The Bilingual Writer – an Author and a Translator, or an Author in Two Languages?

Žaneta Voldánová

Writing, like other forms of art, is a way in which the mind can share a completely made-up world, consisting of places and characters, but also feelings and ideas, with countless individuals, who can, to some extent, become a part of that world by perceiving, contemplating and interpreting. Music tells its story through notes and melodies, paintings through paints and colours. In writing, the story is told by words and language. But what language? Which language? Of course, a work of art is written by an author in a certain language, most likely in their mother tongue, and it is a narration as genuine as possible.

However, to reach people who do not speak the language, it needs to be translated. Nevertheless, nobody, not even the best translator under the sun, can truly know and fully understand what the author meant by choosing these exact words, so when translating, the message might undergo a slight, yet far from non-existent transformation. But what happens when the author is the translator? Supposing they know both – or all – languages well, can the message then be transferred perfectly, or are there still certain limitations standing in the way? As an author of an English book that I have translated into Czech myself, I have some experience that I would like to elaborate on in order to explore the thrilling possibilities of answers to the questions that have been asked, and come to a conclusion, or, to be exact, my interpretation of one, and share it with readers, to give them an idea of what it is like to create that made-up world in two different languages while trying to keep them as similar as possible – not in what they look like, but in what they make people feel.

There are, of course, linguistic characteristics of translation, and each translator is limited by the rules of grammar, syntax, stylistics, etc. However, what should always be borne in mind is that, as stated by Nida (2001, p. 3), translators translate texts, not languages. Biguenet and Schulte (2008, p. 5) write that when an author is creating a text, he or she makes a choice in communicating their idea through written words. Afterwards, the translator must make another choice to interpret it. Possibly the trickiest part is that one word or phrase in the source language may have several possible equivalents in the second language, and it is up to the translator to decide which of those reflects the original meaning best, or even come up with something new or slightly different while maintaining the original meaning. While there are rules that need to be observed, the translation goes beyond creating sentences from nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. which represent the concepts in the source language.

According to Nida (2001, p. 4), choices and decisions during translation are rather part of an automatic, natural process, which is a result of a translator being creative and attentive to nuances in meanings in both languages. Creative translation is a special skill and does not necessarily require long training. Naturally, not all translations attain the desired level of quality. The main issues discussed by Robinson and Kenny (2012 , p. 10) include literalism (following the original word for word) and foreignism (a slightly alien feel). Both of these make it evident that the text is a translation and not an original. Fluency, on the other hand, is something a good translation does not lack. The text “never makes the reader stop and reflect that this is in fact a translation” Robinson and Kenny (2012 , p. 11). In order to achieve this effect, it is, of course, sometimes inevitable that the meaning is altered. What is extremely important is translator reliability, described by Robinson and Kenny (2012 , p. 12), which includes attention to detail (i.e. contextual and collocational nuances), sensitivity to the user’s needs, doing research and checking the work closely.

When it comes to self-translation, the circumstances are quite different since the text in the source language and its translation are both treated as originals and, as stated by Mainer, Page and Castro (2017, p. 13), the authority is never questioned. They also point out that the self-translator is freer to alter the text than a professional translator. This seems to give authors a fair amount of freedom, but they still have to work with the fact that they are using two different literary systems. Last but not least, there is a difference between consecutive and simultaneous translation. In the latter, mutual influence of both versions takes place and makes the line between the original and translation even blurrier. That is what makes this topic so fascinating for me. In the second part of the article, I would like to share my insight on my translating process, the outcome and my personal perception of the original and the translation. The book dealt with is called “Kaelyn’s Clouds” – in Czech “Kaelynina mračna” – and it was originally written in English, as that is the language in which the story came to me. The original was proofread by a native speaker, Mrs Ailsa Randall. To rewrite the book in Czech, I used consecutive translation. Since English is not my mother tongue, I found translating from English to Czech easier than doing it vice versa would have been, although I still encountered some challenges. Since the story is built on the ever-changing and complicated emotions of the main character, who believes she will die by suicide and is trying to overcome mental health issues and find things worth living for, my primary aim was to make the translation evoke feelings in a way as similar to the original as possible. I divided the process of translation into three main stages – translating from English to Czech; reading the two versions simultaneously to make sure the Czech version was as true to the English as possible; reading just the Czech version and adjusting it so that it sounded natural to a Czech speaker. All in all, I believe I created a faithful translation.

Perhaps it would be better to call it a corresponding Czech original. Despite a few difficulties, I am glad I could write the book in both languages and that nobody else had to translate it. Translating my own book had always been my dream, and it is very important to me that I can fully identify with both versions of the story I have created. Now I would like to share some passages from my book which I find interesting from the perspective of translation and maintaining the original meaning while sounding natural in the second language. Some of these include a slight change in meaning I am not completely satisfied with, but that, too, is part of the world of translation.

1Never have I ever been so certain about anything.Nikdy jsem si ničím nebyla takhle jistá.
2(…) if someone could get inside my head right now, they would see nothing but three neon capital letters saying ‘YAY’ glowing there.(…) kdyby se teď někdo mohl dostat dovnitř mé hlavy, neviděl by tam nic jiného než čtyři velká neonová písmena tvořící nápis „JUPÍ“.
3(…) I can’t really bust a move here on the beach, but at least my inner me is dancing (…)(…) nemůžu tady na pláži zrovna začít trsat, ale aspoň má vnitřní osobnost tancuje (…)
4Daily routine can really get your life going.Každodenní rutina může fakt zařídit, že váš život tak nějak běží.
5The Clouds I DrawMračna, která kreslím
6(…) when I’m happy – then I draw light pink fluffy clouds that look like candy floss.(…) když jsem šťastná – tehdy kreslím světle růžové načechrané obláčky, které připomínají cukrovou vatu.
7‘So, you’re Kaitlyn, right?’„Takže ty jsi Kaitlyn, viď?“
8So I only say: ‘Goodbye.’ And it’s a very final one.Takže jen řeknu: „Sbohem.“ A je to velice definitivní sbohem.
9She speaks with such enthusiasm it almost knocks me off my feet.Mluví s takovým zanícením, až mě to málem srazí na kolena.
10I don’t do interactions.Já se s lidmi nebavím.
11This is like an exercise and I’m the odd one out.Tohle je jako cvičení a já jsem správná možnost u „nehodící se škrtněte“.
12I don’t do hating because I know how poisonous hate is (…)Nedovoluju si cítit nenávist, protože vím, jak je jedovatá (…)
13(…) I have to watch my hopes fall (…)(…) musím sledovat, jak se má naděje rozplývá (…)
14She’s afraid of attachments because attachments make statements – and some of these statements could threaten her flawless future life.Bojí se nechat si něco nebo někoho přirůst k srdci, protože to s sebou přináší závazky – a některé z těchto závazků by mohly ohrozit její dokonalý budoucí život.

You may wish to compare all fifteen examples, but I would like to comment on just a couple of them, more specifically the ones I have given the most thought to.

The first of those is Example 1. While “never have I ever” sounds very intense, its Czech equivalent is slightly more neutral. I did consider using “nikdy v životě” – “never in my life”, but it felt too radical, so in the end I decided to omit it.

Example 5 is connected with the title of the book. The word “clouds” has several Czech equivalents – “oblaka”, “mraky” and “mračna”. I opted for the last one, above all for its aesthetic element and its rather dramatic connotation. On the other hand, in Example 6, I chose the diminutive “obláčky” to emphasise the aspect of looking lovely and representing something very positive.

Example 7 concerns the T-V distinction. As the character involved is on first-name terms with the main character and is older than she is, I decided to use the less formal form in Czech. Example 11 is not one of my favourites because what I like about the original is that it contains the word odd, which also sums up what Kaelyn is like and feels like, while in the Czech equivalent, there is nothing like that and it rather suggests that she is unsuitable or inappropriate, but this translation is much better for a Czech context.

Nor can I fully identify with the translation in Example 12, because the “hating” in English is meant more as a purposeful act, which is not evident in the Czech translation, yet I wanted to make it sound natural. Finally, Example 15 was an absolute nightmare. “C” in this case means the grade. I did not translate it until a few days before taking the document to the printer and I am still not in full agreement with this translation, but then again, with this being one of the few exceptions, in my opinion, I can say that I have delivered two compatible originals which hopefully tell a powerful story, regardless of which of them the reader chooses.

Biguenet, J., & Schulte, R. (2008). The Craft of Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mainer, S., Page, S., & Castro, O. (2017). Self-translation and Power: Negotiating in European Multilingual Contexts. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nida, E. A. (2001). Contexts in Translating. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub. Co.
Robinson, D., & Kenny, D. (2012). Becoming a Translator: an Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.