Self-Translation as Translating the Self!

Theories of Translation

Translation theory is my new obsession, in particular, the practice of self-translation. This is part of a long scholarly project I’ve been poking at for a couple of decades. I intended to do this for my Ph.D. dissertation, but that line of thinking was thwarted. Instead, I ended up working on something entirely different for my terminal degree.


Self-translation theorizing applies to an article I am writing on the Irish Gaelic poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. She always composes poetry in Irish and asks mostly famous male writers to translate her rough-draft “cribs” into English. Then, she publishes the original Irish poem alongside the polished English translation. This practice allows her to expand her audience. It also gives her the means to resist the oppressive silencing of her mother tongue and her “feminine” voice.

Irish Gaelic

A long time ago, I learned Irish Gaelic in order to be able to read her poetry in the original. Because she claims Irish as a “maternal” language that carries the “emotions and feelings,” it seemed especially relevant to immerse myself in that discourse, along with a lot of French Feminist Theorizing. Ní Dhomhnaill also talks about poetry as coming from a deep level of the psyche. As well, she links the writing process to a kind of metamorphosis “from that otherworld into this world.”

Interestingly, even though Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill claims she does not write poetry in “this world,” or in the colonizer’s tongue, there are published Irish-to-English self-translations floating around out there. Over the years, I filed these self-translated poems in a special place because they fascinate me.

Throughout, I’ve kept my eye on the scholarship about translation, hoping against hope an angle might materialize. Thankfully, recent concepts in self-translation theory provide fresh insights on the nature of creativity, voice and literature. For example, I discovered that Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill forms a particular subset of writers known as “ambilingual.” This term accounts for the fact that she writes essays in English and occasionally self-translates some poetry, choosing where and when to publish in both languages.

Edward Soja’s “Thirdspace”

I am very excited to have on my list of books, too, the intriguing Thirdspace by Edward Soja. Based on ideas about spatial theorizing, Thirdspace is a place from which cultural hybridity emerges. It is also described as an epistemological “trialectic” that goes beyond binary thinking, allowing one to speak about poems or texts as woven between cultures, bodies, histories, languages, selves. As applied to theories of self-translation, the trialectic of Thirdspace opens up texts to the tensions, overlaps and overflows of meanings coming and going from one version to the other. I think it will work very well with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, especially those poems that take place in a parallel “time warp” world which I believe can translate into the “unimaginable universe” of Soja’s Thirdspace.

Time will tell. In the interim, I will sit in a sunbeam, and ponder.