Pinning Down Creativity in Translation: The Case of Literary Texts Literary Translation translation jobs
Home More Articles Join as a Member! Post Your Job - Free! All Translation Agencies

Pinning Down Creativity in Translation: The Case of Literary Texts

Become a member of at just $8 per month (paid per year)

1.1. Introduction:

Creativity and translation (or better translating) are inseparable, especially in literary rendition. A translator should always be resourceful in terms of vocabulary and syntactic structures in order to handle repetitions in the ST. Literary translators in particular need to be also creative in translating the ' formalities' of the ST. In this paper, creativity in literary translation will be tackled through three genres: poetry, rhyming prose and short stories.

2.1. Definitions and Constraints of Creativity in Translation:

Creativity in translation can be defined as coming up with novel strategies for dealing with familiar or common problems, whether on the lexical, syntactic or formal levels. The translator is, however, torn between the form and the content of the ST and the limits of freedom and idiomaticity in the TL. Thus, s/he is bound to be creative in terms of his/her knowledge of the TL and what TL-receivers would not baulk at. Moreover, according to Knittlova (2000: 72-73), translator’s creativity must have its limits. She (ibid: 72) maintains that: 

Judging its right degree might lie within the scope of modern translatology, which approaches the translation from the holistic point of view and which can with advantage use the principles of text linguistics. These might be of some use just because translation should keep all the text parameters or textuality standards unchanged as far as possible (with adequate adaptation to the conventions of the target language). 

Creativity is also reviewed by several scholars. Gui (1995) considers translation itself a creative process for a number of reasons:

1 - Translation is not merely a transformation of an original text into a literal equivalent, but must successfully convey the overall meaning of the original, including that text's surrounding cultural significance;

2 - The process of searching out a target-language counterpart to a difficult source-language word or phrase is often creative.

Neubert (1997:17-19) further maintains that:
A translation is not created from nothing; it is woven from a semantic pattern taken from another text, but the threads - the TL [target language] linguistic forms, structures, syntactic sequences… In the course of achieving something new, mediators [translators and interpreters] have to resort to novel ways of encoding an old message. They are forced to creativity because the means of the TL are not identical with those of the SL [source language]. ... To arrive at an adequate TL version, new resources have to be tapped. In these efforts, creativity plays a prominent role. Creative uses of the target language are the result of the various problem-solving strategies applied to any piece of SL text.

Moreover, Niska (1998) quotes Wallas' model of creativity in translation, which comprises four steps:

  1. Preparation: the first stage in the process, where the problem is investigated, i.e. accumulating knowledge about the problem to be solved, from memory and other sources;
  2. Incubation: a resting phase where the problem is temporarily put aside, if the solution is not found immediately;
  3. Illumination: a stage where an idea of a solution comes to mind, as a "flash" or "click" as the culmination of a successful train of association;
  4. Verification: a stage where alternative solutions are tested and their usability is measured. It is at this stage that the creative product is born.

These steps are considered constraints. Other constraints will be implicitly discussed in the following sections.

2.2. Aspects of Creativity in Literary Translation:
2.2.1. Poetry Translation:

This is a good starting point. Poetry abounds with formal aspects that highlight the necessities of creativity, provided that content is out of harm's way. The formal aspects can be thought of as what the ST contains of sound harmonies and modes of rhetoric which are to be kept in the TT. The following example from a very famous poem by Al Ma'arri is enlightening:

غير مجد في ملتي و اعتقادي  نوح باك و لا ترنم شاد

و شبيه صوت النعي إذا قيس بصوت لبشير في كل ناد

أبكت تلكم الحمامة أم غنت علس فرع غصنها المياد؟

Those lines are oft-quoted to evince the poet's pessimism. An obvious obstacle here is the rhyme scheme. The fact is that rhyme is an essential feature of Arabic poetry (so much so that it is divided into two broad 'types' due to sticking to or avoiding rhyming). Moreover, rhyme in Arabic poetry is the vehicle of rhythm, especially in the light of Al Ma'arri's famous 'Luzomiyyat' (i.e. making necessary what is not necessary), where he clung to rhyming a great deal.

The translator has first to delve into the individual words and phrases pf those lines in order to handle rhyming: s/he should determine what will be left and what should be left out to decide on the rhyme-scheme. On the lexical level, 'digression through synonymity' looms clear. In the first line, ملتي andاعتقادي  are near-synonyms that would needlessly elongate the TT. Two choices are open to him/her: either to do away with one or translate the two. A meticulous translator would keep the two, ending up with the following:

Not feasible in my dogma and belief
A wailer's sobbing or a warbler's singing!

The situation here is two for one: to English lines for one Arab line, typically divided into two hemistiches. This means double rhyming in the TL and hence in the TT. A possible solution is to keep the TT as it stands provided that the TT's rhyme alternates as follows:

Not feasible in my dogma and belief
A wailer's sobbing or a warbler's singing!
How similar is the ululation of grief
To the premonitory cry everywhere ringing!

A uniform, steady rhyme, that is the other solution, would be as follows:

Feasible not in my belief the two oppositions:
A weeper's wailing and a singer's professions!

Of course, 'professions' is not always acceptable due to its strangeness, but the problem of rhyming incurs it. Some translators may turn to the troublesome 'dogma' in the first line and try 'thinking' (which is an under translation):

Both equal in my belief and thinking—
A weeper's wailing and a warbler's singing!

On the lexical level, which is important for translation creativity, the search for fitting words for the sake of equivalent harmony and plausible rhyme-schemes is willy-nilly a salient constraint. Considering the dimensions of this constraint, one would deem a third translation the best. It can be quotes in full as follows:

Both equal in my belief and thinking—
A weeper's wailing and a warbler's singing!
Akin is the sound of mourning
To that of a man well-auguring!
Hath that dove, yonder, been weeping?
Or hath she, on her swaying twig, been harping?

But is it the best on the prosodic level?

The above question is the real challenge to creativity in poetry translation. A metrical scansion of the first two lines above shows how:

Both e/qual in/ my be/lief and/ thinking/—
A weep/er's wai/ling and/ a warb/ler's singing!/

The metre is clearly not uniform. Further scansion will lay bare other discords. Additions are one solution, but they do more harm than necessary: the connotative aspect will be wrecked. The first and second attempts above seem to be better on the prosodic level but not on the lexical level: the translator is to balance the two, which is a compound constraint in blameless literary translation.

The problems posed above take on a different guise when rendition moves form English into Arabic, where synonymity figures outstandingly. Arabic metrics are also problematic, but modern poetry tolerates English modulations. An example from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice illustrates the problem with verse translation from English into Arabic:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony,
Sit, Jessica, look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to young-eyed cherubim;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it. (Act V, 1, 1-12)

Kholoussi (1995: 78 ) provides the following translation:

ما أعذب شعاع القمر راقداً على هذا الشاطئ!

ههنا سنجلس، و ندع أصوات الموسيقا

تتسلل إلى آذننا : فالهدوء الناعم و الليل

يغدوان لمسات للاتساق العذب

إجلسي يا جيسكا، و انظري كيف أن قرارة السماء

قد رصعت بصفائح سميكة من الذهب البراق

فليس هناك أصغر جرم مما ترينه

ألا و هو يغني في حركته كملاك،

و يمعن النظر في صغار الملائكة ذات العيون الشابة.

فمثل هذا الاتساق الموسيقي كامن في الأرواح الخالدة،

إلا أنه مادامت هذه الأغلفة الطينية من التفسخ و الفناء

تحسبه بفظاظة فليس إلى سماعنا إياها من سبيل.

It is a faithful translation, so to say. Yet it is not creative: the rhyme scheme is waived, being absent the ST; however, the resultant version does not compensate for the loss in the direction of the TT. This means that, the Arab receiver expects a somewhat versified translation, and in the case of avoiding rhyming, 'foreignness', albeit necessarily operant, should be lexically lessened. The lexical string صغار الملائكة and إلا أن   , to take a few examples, are culturally as well as registerwise misplaced and even meaningless. Moreover, the last line in the TT is garbled. The same excerpt has been rendered by Enani (2001:18) as follows:

ما أعذب النور الذي ينام فوق الربوة!

فلنجلس الآن هنا

كي تسبح الأنغام في آذاننا!

ما أنسب الليل الجميلو السكون الحالم

لتوافق الألحان فيما حولنا!

هيا إجلسي يا (جيسكا)

و سرحي الطرف بهذا الكون

فصفحة السماء رصعت

بهذه النقوش من لوامع النضار

و ليس يحصيها العدد

بل إن أصغر الأفلاك في مسارها

تنشد كملائك

تهدي من أغانينا إلى الملائك الصغار

و كل روح خالدة

فيها توافق عميق مثل موسيقا السما

لكن أجسام الفناء من طين سميك

يطمسها بغلظته...فلا نسمعها!

Although Enani imposes rhyming in his translation, the versified product still sounds 'modern' Arabic poetry. On the lexical level, Enani outwits Kholoussi by translating 'sleep' in the first line as ينام not as راقداً . Trying to constrain 'foriegnness', he further restructures the second English line syntactically: he relegates 'here' to the end, using the connectorكي as a tolerable explicitation. Also syntactically striking is the translation of 'But whilst this muddy vesture of decay/ Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it' intoلكن أجسام الفناء من طين سميك/يطمسها بغلظته...فلا نسمعها . Finally, the insertion of هيا in هيا إجلسي is justified, for the blunt إجلسي is not suitable for lovers' speech.

2.2.2 Rhyming Prose:

Rhyming prose in Arabic is best exemplified by the 'assemblies' or المقامات . Two of the best known writers of assemblies are Al Hariri and Al Hamazani. Although Al Hariri's have been beautifully rendered, the translation has waived rhyming and has meticulously preserved 'foreignness'. A discussion of Al Hamazani's will reveal most of the problems embedded in translating the genre. Consider the following excerpt from the Assembly 1:

طرحتني النوى مطارحها حتى اذا وطئت جرجان ألاقصى .فاستظهرت على الايام بضياع أجلت فيها يد العمارة و اموال وقفتها على التجارة و حانوت جعلته مثابة و رفقة اتخذتها صحابة..........الخ 

A possible translation would be as follows:

Estrangement hath propell’d myself to travel hither and thither until I me reah’d FarJurjan.I me won o’er the grinding times by virtue of estates nigh-equipp’d, and some monies I me devot’d to trade, and an emporium my shelter I made, and some associates… 

The register employed is the archaic one, and linguistic acrobatics are at their best. Creativity here imposes two demands: first, the translator should as much as possible 'archaicize' his/her TL, regardless of temporal equivalence and, second, rhyming should be kept as far as the TL permits. Needless to say, culture-bound items are to be approximated.

2.2.3. Short Stories:

While the translator is constrained in poetry and rhyming prose by the necessities of form as intertwining with content, he/she feels free with unrhymed prose, i.e. novels, short stories, plays ( excluding Shakespearean drama). He/she is constrained instead by the mood created, and here creativity assumes a high profile. Consider the following excerpt from a short story by Mahfouz called 'Za'abalawi':

حلمت أنني في حديقة لا حدود لها، تنتثر في جنباتها الأشجار بوفرة سخية فلا ترى السماء إلا كاكواكب خلل أغصانها المتعانقة، و يكتنفها جو كالغروب أو كالغيم. و كنت مستلقياً فوق هضبة من الياسمين المتساقط كالرذاذ ، و رشاش نافورة صاف ينهل على رأسي و جبيني دون انقطاع...

Johnson Davies (1991:11) attempts a translation of the entire short story. The translation of this excerpt runs as follows:

I dreamt that I was in an immense garden surrounded on all sides by luxuriant trees, and the sky was nothing but stars seen between the entwined branches, all enfolded in an atmosphere like that of sunset or a sky overcast with cloud. I was lying on a small hummock of jasmine petals, more of which fell upon me like rain, while the lucent spray of a fountain unceasingly sprinkled the crown of my head and my temples…

The mood created by 'immense' is deviant: 'immense' is excessively emotive, almost equivalent to هائل. Moreover, 'fell' as a rendition of  المتساقطis inadequate due to the embedded continuity of the active participle. Finally, الجبين is not necessarily 'temples'; 'brow' would serve a better purpose. The same excerpt has been translated by Enani (2002:27) as follows:

I dreamt I was in a garden of unlimited vastness. There were trees on all sides, luxuriantly growing and so thick that only small patches of the sky appeared like stars through their intertwined branches. It was grey, as at sunset or as though it was an overcast day. I was reclining on a heap of jasmine petals that still fell like a drizzle around me, while a clear shower from a fountain came down incessantly upon my head and brow…

This translation, though not far better, overcomes some of the problems in Johnson-Davies' version. 'Immense' is substituted by 'unlimited vastness', and 'surrounded' is done away with. He also adds 'still' to 'fell' to suggest continuity. However, he keeps the tautology avoided by Johnson-Davies in translating بوفرة سخية into 'luxuriantly growing and so thick'. Yet both translators create a rather less 'dreamy' atmosphere than required. Consider my following attempt, where atmosphere-creating words are highlighted:

I dreamt that I was in a limitless garden, in which trees scattered on all sides so opulently that the sky could not be espied except like stars through their intertwined branches. It was surrounded by an atmosphere much like sunset or murkiness. In the midst of all this, I was lying on a hillock upon which jasmines were falling like a shower; a sprinkler of pellucid water was pouring ceaselessly down upon my head and forehead…

3.1. Conclusions:

The above constraints and aspects of creativity in literary translation are but a host out of a legion. It can be concluded that al literary text is to be linguistically prosodically and culturally analyzed by the translator before a final version is provided. The lexical and syntactic levels are to be considered first, together with pragmatic appropriateness. Rhetorical and prosodic features are then to be analyzed in an attempt to produce a workable translation: i.e. one that sounds just as pleasing and musical in the case of poetry and rhyming prose, and one that approximates the original atmosphere in the case of literary prose. If failing to produce a rhymed version, the translator should compensate for that formal loss through syntactic modelling and accurate cultural approximations. In unrhymed prose, he/she has a less tougher task—the same mood and atmosphere of the ST should be lexically and syntactically relayed in the TT.


- Enani, M (2002) 'On Translating Naguib Mahfouz' in Naguib Mahfouz: Global Perspectives, eds. M. Enani , M.S. Farid and S. Sarhan. GEBO: Cairo.

-Gui, G. (1995). 'Das Wesen des Übersetzens ist kreativ'. In: Babel 1995, 41, 3, 129-139.

- Johnson-Davies, D. (1991) 'Za'abalawi' in The Time and the Place and Other Stories, selected and translated with an introduction by Denys Johnson-Davies. AUC: Cairo.

-Knittlova, D. (2000) 'On the Degree of Translators' Creativity'. Available online:

-Neubert, A., Shreve, G. M. (1992). Translation as Text. Ohio Kent.

-Neubert, A. (1997). 'Postulates for a Theory of Translation'. In: Danks & al., pp 1-24.

-Niska, H. (1998) 'Explorations in Translational Creativity:
Strategies for Interpreting Neologisms'. Available online

- الهمذاني ، بديع الزمان(بدون تاريخ). مقامات بديع الزمان الهمذاني. الهيئة المصرية العامة للكتاب: القاهرة.

- خلوصي، صفاء، فن الترجمة (1997) ، الهيئة المصرية العامة للكتاب: القاهرة.

- عناني، محمد، المختار من شعر شكسبير (2002)، الهيئة المصرية العامة للكتاب: القاهرة.

Published - October 2008

Submit your article!

Read more articles - free!

Read sense of life articles!

E-mail this article to your colleague!

Need more translation jobs? Click here!

Translation agencies are welcome to register here - Free!

Freelance translators are welcome to register here - Free!

Please see some ads as well as other content from

Free Newsletter

Subscribe to our free newsletter to receive news from us:

Recommend This Article
Read More Articles
Search Article Index
Read Sense of Life Articles
Submit Your Article
Obtain Translation Jobs
Visit Language Job Board
Post Your Translation Job!
Register Translation Agency
Submit Your Resume
Find Freelance Translators
Buy Database of Translators
Buy Database of Agencies
Obtain Blacklisted Agencies
Advertise Here
Use Free Translators
Use Free Dictionaries
Use Free Glossaries
Use Free Software
Vote in Polls for Translators
Read Testimonials
Read More Testimonials
Read Even More Testimonials
Read Yet More Testimonials
And More Testimonials!
Admire God's Creations

christianity portal
translation jobs


Copyright © 2003-2023 by
Legal Disclaimer
Site Map