Creativity: Translator Lori Hetherington

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Translator Lori Hetherington loves knowing a little bit about a lot of things and that craving spills over into the projects she works on, which could easily be termed eclectic: historical fiction and nonfiction, 19th century fairytales, literary fiction, scientific and technical, mystery, visionary fiction, and a dash of romance, a pinch of ghostwriting and editing, and a handful of her own short stories and essays to keep things interesting.

A long-time Florence resident she does her best to straddle the English-language and Italian literary scenes. She’s co-organizer of the Florence Writers annual Publishing Day, an avid writers group participant, a frequent face at the Open Mic events at Tasso Hostel, and on the board of directors of the European Writing Women Association (an association born in Italy for women who revolve around the written word).

When she’s not tethered to her pc, she can be found riding her bike across town, walking the streets of Florence or hiking in the countryside, or talking about the subtleties that can be expressed through language and the importance of human connections with whoever will listen.

What about your work motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

I consider myself to be strongly guided by my intuition, whether it’s in my work as a translator or as a writer. And perhaps it’s that professional duality combined with strong intuition that’s my greatest strength. I tend to approach challenges in a circular fashion: I go around and around, guided by intuition, until I find an entry point. And even after I’ve gotten past the entry point I tend to hover and flitter around a project and engage with it as inspiration (and deadlines) require, until I’ve reached what feels like the conclusion. I’m not the bulldozer type, although I often have periods when I’m very focused. For me, an approach that is fluid and changeable works best. However, I often admire how other people set their eye on a goal and then go straight for it, without distractions.

When the creative well runs dry, how do you refill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I think working as a translator often feeds my creative side. I get the chance to facilitate the creativity of others without having to heave buckets up from my own well. When I’m translating a novel, the characters are already drawn, the plot has been constructed and my job is to render them fluently in my own language. Sure, it often takes creativity to build a bridge between feelings and expressions in different languages but it generally takes less, or maybe a different type of creative energy. At least it’s that way for me.

Instead, when I’m trying to solidify characters or work out plot I like to travel by motorcycle. I know that sounds odd, but as a passenger on a motorcycle I’m forced to stay centred, I can let my imagination wander, and absorb whatever strikes my senses. It’s a sort of meditation. I also tend to pour over photos that have some link—timeframe, place, topic—to the story I’m working on so that I have visual cues dancing in my head.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

A translator has to be a chameleon when it comes to voice so the challenge lies in turning my translator brain off when I’m writing my own pieces. When I’ve spent the day working on a translation and can feel one of my own stories creeping into my head, elbowing the translated story out of the way, I have to do something physical to shift into the new space and voice. It might be as simple as taking a walk, unloading the dishwasher, or playing with my cat but it has to be there in order for me shift gears. Reading lots of different kinds of material also helps clear my head—I might read a short story, some newspaper or magazine articles, or jump briefly into a novel. I mentally need well-written pieces as a sort of reset.

What inspires you to work with artists and in a creative field?

For about twenty years I worked almost exclusively translating and revising scientific texts. Sometimes I worked on innovative discoveries and exciting new ideas but I really missed stories, whether they were someone else’s or my own. But what I did get from all those scientific articles and textbook chapters was confidence. Especially in the early years, every time the authors had their contributions accepted for publication I got a little boost. And any time you create something—artistic or not—having a pinch of confidence allows you to dare, it nudges you to show people what you’ve got, and helps you weather rejection a little better. I love the variety of projects and opportunities that are part of my work, and getting the chance to revel in the creative production of others. I’d say that the thrill of taking one thing—a memory, a rough outline, a text in one language—and turning it into something else is what feeds my fire.

Do you think an artist’s national identity influences them?

Oh, definitely, although I wouldn’t say that it defines an artist. Each country a person lives in, or sometimes just visits, adds a piece to a person’s personal baggage. When we create something, it comes from that imaginary suitcase full of our life experiences and our national identity is just one part.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I think being a translator helps a person develop a thick skin. Feedback and constructive criticism are part of the translating process and I’ve learned to not take them personally. It’s sometimes a bit more difficult for me when it’s my own writing but I’m getting better! A person can have a fantastic idea or write an amazing novel but they may be rejected not for merit but for timing. I know it doesn’t change the outcome (rejection), but if you want to keep producing and sharing what you do, you can’t take the hard times personally.

What do you think is the value of collaborations, artistic and otherwise?

I don’t think I could do what I do without collaborations! I’m a team player by nature and therefore I seek out others—whether it’s the living author of the novel I’m translating, other writers for feedback on what I’m writing myself, or another creative person who wants to brainstorm about a project.

I studied geography at university which intensified my natural inclinations toward seeing interconnections and reinforced, in my mind, the importance of interactions, systems and subsystems, and collaborations. In this sense, creative endeavours are, for me, no different from other undertakings: there’s an objective and through observation, reflection, discussion and sharing of opinions and experiences I aim to reach my goal. I know that there are some people who shy away from collaborations especially during the creative process–if that’s how they like to work, more power to them—but I honesty couldn’t live without creative exchange.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What do you think artists can do to help overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Diversify and be open to opportunities—I think it’s good advice in lots of different fields. For example, writing and literary translations are not very lucrative but other types of translations can pay more, or I know other translators who teach, or writers who write advertising copy. It makes me mad that creative output is seen as having a lower value than other sorts of production, or that because an artist is passionate about what they do then that should be payment in itself. However, I prefer to be creative about getting around the obstacles rather than sulking about them.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

I like to think that I live creatively. By that I mean that I approach challenges with an open mind, I welcome new or unexpected solutions, and can adapt to what the world throws at me. Which really is not all that different from translating a novel or writing a short story…

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do they have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I think everyone has a responsibility to be true to themselves: some people are driven to manifest their sense of responsibility in a more public way, and others are more comfortable impacting in a much smaller sphere. Both are equally respectable. Artists, in the traditional and broadest sense, have the task of exploring and communicating emotions and helping people make sense of the world that surrounds us. Translators have the task of bridging two languages and cultures in such a way that they become somehow closer. The beauty of it all is that one person’s way of interpreting (as artist, translator, or what have you) is destined to connect with someone else’s sensitivities, either on a large or small scale.

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