice.

Then we also need to focus on helping the students develop better awareness of their native mentalese and how to best map its structures onto the structures of writtenese. We can do this by helping them write outlines, create mind maps, come up with relevant key words, and of course, read a lot of other people’s writing, think about it, and then write summaries in similar ways.

None of these are particularly revolutionary ideas and they are being used by writing teachers all over the world. What I’m hoping to do here is to provide a metaphor to help focus the efforts on particular aspects of what makes the translation from thought to writing difficult.

Writing as playing a musical instrument

One final analogy that can help us here is the idea of writing as playing a musical instrument. This analogy is in many ways even more apt. When we play a musical instrument, we are initially translating relatively vague musical ideas into actual notes (melodies and harmonies) by way of the structures given to us by the musical instrument.

We may start by learning some chords to accompany a song we hear but later we will progress into more details of musical theory which will allow us to express more elaborate ideas. But, in fact, this also allows us to have more those more elaborate ideas in the first place.

Initially, our ability to express musical ideas via an instrument (such as piano or guitar) will be limited by our skill. We may not even realize what exactly the idea in our head was until we’ve played it. And often, what we can play limits the ideas we have. Jazz teachers often say something like ‘sing your solos first and then play’ (others call it ‘audiation’). But this is not trivial and requires extensive training. Which is why one common advice for jazz musicians is to transcribe (or at least copy) famous songs and solos. But as you’re transcribing and copying, you’re supposed to notice patterns in how musical ideas are expressed. You can then recombine them to express what is in your ‘musical mind’.

But it seems that the musical ideas and their form of expression are never completely separate. They are not a pure translation but rather a co-creation. And this is true of any good translation and probably also ultimately true about any act of writing. We are using a different medium to express an existing idea but in the process, we are filling gaps in the ideas, creating new connections until we ultimately cannot be completely certain which came first.

As we get better at translation, music or writing, there are some levels about which the last part does not hold true. There are some ideas we can truly and faithfully translate from our head to paper, musical instrument or from one language to another. This is why practice is so important. But at the highest levels of difficulty, writing, translation and music making will always be acts of co-creation between the medium and the message.

Teaching writing as music

So finally, could we teach writing in the same way as we teach music? We certainly could. Just like teaching a foreign language, teaching music is mostly dependent on a lot of practice.

But perhaps there are some techniques that music teachers use that could be useful for both language teachers, translators and writing coaches.

One is the emphasis on patterns. The idea of practicing scales, licks, or chords relentlessly (up to hours a day) holds a lot of appeal. Perhaps we start teaching self-expression with writing too soon. Maybe we should give students some practice patterns to repeat in different combinations. Then we could tell them to just copy and then dissect parts of good texts. The idea of ‘mindless’ copying will probably stick in many teachers’ craws. But just analysing reading will never be enough. Students need the experience of writing some good writing. If only to develop some muscle memory. And while it should never be completely mindless, it should also perhaps not be completely meaningful from the very start. Of course, we could invent numerous variations on this approach to transform the texts in various fun ways while still making sure, students are writing extended chunks and developing fluency. The point is that we would not be focusing on self-expression but developing a language for self-expression.

Music teachers and students use what has been described by Anders Ericsson as ‘deliberate practice’. Ericsson gives the example of Benjamin Franklin who used similar techniques to improve his writing:

He first set out to see how closely he could reproduce the sentences in an article once he had forgotten their exact wording. So he chose several of the articles whose writing he admired and wrote down short descriptions of the content of each sentence—just enough to remind him what the sentence was about. After several days he tried to reproduce the articles from the hints he had written down. His goal was not so much to produce a word-for-word replica of the articles as to create his own articles that were as detailed and well written as the original. Having written his reproductions, he went back to the original articles, compared them with his own efforts, and corrected his versions where necessary. This taught him to express ideas clearly and cogently.

Obviously, this was not all there was to it, but it is very much reminiscent of what music students do. It seems to me that most beginner writers are often asked to do too much at the very start and they never get a chance to improve because they essentially give up too soon.

Writing is NOT foreign language, translation or music: The Unmetaphor

Writing is writing! It has its specific properties that we need to attend to if we want to see all of its complexities. We must use metaphors to help us do this but always by remembering that metaphors hide as much as they reveal. One useful way of understanding something is to create a sort of unmetaphor: a listing of similar things that are different from it in various respects. This is something that, while not uncommon, is done much less than it should be when using analogies.

Written language is not a foreign language

Some of the fundamental mental orientations of a language are shared between the written and spoken forms. This includes tense, aspect, modality, definiteness, case morphology, word categories, meanings of most function words, the shape of words, etc. These present some of the most significant difficulties to learners of foreign languages making it very difficult to acquire a second language by exposure alone after a certain age for most adults.

Writing, on the other hand, can be acquired predominantly by exposure alone for many (if not most) adults. There are many people who acquire native-like competence in the written code in the same way they acquired their spoken language competence (even if there are just as many who never do). And we must also be mindful (as Douglas Biber’s research revealed) that there is a bigger difference between some written genres then there is between writing and speech overall. So we should perhaps attend to that.

Writing is not translation

That writing is not actually translation is contained in the fact that written language is not actually a foreign language. There are many genres and registers in any language with their specific codes. And we could call going from one code to another translation much more easily than going from what I called ‘mentalese’ and ‘writtenese’. (Again, the work of Douglas Biber should be the first port of call for anyone interested in this aspect of writing.)

But most importantly, what I called ‘mentalese’ does not actually have the form of a language. Individuals differ in how they represent thoughts that end up being represented by very similar sentences. Some people rely on images, others on words. For some, the mental images more schematic and for others, they have more filled in details. For instance, Lakoff asked how different people imagine the ‘hand’ in ‘Keep somebody’s at arm’s length’. And the responses he got were that for some the hand is oriented with the palm out, others with the palm in.  For some, it includes a sleeve, for others it does not. Etc.

Writing is not music

I’ve already written about the 8 ways in which language is not like music. And they all apply to writing, as well. The key difference for us here is that music cannot express propositions. This means that musical expression can be a lot freer than expressing ideas through writing.

We could argue that writing is more like music than spoken language because it requires some kind of an instrument. Pen, paper, computer, etc. But we usually learn these independently of the skill of expressing ourselves through writing. My ability to play the piano is much more closely tied to my ability to express my musical meanings. However, people write just as expressive prose by the hunt and peck method as when they touch type. One can even dictate a ‘written text’ – that’s how independent it is of the method of production.

Of course, improving one’s facility with the tools of production can improve the writing output just by removing barriers. This is why students are well-advised to learn to touch type or to use a speech-to-text method if they struggle for other reasons (e.g. visual impairment or dyslexia). But when it comes down to it, this is just writing down words and as we established, writing in most senses is more than that.

Conclusions and limitations

Ultimately, writing and translation are not the same. Just as writing and music are not the same. But there are enough similarities to make it worthwhile learning from each other.

Many writers have developed great skills by the ‘tried and tested’ approach of ‘just doing it’. But we also know that even many people who do write a lot never become very ‘good’ at it. They struggle with the mechanics, ability to express cogently what’s in their minds, or just hate everything about it.

For some beginner writers, the worst thing we could do is give them a lot of mindless exercises. These people will want to do it first and would hate to be held back. Just like many students of languages or music like dive off the deep end. But equally, for many others, telling them to ‘just do it’ is the perfect recipe for developing an inferiority complex or downright phobias of writing.

But all of these writers will need lots of practice – regardless of whether we provide lots of ladders and scaffolding or just put a trampoline next to the edifice of their skill. In this, writing is exactly like music, language and translation. You can only get better at it by doing it. A lot!

I started with a quote from Wittgenstein. But he also famously said in summarising his book:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

I think we saw here that this is not necessarily how the act of writing presents itself to most people.

He then continued:

The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather—not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought). The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.

This is was the so-called “early Wittgenstein” before the language games and family resemblances. He spent the rest of his career unpicking this boundary of sense and non-sense. Coming to terms with the fact that what is thought and what is its expression are not straightforward matters.

So all the metaphors notwithstanding, we should be mindful of the constant tensions involved in the writing process and be compassionate with those who struggle to navigate them.