Translation as a Dance

July 22, 2020


I often wake up with a word on my lips. I don’t know if it’s driftwood left on the shore of my consciousness by an ebbing dream or a clue whispered in my ear by an invisible friend, an insight for me to decipher in my waking hours.

Pontifex Maximus, Pontiff. Words of pomp and circumstance that have a humble progenitor — “bridge builder.” A perfect definition of my profession. I am a literary translator. A translator is also etymologically somebody who carries something over. And so I build bridges to allow books to cross over into another land. I help carry them over from one language to another. Perhaps Saint Jerome should share his status as patron saint of translators with Saint Christopher, who is reputed to protect travellers. We are travellers from one language to another.

I am not an author, except in as far as I craft the bridge to make the passage as comfortable as possible for the book. I draw the plans, calculate the height and span of the arch, choose the right stones, the right timber and mortar.

I also often find myself comparing translating to ballroom dancing. The author must take the lead. They are responsible for navigating both of you around the room without colliding with other couples. As a translator, you need to be able to trust them, since you are dancing backwards. Your job is to know your steps and be in tune with your partner so that you guess their next move even before they lift their foot from the floor. If your partner is hesitant, unfocused or is trying to show off with moves purely intended to impress the audience, you get confused and downhearted, and the process becomes nothing but a series of mechanical motions until the music ends. When, on the other hand, your partner is considerate, that is, the writer is respectful towards their readers and true to themselves, then you strive to do everything in your power to honor them and start crafting your translation with a sense of privilege and responsibility. You can then be true to the author. That’s when the translation process becomes a fluid, elegant dance. And a joy.


Katherine Gregor worked as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, press agent, and theatrical agent before becoming a full-time literary translator of fiction, nonfiction, and plays. She works from Italian and French, and occasionally Russian. Katherine also writes. This piece first appeared on the Italian Institute of Culture in London site.


Photograph by Jay Galvin.