by Santiago Barcaza S., MFA Student, Creative Writing in Spanish
Without wanting to dwell too much on certain aspects proposed by academia, I am surprised that there are two currents of thought: one that regards self-translation as an unusual phenomenon, a marginal activity and another one that supports the opposite. I will not use this space to delve into one or the other. I agree with the outstanding researcher of translation studies Julio César Santoyo, when he says:
“Seen the seen, one can not help but wonder: can we continue talking about the self-translation as a phenomenon ‘rather weird’ or ´exceptional´? We are not faced with rare exceptions but before an immense corpus, increasingly of texts translated by their own creators. Far from being a ‘marginal case’, the author’s translation has a long history and is today one of the most frequent and important cultural, linguistic and literary phenomena in our global village, and certainly deserves much more attention from which has been borrowed so far“.
In fact, the first known self-translator is the jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who in 75 AD wrote in Aramaic, his mother tongue, the seven books of his first work, The War of the Jews, to later revise it and translate it to the Greek. From then until today, self-translation is a common practice. They form a group so broad and so diverse that it is impossible to list them all. However, as a sample, I quote a short selection: Fray Luis de León, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Stéphane Mallarmé, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Nabokov, José María Arguedas, Milan Kundera, et cetera. However, addressing the self-translation in one of these authors runs the risk of falling into exceptional particularities and the preparation of a rather monographic study. Nobody doubts the fact that these authors are interesting, but that some are paradigmatic, as to help understand or illuminate the act of self-translation – for example, of poets of indigenous origin in southern America- is perhaps another issue. So, I wonder what is really the self-translation? Why? And for what?
In an article published in 2011, the researcher of the University of the Cape in South Africa, Maria Recuenco, explains that in countries or multilingual societies, the step of self-translation, from a language called “regional” to the official language of State or dominant language, is as logical as it is complicated. A clear example of this is Belgium, a traditionally fertile territory for linguistic contact between Flemish and French, and which has a significant number of bilingual authors.
To talk about this, I met with the Chilean poet, academic and researcher Rodrigo Rojas (Lima, 1971), MFA from the New York University, and author of the book La Lengua Escorada (2009, Pehuen Editores), where he discusses the literature produced by four authors of Mapuche descent, and recognizes the complexity of its bilingual nature not so much because of its fluency in the use of mapudungun or spanish, but rather because of the cosmopolitan and multicultural scene in which they develop their literary work.
A paradigmatic example for Rodrigo, which will help us approach the subject of this essay with determination, is that of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (Calcutta, 1861 – 1941). In fact, Tagore is excellent at exemplifying how the use of another language (English), a culturally dominant language since those years, earned him many benefits.
“He gets to win the Nobel Prize –he says– very soon after he has translated his own poems. And he does this by putting them in tune with the cultural expectations of the England of his time, which even leads him to transform his own poetry. However, after the First World War, the political landscape changes completely in Europe. The thought and the european imagination isfaced with the fact that its own idea of civilization was able to generate such level of death that drastically changes its sensitivity and also changes aesthetics. There begins the advent of the vanguards, with which the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore in English is quickly forgotten because it is identified with the previous Victorian aesthetic. So, it’s interesting to stop there: how fruit of the self-translation, he could earn a lot and at the same time, lose so much. However, many theorists of India today speak about the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore and show how his poetry is still valid, beyond the world wars, accompanying the Hindu literary canon as a result of a series of changes that go beyond the independence of India or the advent of the communist party. This is a sign that we are facing a poetry much less attached to fashion than can perceive in your self-translations into English“.
But Tagore in Chile is also known for being whom Neruda would have stolen some verses …
“That is interesting because being Tagore the author of the texts that Neruda plagiarized is valid to ask how did Tagore come to the hands of Neruda? What versions and what translations? It is true, he was a Nobel, but how many spanish versions were there? It is known that the wife of the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, Zenobia Camprubí, had translated and published Tagore in Spain. But in Chile, another person had also done translations of Tagore and they were translations in prose, not verse. This is Gabriela Mistral, who had also translated the French symbolists, and so on. It is much more likely that Neruda had met Tagore in those interviews he had in Temuco with the director of the Girls’ Lyceum, which at that time was Gabriela Mistral. She must have taught him these world poets to open his head. So it seems very interesting to me how this Tagore, who betrays himself to be accepted in the English literary medium, in a sort of self-exoticise by the Victorian sensibility and who gets the Nobel for that, then falls into oblivion. But it turns out that here, in Latin America, once translated, again, but from its own self-translated translation of little value in the Anglo-Saxon world, it comes alive again, but in an underground way, because of the accusation of plagiarism with which Pablo Neruda is accused“.
In the next installments, I will talk with Odi Gonzales about oral language and written language, and we will continue talking with Rodrigo Rojas. We will confront his theory with that of other researchers and we will review some case studies of poets of indigenous Latin American origin and other recognized poets in the western world.