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Literary Bilingualism : Self-translation and the Bilingual Text

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

Traditionally regarded as an anomaly, the bilingual text, a.k.a. bilingual literature that includes authorial self-translation, long neglected by scholarship, has in the past decades become the subject of intensive critical scrutiny.

Academic Studies of Literary Bilingualism and Self-Translation

As a bilingual literary press, we thought it right to launch our new blog with a discussion of bilingual literature, self-translation, and what has in recent scholarship been termed the “bilingual text.” (You may also wish explore our unique bilingual literary editions!)

Jan Walsh Hokenson and Marcella Munson, professors of comparative and French literature at Florida Atlantic university, in their ambitious book-length study The Bilingual Text (St. Jerome Publishing, 2006), define the bilingual text as “a self-translation, authored by a writer who can compose in different languages and who translates his or her texts from one language into another.” Self-translation is simply the translation of an original literary work into another language by carried out by the author him- or herself.

The authors could have perhaps been stated more precisely that the bilingual text includes both the original and the self-translation, since a translation is generally in and of itself monolingual. According to Hokenson and Munson, the tradition of bilingual literature arose in Greco-Roman antiquity and persisted all the way up through the European Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Self-translation was a common practice in the ambient translingual world of early modern Europe, when bilingualism was the norm, and writers increasingly translated between Latin and vernaculars.”

Literary Bilingualism and Self-Translation Declined with the Rise of the Nation State, according to Hokenson & Munson

Hokenson and Munson offer a rewarding discussion of literary bilingualism across the ages, with many examples from times ancient and modern. One of the insights we took away from reading the book is that, fascinatingly and yet not entirely surprisingly, “while persisting among cultured elites, literary bilinguality and self-translation diminished during the consolidation of the nation-states.” In our opinion, however, it is also the case that the most sophisticated and artistically powerful self-translated secular literature has arisen in the modern era.

From canonical literary figures of the past, such as John Donne and Charles d’Orléans, to greats of modernist literature such as Vladimir Nabokov and Samuel Beckett, the bilingual text has made a significant contribution to world literature. The bilingualism of the latter two writers in particular has been the focus of much scholarly attention in diverse regions of the world, and partly in connection with the ongoing translation of their works into a wide variety of literary languages.

Mirna Sindičić Sabljo of the University of Zadar, Croatia, in her article: “Beckett’s Bilingualism, Self-translation and the Translation of His Texts Into the Croatian Language” (published in the Journal of Linguistics and Intercultural Education, 2011) remarks that “Beckett is the single writer in the world who [wrote almost] his entire work in two languages, English and French. He is not the only bilingual writer in the world, but he is one of the few who wrote in two languages at the same time. Beckett’s bilingualism was entirely voluntary, considering the fact that he was not persecuted, for political, economic or religious reasons, as many exiled artists have been. His [use of] French can be seen as driven partly by aesthetic and partly by psychological needs.”

Carl Jung on Advantages of Self-Translation

Literary self-translation has often been seen as high-quality translation, and for excellent reasons. For example, the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung who, was interested in translation, astutely observes that “The main difference between ordinary translators and self-translators… is the fact that self-translators can access their original intention and the original cultural context or literary intertext of their original work better than ordinary translators” (quoted in Peter Lang, English-German Self-Translation of Academic Texts and its Relevance for Translation Theory and Practice, Verena Jung, 2002).

Similarly, much earlier, the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), who self-translated into French, affirmed that “a mere translator would not have dared, even in the face of difficulty, to sidestep the literal sense; but I, as the author of my own work, was able to change words, the better to conform to the taste and customs of my nation” (Storia del mio teatro, Milan, Rizzoli, 1993).

Brian Fitch, a student of the work of Samuel Beckett as a bilingual writer, argues in his Beckett and Babel: An Investigation into the State of the Bilingual Work (University of Toronto Press, 1988) that “the writer-translator is no doubt felt to have been in a better position to recapture the intentions of the author of the original than any ordinary translator.”

Raymond Federman on Samuel Beckett’s Self-Translation

Raymond Federman, a leading authority on Samuel Beckett, makes a similar observation, “The original creative act (whether in French or in English) always proceeds in the dark… and in ignorance and error. Though the act of translating, and especially of self-translating, is also a creative act, it is performed in the light (in the light of the existing original text), it is performed in knowledge (in the knowledge of the existing text), and therefore it is performed without error – at least at the start.” (Raymond Federman, The Writer as Self-Translator; in A. W. Friedman, et al., eds., Beckett Translating / Translating Beckett, 1987. London: The Pennsylvania State University Press.)

Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books (“On Self-translation,” 2016), the bilingual Mexican-American author, lexicographer and translator, short story author Ilan Stavans, declares: “I firmly believe that how one perceives the world in any given moment depends on the language in which that moment is experienced. Take Yiddish, which is, at its root, a Germanic language, but is strongly influenced by Hebrew. It also features Slavic inclusions. These distinct elements give the language a taste, an idiosyncrasy.”

On reviewing a range of academic discourse on bilingual literature, it becomes obvious that this literature fills a cultural need, enriching the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and socio-political dimensions of literary works. Why then is it still the case, according to the Australian specialist on literary translation Anthony Cordingley, the author of Self-Translation: Brokering Originality in Hybrid Culture (Bloomsbury Studies in Translation, 2013), that self-translation remains a “relatively neglected species”? Or why, as Hokenson and Munson, op. cit., state, do “the fields of translation studies and comparative literature [still] lack a comprehensive account of self-translation in the West”?

Phil Nix, Ph.D.

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