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Friday, July 13, 2012

An Interrogation of Translation Studies through Self-translation

Reading More Intimately: An Interrogation of Translation Studies through Self-translation

Anil Joseph Pinto
Dept of English and Media Studies, Christ University, Bangalore

(Published in Salesian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol 3, No 1, May 2012. Pp 66-73. ISSN 0976-1861.)

While the poststructural turn has made the study of translation more self-reflexive, it has not made translation studies scholars rethink the fundamental assumptions of translation process, which poststructuralism should have. As a result, many practices in the nature of ‘translation’ have not only got marginalised but have got relegated to absence, within translation studies. One such practice is self-translation. This paper tries to read the process of self-translation closely and thereby raise critical questions on the fundamental assumptions about translation. The paper will conclude by positing self-translation as an important domain for scholarly engagement by drawing attention to its potential to make translation studies more nuanced.


Translation studies, since the post-structural turn,  has evinced serious attention and concerns from diverse set of domains, namely post-colonial studies, feminism, and cultural studies, as against the old disciplines of biblical studies, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy. The turn not only weakened previous  concerns and modes of inquiry which treated the need for translation as granted and the process as a natural one, but also began to question these very taken-for-granted positions. The whys and whats of translation became more important than hows. Consequently the how of translation found it extremely difficult to be a formula and got continuously problematised.

Self-reflexivity attained through poststructuralism showed that translation was not merely a linguistic exercise but strongly embedded in the political process of gender, colonialism, patriarchy, state and nation.

While postcolonial translation studies, post-theory, brought to the fore the unequal relations of cultures and languages within which the process of translations took place, feminists have looked at translations as not only subduing and displacing women’s work but also inscribing patriarchal and masculine agendas in them (Niranjana; Bassnett and Trivedi; Tharu and Lalita). The cultural studies has not only taken both the post-colonial and feminist concerns on board in the study of translations but also has looked at the role translation is playing in shaping identities and enabling different ways in which meanings are made.

Interestingly, most of the questions and concerns raised by these newer domains have also in a sense been universal in nature, encompassing all nations and races within their theorisation and marking the binaries, us and they, into which all would include.

However, in the ambitious universal concerns of these different domains only the model of translations across time and space became area of inquiry leaving out multiple other practices of translation which might not have been universal in nature. One such is self-translation.

The dominant imagination in translation studies is one of a second person, a person other than the author, translating the work of a person living or dead, in the same linguistic or national community or another linguistic or national community. Postcolonial questions have largely been raised in the context of a person from a colonising culture translating the works from the colonised culture and looked at the assumption of the coloniser getting embedded not only in the choice of texts but also in translating within the framework of the worldview of the coloniser. Studies influenced by cultural studies have taken the postcolonial interrogation further by showing how the translations by the colonisers not only shape the worldview of the colonised through the acts and products of translation but also the nature of reverse translations, i.e. translations of texts from coloniser’s language to the language of the colonised, and have shown the way these translation practices get materialised within the discourse of the coloniser, thus aiding and complementing the project of colonialism.

In the presumed model of translation in translation studies, because a second person translates a text, a serious debate on the faithfulness of translation emerges. In the case of self-translation, since the writers themselves translate, the question of faithfulness seemingly becomes irrelevant.

It needs to be noted that self translation also raises serious questions on the notions of original as well. In case of the self-translation what is original, the one written first or the one written later?  If that is so then, the original gets defined only in terms of chronology and not necessarily because of any inherent properties.

An interesting phenomenon is that self-translations are normally seen as original. For example Tagore’s Gitanjali is seldom seen as translation of its Bengali version. Similarly, people are hardly aware that all plays of Karnad were first written in Kannada, but for two.

The postcolonial studies, and feminist studies now find it difficult to engage with the phenomenon of self-translation as it does not easily lend itself to the assumptions of enquiries borrowed from translation studies. Such inability to engage with the phenomenon of self-translation also results in then questioning and threatening the boundaries and more importantly the legitimacy of the inquiries of these theoretical approaches in translation studies.

While there have been marginal interests in self-translation in some counties in southern Europe mainly in Italy, and parts of the United States of America and Canada, in most other countries there has hardly been any research activity in this domain. I have not come across any study in India on the self-translation questions other than an MPhil study done in one university in the South of India. There has been no recorded information about the publications in this area either.

Standard works on translation namely The Translation Studies Reader edited by Lawrence Venuti, Works of Eugene Nida, Susan Bassnett, Tejaswni Niranjana, Harish Trivedi, GN Devi, have no reference to this phenomenon. The only exception among standard works on translation is Mona Baker’s Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies which has an entry by Rainier Grutman on self translation.

The name for the practice of self-translation has also been contested. The first edition of Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies published in 1998 uses the term ‘auto-translation’ as against the 2009 edition which uses the word ‘self-translation’. However, the recently held conference on self-translation at Swansea University from 28 June – 1 July 2010 chose to title its conference ‘The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition’, thereby throwing in yet another term for the phenomenon ‘Author-translation’.

Considering that most recent studies and research publications choose to use the term self-translation, it is likely that the term self-translation will become more accepted. Although a Google search provides nearly 42,000 results for ‘self-translation’ as against 98,600 for ‘auto-translation’ and 64,000 for, ‘author-translator’, since auto-translation also signifies automatic, i.e., computer-mediated translation, and author-translator has overtones of pre-structuralist understanding of the presumed relationship of the writer to the text, self-translation seems a more suitable label.

Self-translation is a fairly common practice in non-literary writings, especially academic writings where scholars do translate their works to different languages for publication. While that is also an important area to interrogate, this paper intends to concentrate only on literary translations as it is this domain which has been much theorised by non-linguistics based scholars.

The position of self-translation in India was no better. In India it got subsumed within the broad term of bilingual translation.

Non-acknowledgement of self translations has perhaps been due to two reasons. One, given the multilingual nature of the country, there was no much opportunity of knowing whether the English version was an independent work or a ‘translation’ from the native language. The practice of most of the translator of not mentioning whether the work was a translation also has contributed to this silence.

The other way of arguing this point is by not insisting that they should have done it but looking for reasons for such practice – of not mentioning the self-translation as a translation.

In the case of Rabindranath Tagore he did not call his work a translation, perhaps partly because there was a re-writing of the poems rather than reproducing them faithfully from its Bangla version.

Down south Girish Karnad also does not mention that the plays in English are the translations of their counterparts in Kannada.

The phenomenon of not treating self-translation as translation is prevalent perhaps because even the publisher’s endorse of this view. If either of the writer or publisher had insisted on calling the ‘second’ work as translation, it would have been called so. Therefore, it can be concluded that there is a consensus between both the writer and the publisher in not referring to a successive work a translation.

One reason for this could be the dominant practice of calling translation only that wherein a text of a writer is rendered into another language only if it is done so by another person. This dominant imagination perhaps has caused such a practice of not calling a translation by writers of their own works not translation.

The second reason for the non-acknowledgement could be due to the prevalence of self translation largely in multilingual countries as against monolingual and economically dominant counties. The phenomenon of self-translation is seen in countries such as India, Canada, Brazil, and Italy which are not in the league of ‘theory producing’ countries. Hence, the practice then does not get the attention of theorists.

A third reason is predominance of bilingual writing. The idea of bilingualism was so strong that the practice of self-translation got associated with bilingual writing. Since most bilingual writers wrote in English and their purported mother tongue, it was taken for granted that the works in English were the ‘original’ works and not translations.

These points then beg the question what is self-translation? According to Rainier Grutman, “the term ‘self-translation’ refers both to the act of translating one’s own writings into another language and the result of such an undertaking” (2009).

Grutman makes a distinction between bilingual writers and self-translators. He notes that unlike the bilingual writers, self-translators make a conscious choice of creation in two languages. In the case of bilingual writers, the context determines their choice. In the case of self-translators in India, most importantly Tagore and Karnad, the primary work is in the native language, Bangla and Kannada respectively, and the successive recreation is in English, a language that allows communicating to readers in other languages and those from outside the country. It is also important to note that in both their cases the only ‘literary’ works would be written first in the native languages but that does not apply to  non-literary’ prose writing.

It cannot be overlooked that both Tagore and Karnad were part of the global academic community with significant exposure to the Euro-American life, language and academics, which may have shaped this phenomenon.

Old questions of faithfulness or new questions of unequal positions within which translations take place, which is otherwise called politics of translation, that have defined the scope of translation studies, are based on the premise that a translation is always done by a second person other than the writer of the source text. But if this assumption were to be disputed, one would then have challenged translation studies from within.

Consideration of self-translations therefore either will have to be seen as a separate domain of inquiry, independent of translation studies or as part of translation studies. The problem of considering it part of translation studies is that then translation studies will have to undo all the work that defined it. But considering self-translation as a separate domain will then raise questions about translation studies itself.

A more productive approach then would be to consider the questions being raised by the study of self-translations and reinvent the domain of translation studies leading to more fruitful insights into human societies.

What kind of questions can self-translation raise? The primary question it can raise is regarding the relationship of translation studies to text. Text for translation studies is the material text. The rendering of that material text in another language by a person other than the writer of the first text, constitutes translation for translation studies. This in turn draws attention to two features of translation, one the source text comes before the second text hence sourceness of the text is marked by chronology and not by something inherent in it. Two, that translation is only that which is done by the second person. This assumes that the first text has fixity. This fixity of the text can be challenged by a different kind of literary practice where Karnad writers a text in Kannada and then a similar one in English which of these would now constitute the source text. If one were to produce a Marathi version, and were to argue that an understanding derived from both the Kannada and English texts was considered for translation, then, the argument is already outside the scope of present translation studies. For then, the person is not translating the text but a particular reading.

The secondary and subsidiary question it can raise is regarding the idea of the original. The idea of the original is posited only in relation tot its inferior re-production by a ‘non-creator’. By the same principle if the creator were to create two works in two different languages of similar structure and content, which one of these is inferior, or which one of these is the original. If one were to apply this thought to translation studies then the idea of the source text/or original text assumes the translation by a person other than writer. Therefore, the originality is determined by not text but by presence of non-writer translator.

These questions that arise from considering self-translation within the domain of translation studies draw attention to the fundamental assumptions formed by translation studies by not considering all activities in the nature of ‘translation’ to be translation. This bypassing of such translation activities contributes fresh question for the stagnating domain of translation studies.

Works Cited
Bassnett, Susan, and Harish Trivedi, eds. Post-colonial Translation: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Bassnett, Susan. Translation Studies, London: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Grutman, Rainier. ‘Self-transaltion.’ Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies. Ed.Mona Baker. London: Routledge, 1998, 2009. Web. 2 July 2010.
Mukherjee, Sujit. Translation as Recovery. Delhi: Pencraft, 2004. Print.
Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. London/New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Nida, Eugene A. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982. Print.
Nirajana, Tejaswini. Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism, and the Colonial Context. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1992. Print.
Tharu, Susie, and K. Lalitha.. ‘Introduction.’Women Writing in India from 600 BC to the Present. Vol. 1. New Delhi: OUP, 1992. Print.
Venuti, Lawrence, ed. The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 2001. Print. 


Dr Krishna KBS said...

I guess the reason self-translation isn't generally considered as translation is because the authors almost come up with a revised edition in a different language rather than translate the work from one to another.

It would be enlightening if someone who knows Kannada and English to go through Karnad's texts closely, and check whether he uses the same expression or changes it. A similar study can be done with Tagore's works by someone who is equally at home in Bengali and English.

Anil Pinto said...

Dear Dr Krishna, thank you for the comment. My PhD is on self-translation of Karnad's works. But the shift in meaning in translation is sth that is common to 'translation' as well.

Anil Pinto said...

An after thought. I plan to publish a series of essays on comparing his self-translation play by play. Hope I am able to do it soon.

Fr. Jijo Kandamkulathil said...

In one sense, the text which is first conceived, (written or published do not matter here) may be considered the original. Writing it down in any language for that matter is an unsuccessful attempt in self translation! In that case, language and chronology may be insufficient parameters to judge self translation. Do they matter in your judgement?

santa said...

Translation studies is an interdiscipline containing elements of social science and the humanities, dealing with the systematic study of the theory, the description and the application of translation, interpreting, or both. Thanks.
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mba tuition fees said...

Note that occasionally in English, writers will use the term translatology to refer to translation studies. However, the term translation studies has become implanted in English, whereas in French, it is la traductologie that is used. Thanks.