What Is the Self in Self-Translation?

This is part of a special section on self-translation.

By Ali Shakir


What does the “self” in “self-translator” stand for?

A hand that slices a bilingual author’s entity in half, yielding pieces where different tongues are spoken?

Or is it a bridge that links the terrains on their opposite shores?

Is it a buffer zone, a messenger, a part of some un-holy literary trinity?

What is the self anyway?

A two-dimensional plane, or an uncontainable organism?

The child self, the adult self. The happy self, the not-so-happy self, the miserable self. The foolish self, the wise self, etc. … Which self is supposed to do the translation?

Am I?

It never occurred to me to translate an entire book of mine. Apart from the fact that it would take two to three years to complete, just the thought of it bores me to death. I also don’t think many publishing houses would be interested in manuscripts that are translated by their original authors. The whole proposal would reek of desperation, and although I don’t know a single writer who is not indeed desperate, it’s not something we feel comfortable exposing in front of editors or publishers, for obvious reasons.

That said, I did try my hand, a few years ago, at translating an excerpt from my nonfiction book, Saddam and Me and the Stockholm Syndrome. It was the 27th anniversary of the Gulf War and I wanted to keep the memory of our suffering alive. I’ve also translated several of my published essays and op-eds in English to Arabic, but hardly ever the other way round. This might be because my cultural background is always present in my English pieces, even when I comment on world or New Zealand politics, and so it would make sense to occasionally share them with fellow Arab readers, whereas my Arabic writings might be too local or regional, and thus of little relevance to (also fellow!) Anglophone readers.

Looking at the broader picture, everything I’ve written so far, irrespective of language, genre, form, or structure has been a form of self-translation, including my recent translation, into Arabic, of a memoir by a Jewish Iraqi woman who lived in early 20th century Baghdad. I couldn’t have proceeded with the project without staging a comfortable armchair in my head where memoirist Violette Shamash recounted her stories in Arabic: I almost heard her voice. I later discovered how eerily close this was to how she sounded in real life, when her daughter (and co-editor of the book) Mira Rocca shared an audio recording with me. I also couldn’t have translated a selection of poems by Maitham Radhi into English without cultivating a virtual recitation of them first. The ‘self’ is very much involved, even when translating other authors’ work. I take in their scripts and stories, give them virtual voices, and then translate them.

More trivia

What deems a given self-translation good, mediocre, or bad?

What is the criterion?

Literal commitment to the first text, down to every comma and period?

What is a translation anyway?

What is not?

Every creative work is (arguably) a translation. The process through which architects, musicians, visual artists, singers, dancers, actors and writers convert their thoughts and feelings into works of art and literature is, by its very nature, a translation.

Having been an architect and a painter before settling down to writing, I can say that similarities outweigh differences in all three fields of creativity, where my only commitment has been to the integrity of the narrative.

For what it’s worth

If we looked up the verbs “translate” and “interpret” in an English-Arabic dictionary, it would return the same (first) results: “ترجم”  (tarjam). Equally interesting is that the Arabic noun “ترجمة” (tarjamah) also implies “a biography.”

Living in Windows

The ability to communicate with people from a different culture is without doubt a valuable skill that can offer a wide range of opportunities, opening doors that would otherwise remain closed. Much has been said and written about the pros of bilingualism, but we hardly talk about the cons. In an age where many people are struggling with identity issues, the pendulum swing from one language to another can be a source of confusion. Especially when you’re a middle-aged expat — and a writer.

I tried to capture the journey through the morass in an essay I wrote for the New Zealand Author magazine in 2015:

“The desperate need for writing a half page daily continued, but things became much more complicated because my brain had started simulating the operating system on my laptop. I was thinking and living in windows, some English, others Arabic. For instance, if I happened to be writing at the library and one of my librarian friends passed by and asked about my week, it would take me a few seconds to minimize the brain window I’m working on, open a new one and maybe switch languages too. By the time I answered they had already been gone.”

A twofold self-translation

If this isn’t enough to round out my linguistic schizophrenia, which I attempted to “self-translate” in the autobiographical chapter of my Arabic novel Café Fayrouz: A Novel Except for One Chapter, here is a self-translation of it, fresh from the oven:

“Ever since I was a child in Baghdad, I fancied myself as an immigrant. I thought my good command of English was enough to secure a happy life for me somewhere in Europe, where we used to spend our summer holidays, basking in boundless freedom and adventure. […] Oh, how naïve I was!

When asked what made me write my first book in English instead of Arabic, which I’m capable of expressing myself in, I’m often reticent to divulge the real reason: I’d dishonored my mother tongue, exploited it to twist the truth, calling conquest a liberation, defeats triumphs. Arabic was the language I’d used to adulate “the leader” in my essay-writing assignments at school, praising his “genius” and “sacrifices.” English, on the other hand, was the language of love, films and pop songs. A secret garden where I could fearlessly unveil my true self.

Everything changed when I arrived in New Zealand. I started clinging to Arabic. It became the language of my deepest sentiments and of longing for my roots. As a result, I now feel scattered and torn. Part of me talks in English, but thinks in Arabic. The other part talks in Arabic, but thinks in English. […] When I travel to the Middle East and walk down the streets, I sometimes think passersby are about to speak to me in English. When I return to Auckland, I almost greet Kiwis with marhaba! I actually did that once.


Ali Shakir is an Iraqi-born, Auckland-based architect, author and translator. He is a regular contributor to Arcade (Stanford University), ArabLit and Raseef22. www.alishakir.com.



Khalid Lyamlahy: On Self-Translating ‘A Foreign Novel’

Deena Mohamed: On Drawing Self-Translation

Mona Kareem: Self-Translation Never Lands

Dunya Mikhail: Writing it Twice Is the New Original

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