Five Mixed Metaphors for Translation


On Translation

Drawing by Daisy Rockwell.


The Lego Metaphor, Part One

I once saw a Lego metaphor for translation. On some online forum somewhere.

I liked it, but it was slightly off, and then I forgot it.

So I had to make up a new one. I’ve thought of a few versions.

I’m still trying to get it right.

Here is one version:

Imagine (if you will)

that you have purchased the Hogwarts Castle Lego set.

You have given up the dining room table for this project.

You get about three-quarters of the way through.

Then a dog, or a cat, or maybe just

A lurching adult

Bumps into it.


You weep. You’ve lost the instructions. Many pieces are stuck in the floorboards.

Some are under the carpet.

So you rebuild, sans instructions.

You don’t have enough pieces so you repurpose

the space station gathering dust in the corner

the Lego Friends camper set and soda shoppe.

You use all these things, and the picture on the box

to create a new and somewhat peculiar Hogwarts Castle

It’s made of the wrong materials and put together

in a different way.

But it’s oddly beguiling!

This is translation.


The Lego Metaphor, Part Two

You have a child.

The child is young, and

the child likes Lego.

You give the child a Lego airport set

on a gift-giving occasion.

Thanks, Dad, says the child.

Shall we build it together, my child?

you ask.

Yes, Dad. But let us make a castle,


My child!

These parts and instructions are intended for the sole purpose

of building an airport.

Though I wish to fulfill your every dream,

this one in particular is impossible.

But Dad, says the child,

I’m sure it can be done.

You are an old softie, so you comply.

Without instructions,

no charts, no use for the numbered bags,

guardrails off, you hurtle forward.

In this metaphor

The Lego set represents the original text,

the instructions and intended use are the original language,

and the form of the castle is the target language,

the child is the commissioning editor,

and the father is the translator.



What are you doing, I ask.

Making a quilt, he says.

How so? I ask.

You don’t have any fabric,

You don’t have needles and thread,

Or even

A sewing machine.

Well, he says.

I have this beautiful old quilt.

Look at the handiwork!

And I have all these bits of colored paper

I even have scissors and glue.

I will replicate the quilt using these materials.

It will be perfect.

But, I interject,

How is it a quilt anymore, if it is made of paper,

not fabric?

It will not warm anyone at night.

It will not be soft to the touch.

This project is futile, I conclude.

Despite your negativity, he opines, I am not injured.

For I shall create an exquisite simulacrum of a quilt.

It will be quilt-like. It will look like this quilt.

I will hang it on the wall and admire it.

This is an imperfect metaphor for translation:

A translated book retains its functionality as a readable object.

The paper quilt looks like a quilt but does not have quilt functionality.

On the other hand,

in this metaphor, the original quilt loses some of its most essential features,

while the paper quilt has the potential of becoming a beautiful work of art.


English Is a Monocrop

English, the great monocrop, its roots on an island, its tentacles all around the world. An invasive species with no natural predator. English is the potato crops for McDonald’s french fries, the corn crops for corn oil and corn syrup. The soy crop for all manner of soy by-products. In America, Iowa is farm country. The small farms are mostly gone now, and the land is covered with endless fields of corn and soy. The corn and soy are sent away and processed and returned to the land in the form of I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-what-it-appears-to-be products—butter, milk, cream, sugar—all made of soy and corn. The British Empire spread the English monocrop initially, but the American Empire is the greatest expert on the export of the processed and the packaged, the canned and the bottled, the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-real. On the island of the monocrop, we grow up surrounded by nothing but our own language. Flat, rippling fields of English, as far as the eye can see. Yes, there are small farms scattered about the landscape, along the coasts, primarily, that grow and nourish non-Englishes. But those are other. English crowds in on those crops and stifles them wherever possible. If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me. For all of us. New metaphor: a padded cell of monolingualism. Mixed metaphor: a cell padded by french fries, sealed shut by nondairy corn-and-soy-based butter substitutes. There are voices outside the cell (beyond the field?) but we can’t hear them. They don’t matter to us. Other languages are decorations for our speech. A word here, a phrase there. They are the sriracha on our french fries; the matcha powder in our soy milk. Is that what it means to translate into English? Are we mixing matcha lattes?


Translation Is a Monster

Dr. Frankenstein wanted to create a human.

Instead of going about it the usual way,

he wanted to create a human out of parts of other humans.

Dr. Frankenstein in this metaphor is the translator

He is like an icky version of the quiltmaker

But in this case the original text is simply


He wanted to make a human, i.e.,

to create a life through his own ingenuity and resources

without recourse to a womb.

So the original is a human,

and the man he creates is made of other man parts

and stitched and stapled together


But a reanimated patchwork, not a reanimated corpse.

And when his experiment, i.e., his translation,

stands up and walks

that’s the special moment when a translator realizes

this thing’s got legs

It will stand on its own

in its new incarnation

(not a reincarnation)

And the screams the monster is greeted with as it lurches through the streets

those are the screams of people who find translation fishy



Even though this metaphor is imperfect since the monster is modeled on the idea of a human,

and not a specific human

Nonetheless, that moment of wonderment and horror at one’s monster’s animation

That is something most translators have experienced.


Daisy Rockwell is an artist, a writer, and a translator of Hindi and Urdu. Her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Tomb of Sand was the winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize and the 2022 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.