Have you ever translated your own work? I’m not a professional writer by any means, but I have translated some of my own travel articles from English into French and from French into English [1]. Defined as “the translation of an original work into another language by the author himself” [2] self-translation has been called “another vast territory without history” [3] as it has only recently become of interest to researchers.

While self-translation (also called ‘auto-translation’) exists in many fields, most research and writing on the subject concentrates on writers, i.e. literary self-translation. Here’s a list of some well-known writers who’ve translated their own work:

Jorge Luís Borges 1951

Jorge Luís Borges, 1951

Nabokov likened self-translation to “sorting through one’s own innards and then trying them on for size like a pair of gloves” (!)[4], while Beckett talked about the “wastes and wilds of self-translation” [5].


Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov in 1969

Self-translation may be regular or sporadic; an example of the latter is James Joyce who self-translated two passages from his Work in Progress (later entitled Finnegans Wake) into Italian [6].  Self-translation generally supposes bilingualism or near-bilingualism in at least one other language, and the target language may vary according to whether the writer is translating into their mother tongue or second language. It may take place simultaneously or consecutively; Samuel Beckett for example published his French translation of his 1938 novel Murphy ten years later, although he also practised simultaneous self-translation. If simultaneous self-translation does take place, the two versions may influence each other during writing. Authors may self-translate from a minority language (e.g. Sicilian, Basque or Gaelic) if they want their work to be known in an internationally recognised language like Italian, Spanish or English, but conversely they may self-translate from a widely-spoken language into a minority language in order to avoid cultural domination of the source language. (The problem with the latter situation however is that if published in a bilingual edition, readers of the dominant language tend to ignore the minority language).

Irrespective of their actual qualities, self-translations are often considered superior to non-authorial translations. This is because “the writer-translator is no doubt felt to have been in a better position to recapture the intentions of the author of the original than any ordinary translator“[7] i.e. due to their thorough knowledge of the original text self-translators have the authority to allow themselves shifts in the translation which might not have been ‘allowed’ by another translator. Self-translators don’t reproduce in one language what they have created in another – they will produce a complementary literary text with its own echo and effect in the target language and culture [8]. But with self-translation how do you define what is the ‘original’ and what is the ‘translation’, especially if the two texts were written simultaneously?

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett in Room 604 of the Hyde Park Hotel, London, 1980

How do you differentiate between the act of writing and the act of translating? Raymond Federman, discussing Beckett, suggests as follows:

The original creative act (whether in French or in English) always proceeds in the dark … and in ignorance and error. Though the act of translating, and especially of self-translating, is also a creative act, it is performed in the light (in the light of the existing original text), it is performed in knowledge (in the knowledge of the existing text), and therefore it is performed without error – at least at the start. In other words, the translation of a text reassures, reasserts knowledge, the knowledge already present in the original text. But perhaps it also corrects the initial errors of that text. As a result, the translation is no longer … an approximation of the original, or a duplication, or a substitute, but a continuation of the work, of the workings of the text. (emphasis in the original) [9]

Here’s an excerpt of one of Beckett’s self-translations, published in French in 1957, and in English the following year [10]:

“God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it’s indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in six months!” (Tailor’s voice, scandalized.) “But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look – (disdainful gesture, disgustedly) – at the world – (pause) – and look – (loving gesture, proudly) – at my TROUSERS!”

Samuel Beckett, Endgame, London, Faber & Faber, 1958, p. 21-22

 « Goddam Sir, non, vraiment, c’est indécent à la fin ! En six jours, vous entendez, six jours, Dieu fit le monde. Oui Monsieur, parfaitement Monsieur, le MONDE ! Et vous, vous n’êtes pas foutu de me faire un pantalon en trois mois !» (Voix du tailleur, scandalisé.) « Mais Milord ! Mais Milord ! Regardez  – (geste méprisant, avec dégoût) – le monde (un temps)… et regardez – (geste amoureux, avec orgueil) – mon PANTALON ! »

Samuel Beckett, Fin de partie, Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1957, p. 37-38

What about you? Have you ever translated your own work? Have you read any self-translations? Let me know in the comments.

Further reading:


[1] From English into French: North of the BorderSteppe-ing Through MongoliaVladivostok To Moscow : Travelling Across A Quarter Of The Globe by Train; from French into English: Lieux sacrés de Tibet.

[2] Anton Popovic, (1976) Dictionary for the Analysis of Literary Translation, Edmonton: Department of Comparative Literature, The University of Alberta, p. 19 quoted in Self‐Translation: A History of Practices and of Research Practice

[3] Julio-César Santoyo (2006) Blank Spaces in the History of Translation, in Charting the Future of Translation History, Edited by Georges L. Bastin and Paul F. Bandia, University of Ottawa Press

[4] E.K. Beaujour, Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the ‘First’ Emigration, Cornell University Press (1989) p. 90

[5] Ruby Cohn, (1961), Samuel Beckett Self-translator, PMLA 76, p. 617

[6] Jacqueline Risset, “Joyce Translates Joyce”, in Comparative Criticism, 6 (1984), pp. 3-21

[7] Brian Fitch, Beckett and Babel: An Investigation into the State of the Bilingual Work, Toronto, 1988, p. 1255

[8] Translating the Exiled Self: Reflections on Translation and Censorship by Samar Attar in “Intercultural Communication Studies XIV: 4 2005” p. 139

[9] R. Federman, (1987). The Writer as Self-Translator. In A. W. Friedman, et al (Eds.) Beckett Translating/Translating Beckett, 7-16. London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, pp. 14-15, quoted in Translating the Exiled Self: Reflections on Translation and Censorship

[10] quoted in La Traduction by Michaël Oustinoff, 2012, Presses Universitaires de France, p. 85

17 responses

  1. Hi Catharine,
    About two years ago Muriel Musso, a web designer from Réunion, asked me to write a poem for one of her graphic creations. I wrote this poem in French, then I translated it into English:

    Thé à moi

    Je savoure du bon thé
    En hiver comme en été

    Tendres feuilles que j’infuse
    Leur bon arôme se diffuse

    Puis la théière me chuchote:
    “Savourez ce que je mijote !”

    Sonne l’heure du bonheur
    J’en déguste les saveurs

    Un moment de détente
    Où la vie est succulente

    Un timbre zen rententit
    Le temps fugace ralentit

    Rime for Tea Time

    It’s not easy to find a rime
    About my daily tea time

    I put the leaves to infuse
    Gentle scents will diffuse

    Hear the gurgle of my teapot:
    ” Please pour, I am so hot ! ”

    I smell and taste my magic drink
    Enjoy the moment, stop to think

    It’s time for time to freeze
    I am happy, I am at ease

    The Zen temple rings a bell
    I lose my words, what can I tell?

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  4. Hi Catharine, great post. I just wanted to let you know that the Nabokov photo you have is actually of Nabokov’s father. The Nabokov we all know (and love) was Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, not Vladimir Dmitrievich. 🙂

  5. Some of my short articles I have translated myself, and one of my stories (De zeermeermin van de maan, which I translated into English as The Mermaid of the Moon, which was afterwards translated into German and published in Das grosse Buch der Meerjungfrauen as Die Meerjungfrou im Mond).
    But mostly I translate my own shorter articles from English to Dutch, and rework them, adding more arguments and details, and even putting them in a broader theoretical frameset.

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  11. I agree that authors-self translators can do a better job than others if they translate their works into language(s) that they have a good command.

    I do self-translation of poetry , but as to prose fiction, it takes time. I don’t have the luxury of funds to do it.

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