Self Translation: An Analysis of a Short Story by Indira Goswami translated by the author herself

Syeda Semim Zahan

What is self-translation?

When the author himself or herself translates his/her own work we call it self-translation. For example Samuel Becket wrote first in French and then translated it into English by himself. Similarly Nobokov wrote both in English and Russian. He translated his works into English by changing them considerably. Thus most often the writer takes a great deal of liberty with the text and exercises his or her authorial right to revise it. There can be various reasons for it. Sometimes the author takes his work to be his property and feels that he or she can do anything with it. At other times, the writer goes through the process of creation once again when he/she sits down to translate and comes up with a new text. In a sense he/she re-writes the text.

The process of self-translation can be examined in two levels, “production” or “reception”. As production, self-translation may be considered in its relationship to the original, to the language and to the author. By comparing the two versions of a text we can demonstrate how the same content is subtly changed by the exigencies of a different language. Sometimes readers accept self-translation as more authoritarian than those done by others despite the tendency of authors to translate more freely and revise.

Analysis of a short story in Assamese translated into English by the author herself:

In this paper I propose to show how a short story in Assamese written by the Jnanpith Award winner
Indira Goswami and translated by the author herself has been changed to a large extent. I also try to conjecture the intentions and the effects of the changes made.

The Assamese title of the story is “ Xanskar” which means custom or tradition and the title in the English translation is “The Offspring”. Both the titles are apt. A moneylender named Pitambar is without any offspring to carry on his legacy. He is getting old and has an ailing wife. At the advise of cunning Krishnakant , the local priest, the moneylender gets physically involved with the Brahmin widower Damayanti and dreams of a son by her. In spite of his strict order and wishes of not aborting the child, Damayanti does the same leaving the moneylender in a condition of frenzy. The reason behind such a behaviour by Damayanti is that she is a Brahmin while Pitambar is of a low caste and she is not ready to give birth to a child fathered by a person of a low caste.

Besides the title the other changes made can be grouped as (a) omitting certain phrases, sentences and even paragraphs (b) restructuring certain sentence patterns and paragraphs, (c) annotating in the course of the translation.


The story opens with this paragraph in the translation….. “ Pitambar Mahajan was sitting in front of his house. His shoes were covered with a layer of mud, but he didn’t remove them. He looked at them with pride. Only he and the Gossain of the Satra possessed shoes in this remote village”. The italicized words appear in the middle of the story in the Assamese version.

A few paragraphs down the line appears the sentence “Pitambar remained silent.” Whereas in the original version it is “Pitambar sighed” when translated. Though apparently there is only a little difference is there, when observed minutely the original sentence carry a more emotional tone.

Again, the kurta of Pitambar is described as “the colour of dried sheep skin” in the TL version. But the SL version says “the colour of those moist seeds of a kumura left to dry.” Here kumura is to be glossed as a vegetable of the gourd family. If the SL comparison had been retained the flavour of the Assamese culture would have been there.

Similarly there is a description of Damayanti as she is being leered by both Pitambar and Krishnakanta. “Her (Damayanti’s) blouse had stretched tight and was pulled up, revealing the white flesh which to the two men looked as tempting as the meat dressed and hung up on iron hooks in a butcher’s shop!” The italicized words are not there in the SL text. Instead the colour of Damayanti’s flesh is compared to the inner part of an unripe kumura. The revised image in the TL text is starker and hence more effective.

“Earlier she used to take bath in the riverbank after cooking fish for her two daughters. Now she sits down and eats with them.” This sentence is a translated one from the SL text. But it does not appear in the TL text. The sentence is important as is gives a glimpse of the tradition bound society fully hostile to the widows. It also reflects on Damayanti’s rebellious character.

This kind of behaviour by Damayanti leads to a general observation on the behaviour of the contemporary generation towards Brahmin’s. “Now a days they don’t observe the rituals” utters Krishnakanta in the TL text. But in the SL text there is a list of the rituals no longer observed. Probably the author found it unnecessary to go into all the details. However if they would have been there the story would be more rooted in the culture it speaks of even in the TL text.

There is the description of Pitambar’s ailing wife .But a few important details are missing in the TL text, such as, “People say he was waiting impatiently for the wife to die. Towards the end he left coming and going to the hospital in Gauhati. As he grew in age he started behaving crazy with his relatives.” Besides a whole paragraph describing how Pitambar’s wife was shifted to a different room full of darkness is omitted in the TL text.
These details offer us a view of Pitambar’s inhuman behaviour towards his wife which also shows his frailties.

Again Krishnakanta says to Pitambar in the TL text “I can help you out of this agony.”
But in the SL text something more is there. “I can help you out of this agony if you can help me out with some money.” The money mindedness of the cunning Krishnakanta is an aspect to be emphasized which the author fails to do in the TL text.

Then there is this paragraph in the TL text……“Pitambar knelt down near the priests feet and entreated earnestly , ‘Only you can do it! Please help me with this girl! She is a Brahmin. I’ll keep her in all comfort!’”

But the SL text provides some more details which are very important. If we translate into English it will be like this……. ‘Everyone knows that she goes out in the middle of the night with a lamp in her hand to bury the aborted fetuses.’ The story ends with a scene based on such an incident.This time also, without caring a bit for Pitambar’s wishes and demands Damayanti aborts the child and buries it. Pitambar coming to know about it becomes almost mad. He goes to that place and begins digging that very spot. Damayanti discovers Pitambar doing that. “Damayanti became frantic. She shouted in frenzy: ‘What will you get there? Yes, I have buried it! It was a boy! But he is now just a lump of flesh, blood and mud! Stop it! Stop it!’
Pitambar raised his head. His eyes were burning. ‘I’ll touch that flesh with these hands of mine. He was the scion of my lineage, a part of my flesh and blood! I’ll touch him.”

Similarly two paragraphs are omitted; one describing Damayanti’s beauty as observed by Pitambar and another giving some details about Damayanti’s father. But the omissions have no effect on the TL text.

This sentence uttered by Krishnakanta , ‘Damayanti needs a mosquito net’ in the SL text becomes ‘I want a mosquito net’ in the TL text. The monetary inclinations of Krishnakanta are more clearly revealed in the TL text. However the SL version also makes the reader understand that though Krishnakanta is asking money for Damayanti, at the end it is he who’ll keep the money.

Two dream sequences are omitted. Both of them are very important to carry on the effect of the SL text. One is a conversation Pitambar has with Damayanti who says to him “Mahajan, I no longer go to the riverbank to take bath after I sleep with you. All these issues regarding Hindu, Muslim, and Brahmin go to hell!’ Another is when Pitambar dreams of walking hand in hand with his young son in the riverbank.

Some little songs uttered by the characters in the course of their conversation are omitted. Here is an attempt to translate them into English.

(a) Whose pearl from whose house?
Who can chase away the water?
Hail!
Let me kiss for a few moments!

(b) I m a crane keeping an eye,
Let me see which direction takes the tide!

(c) You can hide the fibre or the bamboo
But where will you hide the wrinkles of your skin?

In this song fibre and bamboo do not have any literal or connotative functions. They just rhyme. Fibre is ‘aanh’ and bamboo is ‘baanh’ in Assamese.

At the end of the story a glossary is provided to help the readers out. However, in the course of the story also the author takes recourse to annotating. For example, people who work in Pitambar’s fields are served with ‘sah-tamul’ when they come to his house to deliver the paddy. In every Assamese household guests are served with ‘sah-tamul’. Now the literal translation of ‘sah-tamul’ is ‘tea-betel nut’.

But the two words include a whole lot of other items too. For example, along with tea guests are served parched rice (sira) with jaggery (guur) and curd, traditional pastries (pitha) and so on. Similarly with betel nuts betel leaves are also provided. In the TL text the author writes the names of such items that are served.

Translations as meta-texts:

A translated text always interprets and comments on the original text. Normal translation is a result of a two-stage process of reading-writing whereas self-translation is a reenactment of the act of writing which produced the original text. Normal translation is the reproduction of a product while self-translation is the repetition of a process. The later is actually re-writing.

As Beajour states, “Because self-translation (and the frequently attendant reworking) makes a text retrospectively incomplete, both versions become avatars of a hypothetical total text in which the versions of both languages would rejoin each other and be reconciled.”

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Syeda Semim Zahan is a lecturer in the Dept of English, Sri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. She has translated short stories and plays from Assamese to English for various publications like Indian Literature, Theatre India, Chandrabhaga and Five Issues. She has also contributed her translationns to Emerald Words-An Anthology of Contemporary Assamese Short Fiction. She can be reached at sezafi@gmail.com