(Self)Translation and the Poetry of the ‘In-between’

1 February 2016

The subject and practice of translation has long been a feature of my poetry. It is a way of enacting bilingualism; the splitting and doubling of words, ideas, images and meanings that comes about in the processes of translation reflects my identity as someone who is in constant movement between cultures, split and doubled by my twin allegiances to different languages and places. In particular, I am interested in exploring my own practice of self-translation, to more fully understand the relationship between my poetic practice of writing across English and Italian and my subjectivity.

In general terms self-translation refers to the practice of writing and translating one’s own work across two or more languages. However, self-translation entails more than just a single author’s capacity to transport words across languages. Rather, the ‘self’ in self-translation suggests a mechanism through which the author / translator enacts a kind of personal cultural and linguistic nomadism, one that reflect the kind of cross-cultural identity I have just described above.

I have taken up this topic not only because it forms an integral part of my poetic practice, but also because the history of translation studies traditionally sidelines self-translation, focussing instead on notions of originality and the fidelity of the relationship between source and target texts. To challenge this dominant approach, I use my own practice as an example of the subjective nature of translation, which requires an ongoing movement between national / linguistic identities. Following on from this, I question the ideas of a mother tongue, originality and the notion that identity is essentially monolingual, arguing that translation is a process of negotiation: between texts, languages, cultures and identities.

Approaches to self-translation

The field of translation studies is now vast, but the development of scholarly interest in this area was gradual. In the ancient and pre-modern eras translation was very much a practice rather than an academic discipline. However, in the early Christian period (from the establishment of Christianity in Europe until the beginning of the fourth century) there began a distinct interest in the degree to which translation achieved verisimilitude and accuracy. While the Romans allowed for some flexibility in the degree to which one text might mimic another, for early biblical translators such as St. Jerome (347-420AD) translation was a divine gift through which the Word of God could be accurately transposed and transcribed. In this period the primacy of the ‘original’ text is thus established, for it was believed to represent no less than divine wisdom (Robinson 2004, p. 126).

While in the ‘Middle Ages and in Early Modern Europe translation was habitually performed in pairs or teams’, drawing on the various skills and resources of different practitioners, this collaborative approach was superseded by the ‘demands for unity within institutions and discourses … such as the standardising of languages and the consolidating of faith, household, state, monarchy and Church’ (Cordingley 2013, p. 2). This resulted in ‘poetic demands for unity in action, place and style’, putting pressure on the individual translator to be a kind of ‘surrogate author’ who stands in for the creator of an original text (p. 2).

While the focus on the role of the individual translator continued in the post-Enlightenment era, the relationship between national identity and translation was then isolated for study. In the early 1800s the German philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher ‘contrasted the translatorial methods of ‘alienation’ and ‘naturalization’’ (Kittel and Polterman 2001, p. 428). As part of his nationalist agenda to promote German culture abroad, Schleiermacher expounded the virtues of translation practices that encouraged fidelity to the original or source text, believing that texts-in-translation should alert readers to the fact of their translation and the primacy of the original. Indeed, so keen was he to preserve national identity through literature that Schleiermacher warned against the ‘wicked and magical art’ of the bilingual writer who ‘becomes a traitor to his native tongue by surrendering himself to another’ (Robinson 1997, p. 236). Schleiermacher’s insistence on a single linguistic purity was a

paradigm for translation that (came) to dominate the nineteenth as well as twentieth century, by so radically splitting the linguistic multiculture of 1800 into halves: the foreign as one pole, exterior and other, and the domestic as its opposite, internally derived, infinitely supple, and uniquely authentic in subjective expression (Hokenson and Munson 2007, p. 142).

In 1923 Walter Benjamin produced his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’. This often-cited work is in fact a preface to his translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ (Benjamin 1973a) and thus Benjamin’s observations are very much tied to his own translation practice. Benjamin offers a more flexible approach to translation than Schleiermacher. He argues that ‘no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife … the original undergoes a change. Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process’ (1973b, p. 73). In this sense Benjamin calls into question the idea of translation as a mode of preservation, preferring instead to focus on its regenerative possibilities. Peter Bush, writing on Benjamin’s theories in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, points out that under this new rubric ‘A translated work can thus renew the original working by giving it myriad ‘after-lives’ and in so doing create new linguistic forms within a variety of target languages’ (2001, p. 195).

To contend with the difficulties of literal translation Benjamin puts forward the idea that there exists a ‘kinship’ between all languages that transcends individual linguistic differences and that it is this ‘pure language’ that translators should aim to make accessible to their readers (1973b, p. 74). This is not the pure language of an original, unsullied and unchanging mother tongue but rather a kind of meta-communication that is rendered, in Benjamin’s writing, as something mystical: ‘a force hidden within certain texts, a poetic potential, a kernel that is striving to go beyond the immediate shell of words’ (Bush 2001, p. 194).

While Benjamin’s theory appears to hark back to the notion of a transcendent, divine meaning prevalent in early Christian approaches to translation, his acceptance that translators must work beyond their allegiances to a single language fixed in time and space is critical to the shift in translation studies that takes place later in the twentieth century. Benjamin’s ideas have had a profound influence on contemporary approaches to translation in so far as they foreground a shift in emphasis on the original or source text towards an interest in the various contexts – personal, linguistic, political, literary, poetic, historical, cultural – that come into play whenever a translation is undertaken. In this period Lawrence Venuti, Susan Bassnett, André Lefevere and others have contributed to the consolidation of the discipline, effecting what is sometimes referred to as the ‘cultural studies turn’ in translation theory.

Bassnett and Lefevere (1990, 1998) argue for a theoretical link between cultural and translation studies, moving the focus away from other more narrowly scientific, semiotic and linguistic approaches to translation theory. In their co-authored work Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation (1998) they point out the development of translation studies beyond the pre-modern fixation with equivalence, whereby translation studies now includes discussion of the ways in which translation contributes to the recognition and establishment of cultural diversity in the era of globalisation. Similarly, Venuti’s The Translation Studies Reader (2004) contrasts the strong focus on the preservation of the source text in early translations of Holy Scripture with later, modernist practices that take into consideration the culture in which literary translations are produced and consumed. Venuti seeks to ‘develop a theory and practice of translation that resists dominant target-language cultural values so as to signify the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text’ (1995, p. 23). In effect, Venuti argues that ‘literary originals should be retranslated for every generation, so that foreign otherness may be experienced by reading subjects under new cultural conditions’ (Hokenson and Munson 2007, p. 154).

The key theoretical approaches to translation mentioned above demonstrate that thinking about translation and its relationship to culture and cultural difference have developed and changed over time. However, it is important to note that they share a common assumption: that translation always involves an original or source text and a subsequent translated or target text, even in those instances where a shift from ‘foreignising’ to ‘domesticating’ translation practices occur. In light of this, it is worth examining an area of study in which these key ideas come into question: self-translation.

The mainstream approaches to the study of translation outlined above tend to pay little attention to the sub-discipline of self-translation. For example, contributors to The Translator as Writer (2006), edited by Susan Bassnett and Peter Bush, focus on the translator who also does creative writing as a separate or adjunct activity to translation, rather than the translator / writer who both writes and translates their own work. Other scholarship on this topic tends to focus on monographic studies of the work of individual author / translators, such as Samuel Beckett (Fitch 1988) and James Joyce (Risset 1984).

Susan Bassnett questions whether self-translation practices are in fact a form of translation at all: ‘The problems of defining what is or is not a translation are further complicated when we consider self-translation and texts that claim to be translated from a non-existent source’, relegating such practices to a category of ‘problematic types’ (1998, p. 38). Christopher Whyte in his essay ‘Against Self-Translation’ (2002) goes even further, insisting that self-translation is an ‘activity without content, voided of all the rich echoes and interchanges … attributed to the practice of translation’ (p. 68) whereby an author exerts ‘an improper control over texts’ that leaves little room for further interpretation by the reader or outside translator (p. 70). Rainier Grutman, writing in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, confirms that ‘auto-translation is frowned upon in literary studies’, arguing that ‘Translation scholars … have paid little attention to the phenomenon, because they thought it more akin to bilingualism than to translation proper’ (2004, p. 17).

In The Bilingual Text: History and Theory of Literary Self-Translation Jan Walsh Hokenson and Marcella Munson agree that the topic of self-translation has been neglected and even rejected in the dominant literature about translation because ‘the keepers of the canon rather strenuously (insist) on the purity of founding figures’ in Western literary history, whereby ‘theories of nation and genius (erase) the intercultural origins of literary innovation’ (2007, pp. 1-2). Grutman argues that this way of thinking evolved in the Romantic era, a period that ‘favoured self-expression along linguistic and national lines’ (2004, p. 17). Under this model, the ‘genius’ of the author was understood as evolving from a single, monolingual, national / cultural identity, ignoring histories of literary bilingualism and cultural hybridity.

In response to this, Hokenson and Munson pay critical attention to the bilingual writing of John Donne, Carlo Goldoni, Stefan George, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Giuseppe Ungaretti and others, in order to demonstrate a kind of ‘hidden history’ of writers working in more than one language. By doing so, they provide a framework in which poets who practice self-translation, as I do, can begin to contextualise their own work in this area, and place it in counterpoint with more traditional or general theories of translation.

In Self-Translation: Brokering Originality in Hybrid Culture (2013) Anthony Cordingley and others seek to underline the importance of self-translation as a means to explore multilingualism and hybridity, especially as it pertains to the processes and effects of globalisation. In his introduction, Cordingley observes that literary self-translation reflects a world ‘where everyday millions of individuals, out of choice or necessity, translate themselves into different cultures and languages’ (p. 6). As such, self-translation in the contemporary era can be understood as a mechanism through which writers embrace and give voice to identities that span more than one place, space, culture and context.

Hokenson and Munson go further, arguing that self-translation is a discipline in which traditional approaches to translation, predicated on ideas to do with originality and equivalence, are challenged:

Theoretical models of source and target languages … break down in the dual text by one hand, as do linguistic models of lexical equivalence, and foreign versus domestic culture … translation as diminution and loss, a falling away from the original, simply cannot serve. New categories of analysis must be developed (2007, p. 2).

This is because the practice of self-translation includes the possibility that two texts-in-translation are equal rather than equivalent. The truly bilingual writer-translator cannot necessarily be said to be more or less original or authentic in one language or another. Rather, his or her skill lies in the ability to move back and forth between languages and between cultural identities. In effect the bilingual writer-translator produces two different but interrelated texts-in-translation, rather than separate source and target texts.

In his playful treatise on translation titled Mouse or Rat? (2003) Umberto Eco uses his own experiences of doing translation and having his work translated by others as a means to reorient a discussion of translation from theory to practice, echoing the approach taken by Walter Benjamin, mentioned above. Overall, Eco explores one of the fundamental elements of actual translation practice: the movement backwards and forwards between two texts and all the various effects and complications this entails. For Eco, however, this is not a one-way street where traffic flows unevenly from source to target text. Rather, he argues that translation opens up a field of interrelationships connecting translators, texts-in-translation and the cultures that surround them. Eco writes that:

Between the purely theoretical argument that, since all languages are differently structured, translation is impossible, and the commonsensical acknowledgement that people, in this world, do translate and understand each other, it seems to me that the idea of translation as a process of negotiation (between author and text, between author and readers, as well as between the structure of two languages and the encyclopaedias of two cultures) is the only one that matches our experience (2003, p. 34). 1

Eco’s theory of negotiation focuses attention on how the translator must move across and between texts and contexts in order to construct a deep, harmonious and believable relationship between them. Rather than seeing this as a betrayal of a kind of purity and / or primacy associated with an original text, Eco believes that

there are source texts that widen out in translation, and the destination text enriches the source one, making it enter the sea of a new intertextuality; and there are delta texts that branch out in many translations, each of which impoverishes their original flow, but which altogether create a new territory, a labyrinth of competing interpretations (2003, p. 102).

While Eco’s theories are not specifically designed to explain or analyse the processes of self-translation, I mention his ideas here as they reflect my own experience of self-translation, whereby strict notions of source and target text tend to break down and a range of possible interpretations / translations are revealed and explored. This experience is in accordance with his representation of translation not as a narrow and constricted one-way flow of meaning from one text to another, but rather as an estuarine delta in which many meanings and effects circulate. In line with this, I am interested in the idea that self-translation may result in a new kind of textual territory; a labyrinthine but interconnected space in which the hybridity of texts-in-translation reflects the hybrid, inter- and transcultural identities of those who produce them.

  1. In a similar fashion Jacques Derrida puts forward the idea that ‘nothing is translatable’ and yet ‘nothing is untranslatable’ (2012, p. 369). This rather cryptic notion relates to Derrida’s belief that the self is psychically split in its inability to reconcile the experience of cultural difference with the kind of metalanguage that he sees as transcending the everyday practice of translation (1996)—an idea akin to Benjamin’s notion of pure language, as discussed above. I have chosen to adopt Eco’s approach over that of Derrida because of its more pragmatic approach: for Eco, despite encountering cultural and linguistic differences the translator continues to practice his or her craft, exploring and even revelling in the possibilities this entails, rather than succumbing to the ‘psychologically mutilating’ effect Derrida associates with shifting between languages and the cultures they represent (Hokenson and Munson 2007, p. 210).
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