Translated and Improved: Ilan Stavans’ On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language

Yaakov Herskovitz

Ilan Sta­vans. On Self-Trans­la­tion: Med­i­ta­tions on Lan­guage. (SUNY Press, 2018), 284 pages, $26.95

While some may choose a Netflix comedy special, when Ilan Stavans and his wife want to have a good laugh, they opt for one of two methods: they either watch a Marx Brothers movie, or they read aloud from the works of Jacques Derrida. This jab at the French deconstructionist pokes fun at the philosopher’s work, or at least one key feature of his writings—its vagueness. This tongue-in-cheek anecdote comes from the piece titled “Clarity” in Stavans’ new book On Self-Translation (SUNY Press, 2018). While it is easy to believe Stavans when he professes his love for the Marx Brothers, his Derrida comment is much more illustrative of Stavans the writer, and namely his approach to language(s). This is a book of meditations on language, but above all it is a book about Stavans and his life in and through multiple languages. Stavans takes umbrage with Derrida for using language in a way that Stavans sees as malpractice, writing that does not clarify, but rather obfuscates what is to be transmitted. Stavans’s joke comes to emphasize a central concern of the book: “Are the words we have at our disposal enough to convey the complexity of life? … And how do we say what cannot be said?” (ix). At his core, Stavans believes, throughout the book, that the transmission of the I, the self, through language is possible, multifaceted as this I may be.

The seven parts of the book contain a collection of previously published work by Stavans, work that touches on a wide array of lingual phenomena: from the aforementioned Clarity to Autocorrect, from self-translation to fútbol and from the ABC’s to Spanglish. This breadth, and the wide array of original publication platforms, produces a fascinating and at times scattershot book, oscillating between the sharpness of theory and the everyday enjoyment of a newspaper op-ed. The essays in this wide-ranging collection have seemingly nothing in common, if not for the composer of these musings, the I, Stavans himself. This is perhaps most apparent in the titular On Self-Translation, an opening piece that is instructive for the collection as a whole.

The practice of self-translation is curious and fascinating. When a writer chooses to write his own work again, in another language, what might be the relationship between the two resulting texts? How does the dyad of original and translation work in such cases? And what might be the fault line of translation and rewriting when an author is the agent of both versions? In the world of Hebrew-Yiddish self-translation these questions can be raised when discussing many writers, perhaps most famously S.Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher Sforim) and his elaborate self-translation from Yiddish to Hebrew to Yiddish and back again. As a self-translator, Stavans is confronted with the prospect of the splitting and multiplication of the self, a self, which as Stavans notes, lives his life in Yiddish, Spanish, Hebrew, and English (3). Thus, when asked to translate his memoir On Borrowed Words from English into Spanish he refuses: “I declined: it would have taken enormous psychological effort to redress the narrative, which I had fashioned with such care, in another language. It would have essentially meant rewriting the book, and repetition is one of my lifelong phobias. Besides, why redo the autobiography when I could employ my energy in other ventures?” (7). The prospect of self-translation, and of self-translating an autobiography at that, surfaces some key issues of this practice writ large. Self-translators have often been accused of being wasteful, squandering their artistic powers in doubling their work, instead of producing a new work of art, an “original.” 1 1 This rhetoric demands justification of self-translation, requiring that self-translation clear a bar other literary enterprises are not beholden to. For more on this see Sara Kippur, Writing it Twice: Self-Translation and the Making of World Literature in French. (Northwestern University Press, 2015), 14-18. Yet, and here is where contradictions start to build up, if Stavans is essentially re-writing his memoir, is it not a new original, or at least something more than mere repetition? Stavans admits the prospect of translating his own work brought up a bevy of questions, and forced him to consider the allure of self-translation as rewriting, as an opportunity to do it better. In self-translating his work Stavans is not indebted to the original as any other translator would be, he can be unbound from the first version: “In self-translation, on the other hand, there is an unavoidable temptation — indeed, a compulsion — to rewrite the original, to improve upon the source” (7). Self-translation thus fashioned is the true essence of fartaytsht un farbesert, both translated and improved, a 2.0 version of the original. The carefully crafted original is re-crafted, with no less care, different and perhaps better for it. With improvement comes the danger of losing the first version, rendering it almost obsolete.

This act of infidelity to the first version is perhaps why Stavans did in fact resist the temptation of improvement, and did not self-translate despite the chance for a do-over. This Stavans ascribes to a feeling of displacement that is inherent to self-translation: “The chief drawback is a sense of being up in the air, of belonging nowhere in particular.”(8) With the first version gone, or at least depreciated, something of the grounding in one work and one language is lost. For Stavans the deterritorialization that comes with self-translation accentuates what he sees as a core feature of the multilingual self: “The existence, in various languages, of different versions of ourselves” (9). Finally Stavans gets at the peril and promise of self-translation: that the new version, the translation, will be an altered expression of the self, and thus essentially not himself. Or the fact that the multilingual self is always split, a feeling that would be accentuated in the act of self-translation. For an author, to translate his own work into another language decouples the specificity, the grounding, of the work of art in a given language, perhaps in a given culture. This menacing thought of being both himself and not himself, through writing and translation, is what deters Stavans from self-translation.

This sentiment of the split self comes to bear in the conclusion of this essay where Stavans sees his life as a “translation without an original” or in a more elaborate description: “I exist in an echo chamber of self-translated voices, all of them my own” (9). This echo chamber of life in languages is where this opening piece ends, but it is just the start of a book filled with voices and languages, translations without originals. The gap between the first part of the book, which contains only the one essay on self-translation, and the other six parts of the book is stark. These six parts (Meditations, Beyond Words, Fútbol, Language and Politics, Conversations, Onto Spanglish) are as varied as their names indicate. For example, the three essays that comprise the part titled Fútbol deal with the game Americans call soccer, and specifically with musings published during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. These short pieces, one to three pages in length, originally published in The New Republic and the Chronicle of Higher Education, are meditations on fútbol, on the language of the game. They discuss a certain goal scored in the tournament, or the rule of sudden death. For instance, as a fan Stavans is mesmerized by a goal by Dutch striker Robin van Persie, and writes that he finds no words “in any language” to describe the pure beauty of the goal (105). What this short beautiful piece, or this entire segment, has to do with these meditations on language, or within a book titled On Self -Translation is not entirely clear. That is, until we return to the concept of the I introduced earlier in the book. While the titular essay represents the writing I as a displaced multilingual creature in search of a feeling of wholeness, the book that follows this wish is a manifestation of glorious fragmentation.

At times beautiful and exciting, at times confounding, Stavans’s discussions of language(s) throughout the book offer moments of clarity as well as questions as to why some pieces belong alongside others. But perhaps this messiness is intentional: Stavans’ multilingual writing self is on full display throughout the book. His attentiveness to language is due, in part, to his multilingual existence, as reader and writer. To come full circle, perhaps the clarity Stavans finds lacking in Derrida’s work disturbs him since such clarity proves elusive even to Stavans when discussing language. The collection of succinct meditations on language amounts to a carnival of thoughts and musings that is anything but clear when considering the book as a whole, although each piece is clear and direct on its own. This makes it a fascinating, if confusing, read. And while I cannot promise any outright laughs, like those Stavans derives from the hazy prose of Derrida, this book provides thoughtful moments on the elusiveness of language, and of the lives we live in and through multiple languages.

Herskovitz, Yaakov. “Translated and Improved: Ilan Stavans’ On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language.” In geveb, October 2019:
Herskovitz, Yaakov. “Translated and Improved: Ilan Stavans’ On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language.” In geveb (October 2019): Accessed May 20, 2024.


Yaakov Herskovitz

Yaakov Herskovitz is a fellow at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies where he is working on a book manuscript on Self-Translation between Yiddish and Hebrew in the post-Mendele world.