Self-translation / Self-destruction

By Ian Monk

Soon after being co-opted into the Oulipo in 1998, I started to write in French, while also continuing to write in English, and working as an all-around freelance translator (poetry, fiction, IT, marketing, ad campaigns, you name it). I’d only just taken this decisive step in my literary development, when the inevitable happened: first, I was asked to contribute a text to a French-language review, while having in a virtual drawer something written in English that would do the job nicely; then, I was commissioned to translate a collection of stories by members of the Oulipo, including one of the first pieces I had written directly in French. My initial reaction was pure delight: here I was in rather a rare place in the literary world (or at least in its Western wing, inhabited by mostly monolingual writers and readers), that of being able to translate my own work. And what good company I was now in—I thought at once of one of my all-time favorites, Samuel Beckett, and how he had continued to write in both English and French, before self-translating his work one way or the other, as required. It was a dream come true. I got down to work…

And what a pain it turned out to be. The further I got stuck into the two texts in question, the more my translations seemed utterly limp and lifeless. And the more I worked over them, the more I felt like some kind of Dr. Frankenstein, with a monster on the slab which was staying stubbornly dead, no matter how many lightning flashes were aimed at its heart. I quickly came to the conclusion that my existence as a writer was never going to be like Beckett’s (for this reason, among a few others…) and if I went on writing in these two languages, then the job of translating them, one into the other, should preferably go to someone else.

But, someone might object, the special place you are in means that you’re “allowed” to drift away from the original text, given the fact that you wrote it in the first place, so as to come up with something as satisfying as possible in the target language. You’re in a far better position than anyone else alive to “check” how the result turns out. Yes, but… First, in the meantime, other new stuff that I might want to write could turn into ever-pending projects for the want of time. And then, if I did decide to go down the control-freak road, things would never end: quite obviously, two languages would not be enough and I’d have to learn them all, so as to avoid the inevitable situation of, one morning, locking horns with a version of one of my pieces in a language I had only a limited grasp of, Spanish for instance, before glancing optimistically through a Korean version of a favorite poem of mine later that afternoon. (This is a circle in the translators’ hell: dealing with semi-bilingual authors who are convinced that they understand the mistakes you haven’t made in your translations of their work far better than you ever could yourself.)

Not long after these revelatory misadventures, I happened upon an old interview with none other than Beckett himself, in which he rued that his desire for control had led to him taking a hand in the German versions of his writings, and how translating his own work into French or into English was a kind of torture, given that “the whole business of creation has already been done, and going through it all a second time over is extremely dull.” Here was the key to the puzzle. While translating someone else can be a fascinating form of “creation,” which entails grasping a text as closely as possible, then “making” another language “say the same thing,” the entire creative process has already been gone through in great depth when writing a given text for the first time. Recreating it in another language is thus not only tedious, but strangely “artificial,” and the result quite often abortive, while someone else could well have breathed new life into the piece and made it live again happily in its new linguistic world.

Years later, I still write in English and French. (Why one, then the other? Sorry, that’s quite another story.) And I still translate. But never, if it can be helped, myself.

(This piece, originally written in French, was commissioned by the journal N4728, at the time when I was working on my translation of "Melody in A Flat." Who said anything about being coherent?)


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