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Self-translation: Three Authors

By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris and Toby Smollett

Certain authors translate their own work, for a variety of reasons from bilingualism or originally writing in a minority language, to mistrust of translations. Additionally, there are those who argue that self-translations are as close to the original work as possible because of the author’s complete knowledge of its meaning and others who argue that self-translation lacks the encyclopaedic vocabulary and grammar possessed by professional translators in the target language.

Literary self-translation is a vast topic to explore so let us dip in with our three chosen self-translators:

Assia Djebar

The Algerian novelist, translator and filmmaker, Assia Djebar, self-translated all of her own novels from Arabic into French. Spanning almost fifty years, Djebar’s novelistic output often depicts genealogies of women, particularly those oppressed by patriarchy and colonialism. A bilingual author, Djebar was first educated in Algeria (which liberated itself from France in 1962) and then at one of France’s elite institutions, L’ecole Normale Supérieure. Self-translation greatly mirrors Djebar’s own life, as a Maghrebian academic fleeting between stellar university tenures in Algeria, France and then later the US. More than that, her ability to self-translate and move between Arabic and French is in essence linked to her intersectional approaches to storytelling, feminism and post-colonialism. Nowhere is this more beautifully evident than in her 1987 novel, L’Ombre Sultane (A Sister To Scheherazade). A novel about two very different women, both married to the same man, and their quest for emancipation.

Language, particularly in a postcolonial sense, can become a battleground to dissect power struggles and whether subaltern languages can escape/counter the dominant language. Towards the end of her dazzling career, Djebar was elected to the Academie Francaise, an institution founded to safeguard the French Language. Djebar was the fifth woman to join and it’s telling that she was chosen as an incredible writer and self-translator with such a clear understanding for the importance of giving voice to the voiceless and of translation as a means to survive and liberate the self.

Milan Kundera

Photo by Punch Magazine

A bilingual author, born in Brno in 1929 and raised speaking Czech, Milan Kundera learned French after moving to France in 1975. His first six novels, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí) were all written in Czech, however he wrote the four novels that came after in French. Despite his status as a bona-fide francophone, Kundera’s first work, The Joke (Žert), was originally translated into French by another translator. Whose translation displeased Kundera, and so another translation followed...and another...and another. Eventually, the flow of imperfect translations became too much, and Kundera chose to translate the novel himself.

There are two parts of this that are particularly interesting. First, the comment he made in the notes of his own translation, where he says “this is my house, not yours” in response to the preceding translations he had read. An entirely anti-Barthesian statement, the Rebirth of the Author (or the Author clinging to Life), which is made more interesting by the second fact – the licence he afforded himself in his translations. According to those who read both Czech and French, Kundera takes the opportunity provided by translation to not only bring meaning across languages, but also to edit the text, to freely adapt events, not just sentence structure. In contemporary translation, altering specific plot points is by no means outside of the realm of what it means to translate a work, but the contrast of the strict control over meaning in the source text and the liberal transformation of the story in the translated version is revealing about the very personal nature of translation.

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) was another author who translated his works himself. He wrote in French and English. He was Irish but studied French and lived in France for most of his life. What’s interesting about Beckett is that in the beginning of his literary career, he initially wrote in English, but after 1947 most of his works were written in French first which he subsequently translated into English. French was not his first language so choosing to write his works in French before translating them into English was an unusual choice. Beckett famously said he wrote in French because it was easier for him to write in a language that had no style.

Authors like Beckett who translate their works themselves could translate simultaneously or consecutively. Beckett mostly translated consecutively as the translations of his works were published after the originals. Consecutive translation raises questions about the differences between the works (as does translation in general). For example, could something change in the translation if it has been years since the original was written?

However, self-translations are considered by some to be better than translations not done by the author as the author knows the work so well and their intentions behind it. The only work Beckett did not translate himself was Molloy (1951), which he translated with Patrick Bowles in 1955. His most notable work is the play Waiting for Godot, originally published in French as En attendant Godot (1952).


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