Self-Translation and the Multilingual Writer

The act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony.

Samuel Beckett self-translated a great many of his texts from French to English and vice-versa, and does not seem to have unequivocally favored one language over the other. For Beckett, choosing to write in French came from “un désir de m’appauvrir encore plus” (a desire to impoverish myself even further). Evidently, he viewed French as a more minimal language.[1] Beckett sparsely commented on his decision―or compulsion―to write in both languages, but in all events, such choices appear to be largely affective and difficult to justify rationally. All the more so when the act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony. For a minority, self-translation instead liberates the writer, at once from the risk of servility to an original, and from the effort of wrenching a brand new work from one’s mental background noise. One need neither give birth to a new text, nor obey an existing one.

The late novelist Raymond Federman, an émigré from France and a bilingual speaker, offers an example of one writer for whom self-translation was in some sense liberating. Federman wrote for several decades almost entirely in English, and only began to self-translate well into the middle of his career. In fact, English remained his dominant language of initial composition, and he once expressed to me a certain resistance to writing directly in French. Nonetheless, he self-translated extensively from the mid-nineties until his death in 2009. Federman introduces extensive and significant variations between translations and originals, so that his texts exhibit what Sara Kippur calls mouvance (variance), a term borrowed from medievalist Paul Zumthor.[2] Beckett’s own texts exhibit some variation, but in Federman’s case, narrative accounts of a single autobiographical event differ between accounts, whether they occur in different books or in the “same” book’s French and English version. Hence, Federman ties the act of translation directly to issues of autobiographical authenticity, demonstrating that such authenticity is largely illusory―memory is a kind of fiction.

Some self-translation might be said to abolish the distinction between original and translation, source and target, because of the room it allows for play and free adaptation. In my own work, I thus prefer not to disclose the status of texts as “translations” or “originals.” Because the writer can (ostensibly) claim total symbolic ownership of both texts, the process generates two parallel texts. In theory, the differences generated can be read and analyzed for their own sake, and if a coherent pattern of choices emerges, it can show how one text is oriented differently than the other, as in Federman’s case.

Some self-translations are as minimal and neutral as possible. Nancy Huston does not change her self-translations in substance or content as Federman does, even though her narratives do exhibit what Kippur calls “translatedness.”[3] Yet this relative neutrality in fact also represents one self-conscious choice, one possibility for the self-translator, that of a tendency toward the production of two texts in unison as opposed to multiplying disjunctions and discordances. In addition to qualitative changes―making a text more political or less violent through translation choices―there is a more general choice between similitude and difference that all self-translators necessarily confront. Unison and discordance are the two fundamental modes of dialogue between two versions of a text in different languages.

In the case of discordant versions, one may reorient the text ideologically―making it more political or less violent, as in the examples above―or else there may be no clear and coherent pattern of choices involved. While not self-translations, Constance Garnett’s translations of Dostoyevsky have been observed in terms of the stylistic and ideological shifts they inflict on Dostoyevky’s texts.[4] But when no clear and coherent pattern of choices seems involved in translation choices, it becomes difficult to locate how the tiny adjustments of self-translation reorient the text; differences are often the result of responses not to questions of content or ideology, but of responding to differing linguistic constraints. Burton Raffel’s translations of Voltaire’s Candide tend to enliven Voltaire’s style, rendering it more readable for present-day readers unfamiliar with the narrative norms of the 18th century, but these adjustments in tone do not seem to affect the substance of the text a great deal. Self-translation produces multiple texts, but it does not necessarily produce much interpretable symbolic richness. Such richness can be produced only if the writer has placed self-conscious, stylized modes of translation at the heart of their creative practice.

One may thus deliberately work to weird an existing text, to twist it into something other, mechanically by way of translation software, or through individual will. A writer of my acquaintance recently observed a case of student plagiarism in which the student plagiarized a text directly, and then replaced each content-bearing word with a near-synonym, sometimes producing hilarious results. One might imagine instances of self-translation that operate in much the same (partially automatic) way, perhaps venturing into distortions of syntax. The French poet David Christoffel thus produced a book of self-translated texts exploiting mechanical translation, Littéralicismes (Paris: Editions de l’Attente, 2010). This is a typical exercise in experimental translation, and easy to criticize because of its mechanical and more or less systematic nature.

Laura Riding’s Life of the Dead (1933), self-translated from Riding’s own poems in French, is certainly less mechanical, and weird in either language. Unusually, Riding is not bilingual, and while her French is usually correct, she produces the occasional clumsiness. Generally, the English version of Riding’s bizarre ekphrastic text (the poems describe the content of John Aldridge’s accompanying engravings) is considerably more complex rhythmically and stylistically, as though Riding were using the simpler French to elaborate a more complex version of her poems. In this sense, the French acts as a kind of trampoline to generating a more ornate work. Perhaps Laura Riding shared Beckett’s view of French as a more “impoverished” language.

Self-translation is perhaps most stimulating and interesting when writers abandon the mastery (or the pretense of mastery) they display in their native tongue, and venture into a language they do not master, as in Laura Riding’s case. In fact, this abandonment of mastery may well lie at the heart of self-translation, even more than for conventional translation. This disconcerting confrontation with one’s own fluidity, and with the fluidity of language, explains why so many find self-translation an uncomfortable exercise, even if it has the ability to illuminate and instruct. The self-translator discovers that they are powerless even to render their own meanings—powerless in the end to capture themselves.

[1] Ludovic Janvier, Samuel Beckett par lui-même, Paris : Seuil, 1969, p. 18.

[2] Sara Kippur, Writing It Twice : Self-Translation and the Making of a World Literature in French, Evanston, IL : Northwestern University Press, 2015, pp. 57-58 and see 47-68.

[3] Sara Kippur, p. 42.

[4] See for instance David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2005,, consulted on July 11, 2017.


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