Self-Translation: An Overview

Self-translation has been considered an unusual phenomenon (Grutman 2009:257), with Cordingley (2013b:l) referring to self-translators as a “neglected species in the menagerie of translators”. Seminal and reference works on translation theories and practices—such as those by Venuti

(2012), Bassnett (2014) and Munday (2016)—do not even cover selftranslation, with the exception of the Routledge encyclopedia of translation studies (Baker 1998 and further editions). Other works referring to self-translation are few in number, but include The bilingual text: history and theory of literary self-translation (Hokenson and Munson 2016) and Self-translation: brokering originality in hybrid culture (Cordingley 2013a).

Yet even with a growing interest in self-translation since the early 2000s (Grutman 2009), questions remain about its definition and status, and, in fact, what to call it. Rokebrand (2012:50) ponders the status of a self-translation: can one describe a self-translation as being on the same level as the source text (ST) simply because the author also wrote the translation? Many theories of translation (e.g. the author-translator model) cannot be applied directly to a self-translation, as author and translator are the same person. We propose that a self-translation’s status (its position of authority compared with the original text) is different from that of a traditional translation, as the author’s intentions are incorporated in the self-translation as a result of his/her involvement in the translation process. Jung (2002:30), for example, argues that the main difference between self-translators and ordinary translators is that self-translators have better access to their original intentions and the cultural context of the original work. Moreover, Meyer (2002:10) believes that the conundrum of authority may well be solved in the case of self-translations, because the self-translator remains the authority in both texts.

Even the term ‘self-translation’ seems to cause disagreement. The 1998 edition of the Routledge encyclopedia of translation studies (Baker 1998:17) refers to the phenomenon as ‘auto-translation’, which was replaced in the 2009 edition with the term ‘self-translation’. Although the use of‘auto’ is not unfamiliar in literature, Cordingley (2013b:l) points out that ‘auto’ may refer to an automated process such as a machine translation, whereas ‘self’ immediately creates awareness of the author’s presence in the translation process. However, as Bassnett (2013:15) comments, the term ‘self-translation’ is also problematic, mainly because it requires the concept of an original:

The very definition of translation presupposes an original somewhere else, so when we talk about “self-translation” the assumption is that there will be another previously composed text from which the second text can claim its origin. Yet many writers consider themselves as bilinguals and shift between languages, hence the binary notion of original-translation appears simplistic and unhelpful.

Hokenson and Munson (2016:14) refer to the self-translator as a ‘bilingual writer’ who writes in at least two different languages. Compared to

Self-Translation of an Afrikaans Short Story by SJ Naudé 133 other bilinguals who are mainly dominant in one language, dominancy in self-translators (or bilingual writers) is hard to ascertain, as these writers not only work in both languages, but may even translate from and into both. They therefore have two literary languages.

Regarding theories and applications of self-translation, Hokenson and Munson (2016:3) consider that the study of self-translation and its cultural and literary function across changing contexts and eras requires the rejection of most pre-established translation theories and models:

[T]he standard binary model of author and translator collapses. Theoretical models of source and target languages also break down in the dual text by one hand, as do linguistic models of lexical equivalence, and foreign versus domestic culture. Literary critical models of a writer’s (monolingual) style, and of translation diminution and loss ... similarly cannot serve. New categories of analysis must be developed, as extrapolated from the bilingual texts of self-translators through the centuries.

We might ask why authors choose to self-translate when they could spend their time creating new works. Genres (2016) identifies book-market-related reasons, and author-related reasons. The first occurs when there is a shortage of translators or the author’s language is not widely used, and authors may therefore be compelled to translate their own work to increase publication possibilities. Often the publishers decline to publish the text in the original language, or the self-translation is simply used as basis for a third language translation. Author-related reasons include the author wishing to maintain control over the translation process, or to obtain experience in the target language (Genres 2016:121). Changes in the literary language—for example, when authors migrate or find themselves in multilingual societies—may compel self-translation (Genres 2016:121), or authors may have emotional reasons to tell their story in both languages, e.g. with autofiction (Genres 2016:123). Finally, self-translation may simply be an integral part of the writing strategy: the target text (TT) enables the author to critically evaluate the source text (ST) (Genres 2016:124).

In a 1982 interview (Wheatcroft 1982), André Brink—who according to Geldenhuys (2019:150) was equal to international giants Nabokov and Becket as a self-translator—admitted that after his first novel, Kennis van die aand, which was published in 1973, was the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the apartheid government, he had “to face the possibility that I might be a writer with no audience” (Brink 2010: para. 12). He translated his book into English, and it was published in 1974 as Looking on darkness. (This was not his first self-translation, however. He translated his 1963 Afrikaans novel Die ambassadeur into English, which was published that same year as The ambassador.) Geldenhuys (2019:153)

points out that, by self-translating his work, Brink “contributed to breaking down the cultural barriers apartheid had constructed”; it provided him with an additional means of empowerment. He could therefore “take control of his work and its dissemination.” According to Brink (1976:45), self-translation also promoted Afrikaans, in that young authors thereby contributed to the internationalisation of Afrikaans literature.

To study self-translation and enrich current theories of self-translation, at least two tools are available to theorists. The first is to study the phenomenon from the self-translator’s point of view, such as the decisions that the self-translator makes, or the strategies employed during the translation process. In this case, interviews may prove valuable. The second is a study of the ST and TT to identify these decisions and strategies, and to attempt to recreate the translation process.

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