Academic journal article History In Africa

A Note on Self-Translation

Academic journal article History In Africa

A Note on Self-Translation

Article excerpt


Not so long ago this journal published an excellent overview of the issues related to the reliability of translations.1 But neither this, nor apparently any other study, considered the case of a text translated by its own author, hence a note on this topic may have some use. As I just finished translating of my own Le Rwanda ancien (Paris, 2001), I have been prompted to do so.2 The issues still are: how reliable is this sort of translation to the original? Is it really equivalent to the original?

Translations of modern works can be grouped in three categories according to the knowledge an author has about the language in which his or her work is being translated: the author does not know the language of the translation at all; the author knows that language well enough to check on the reliability of a translation; or the author knows that language to the point that he or she can translate the work himor herself. In the first case, even the author has no idea how faithful the translation is to the original. In the second case the overall reliability of the translation can be guaranteed by the author, but his or her limited knowledge of the language in question means that he or she may be unaware that some parts of the translation may not be faithful in the sense that readers might understand them in ways the author did not intend. Moreover, the great majority of translations by others will still strike native readers of the language into which it is translated as stilted because its rhetorical devices, and perhaps its syntax, do not wholly conform to the usual practice in that language. Indeed some passages may seem quaint or even especially striking merely because standard idioms or metaphors have been too literally translated. But surely self-translation should be completely reliable, especially when the translated text has been also copy-edited by a native speaker of the language in which it is translated?

After all self-translation has the advantage over all others that the translator knows precisely what he or she intended to say as author, and is just as informed about the topics discussed as the author. Should that not offset the drawback that such translations usually are in breach of the general rule which states that translations should be created by a native speaker of the language into which the text is translated? The very fact that the author is competent enough in to write a translation acceptable to native speakers should be reassuring. Even so, I will argue that, while self-translations can be equivalent to the original, they can never be "the same thing" as the, original.


Le Rwanda ancien was not translated word by word, but sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, although in a few cases long periods, which are more common in written French than in English, have been divided into several sentences. In order to keep the translation as equivalent as possible to the original I decided, except for the correction of typographical errors, not to alter the text at all even in order to bring it up to date by inserting additional information (text, footnotes, bibliography, or arguments). In the end though I could not resist introducing a slight chronological correction based on new data for the years 1876-85, and mentioned this in a paragraph about the translation which was added to the preface. Overall, few major quandaries arose in the translation of single words and practically none in the transposition of French into English syntax. The main difficulties occurred in the treatment of idioms and images, rhetorical devices or other issues of style, and the treatment of allusions. We discuss these points in succession.

As is well known, French and English share the form of many words whose meanings are not identical. Routine issues are the avoidance of using false friends such as "mouton" (the animal) and "mutton" (its meat only), and the primacy of the context in deciding what the exact meaning is. …

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