The Poetics and Politics of Literary Self-Translation

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

In our previous post, we discussed the concept of the literary bilingual text, understood as a work of literature taken in tandem with its authorial self-translation. Today, we will look at the poetics and politics of literary self-translation. (Also browse our fine bilingual literary editions by clicking on the Books tab in the top-level navigation bar above this post.)


Society is a colossal translation, with political and aesthetic implications

We have already noted an affinity in how such remotely timed authors as the 18th-century Venetian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, and the 20th century’s celebrated father of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, thought about the advantages of literary self-translation over ordinary translation. Both writers attached importance to the translator’s ability to know and honor authorial intentions; both valued the authenticity of self-translation. You may or may not anticipate that such a position is fraught with political implications. In our postmodern world, where the idea of authenticity has been heavily deconstructed, the ethos of self-translation is only naturally questioned.


The Scottish poet Christopher Whyte, in his article “Against Self-Translation” (published in the journal Translation and Literature, Edinburgh University Press, vol. 11, Spring 2002) quotes the celebrated French symbolist poet Paul Valéry where the latter argues that “there is no such thing as the real meaning of the text. The author has no special authority.” (Quoted in Graham Dunstan’s edition and translation, Paul Valéry: Le Cimetière Marin, Edinburgh, 1971). Whyte, who is himself a novelist in English and a poet in Scottish Gaelic, goes on to remark that “the person least qualified to translate any poem is the person who wrote it.” If for Valery, “it is not certain that [the text’s] constructor uses it better than the next man,” for Whyte authorial intention is essentially suspect, unclear to the author him-or herself; and the final product may therefore be freely handled by its receivers. Indeed, a writer may well fall short of his or her own intentions. But, pace Whyte, to claim that a writer’s ability to employ language is no better than an amateur’s seems a bit absurd. Moreover, authorial intentions do not always fall short of an accurate transcription on the page. Where they do, and whatever the reasons for the same, it is certainly not because the writer’s ability to use his or her language is suspect from the outset.


The Ukrainian linguist and translation studies scholar Oleksandr Finkel (1899-1968) too has argued against the efficacy of self-translation. According to him, the amalgamation of author and translator in one person negatively affects “translation adequacy. ”Compared to “regular translation,” the self-translation involves a higher degree “reconceptualization” of the work, which may bring about a web of discrepancies with the original, either enhancing the quality of the work or lowering it, as the case may be. However undesirable the discrepancies, argues Finkel, reconceptualization is inevitable in translation, since the translator is also the author of the literary work. Therefore, the author’s split identity “prevents the author from becoming the best translator of his works.” (See Oleksandr Kalnychenko & Natalia Kamovnikova, “Oleksandr Finkel’ on the Problem of Self-Translation,” published in in TRAlinea, vol. 21, 2019.)


The Russian-French writer Elsa Triolet (1896–1970) did not consider self-translation to be a preferred form of translation either. In A Companion to Translation Studies, eds. Piotr Kuhiwczak and Karin Littau (Clevendon, Multilingual Matters, 2007), Rainier Grutman and Trish Van Bolderden, in chapter 24,“Self-Translation,”mention Triolet’s “weariness of her own creative instinct: in her eyes, bilingual writers like herself made for less than ideal translators because they followed their own creative bent at the expense of someone else’s text – even if that someone else was the author himself or herself at a previous point in time.” Indeed, Triolet’s “weariness” was not unfounded: self-translation is not only hard work, but it also risks seeming superfluous, and consequently futile, to the author.



Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider in NYC in 1965 on the set of Film, written by Samuel Beckett"  Caption the same as film.]
Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider in NYC in 1965 on the set of Film, written by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett, arguably the most famous literary self-translator, wrote to his American theater director Alan Schneider in letter of April 30th, 1957: “I have nothing but wastes and wilds of self-translation before me for many miserable months to come.” The phrase “wastes and wilds of self-translation,” suggestive of translation as a sort of raw, uncharted and lawless process, reflects a peculiarly Beckettian form of self-imposed authorial drudgery. This, from the most acclaimed self-translator of modern times!


And yet, self-translation was a fundamentally literary activity for Beckett, seamlessly of a part with the rest of his creative process. His stature as a literary self-translator has been well established by Beckett scholarship both in English and in French. Beckett began translating in 1930. In 1939he translated into French his novel Murphy, published in English the previous year. After WWII he started writing original work primarily in French, while self-translating most of his output into English. His collaboration with another translator, Patrick Bowles, on the English translation of Molloy was an exception to this rule.


The groundbreaking volume Beckett Translating/ Translating Beckett, edited by Allan Warren Friedman (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987)was one of the first major explorations of Beckett’s unique literary bilingualism, firmly establishing him as the self-translating polyglot genius that he was. This unmatched capacity, this aspect of Beckett’s talent as a writer, addeda large new dimension of creativity to his work that is uniquely and spectacularly his own. It is also consistent with what we known about his desire to control the presentation of his work in every detail. Just as he could not trust a director to change one iota of his plays, he could not trust other translators to represent his writing in his two languages of choice, English and French. One wonders if this was not the chief reason why Beckett self-translated his works.



Wastes and wilds of self-translation before me, says Samuel Beckett

There may have been other motives as well, such as meeting the sheer aesthetic challenge of transplanting the French working all its expressive intricacy into English. One may also turn to that other giant of self-translation, Vladimir Nabokov, to affirm the same. Nabokov had arguably been forced to self-translate his works and then become an English-language author owing to the loss of his homeland to the Bolshevik regime. Yet no one who has read his novels in English can possibly fail to appreciate the author’s near-carnal love of this language.


Aesthetic and political motives may well coexist in an author’s decision to self-translate. As Drs. Jan Walsh Hokenson and Marcella Munson (scholars of comparative literature whom we discussed in our previous post) claim in their book The Bilingual Text (2006),the majority of dual-language texts are not solely “aesthetic decisions,” but are rather due to the “social displacement of writers into a second or third language amid political upheavals and exile.”


At times, motivation for self-translation can be largely political. Writers from a traditionally marginalized culture may adopt the language of a dominant culture to voice the former’s native contours and defy the latter’s hegemony. It is an act of self-assertion (one readily thinks of novelists such as Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in African literature, and of Qurratulain Hyder in Urdu literature, to name a few).It can also be an act of assimilation whereby the translator aims to incorporate him- or herself into the linguistic and cultural milieu of the host group.


After all, as the noted cultural critic Edward Said asserts in his essay “Reflections on Exile”(Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 2000), modern Western culture as we know it “is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés, and refugees.” In sum, society itself is the living legacy of a colossal cultural translation, with a host of attendant political and aesthetic implications.


Phil Nix, Ph.D.

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