Review: Elizabeth Bryeron self-translations

The Same Tree, The Same Iceberg

You’re five or six or seven years old, sitting in the dark in a cinema. You’re casting anxious glances to your right because your brother, sister or friend has been hogging the bucket of popcorn for what feels like hours and the grownup between you is neglecting her grownup duty of equably proportioning time with the treat. On perceiving shushes and a settling of bodies, you turn your gaze to the screen. Straight away you are overcome with dizziness. Then you remember the cardboard frames with their red and blue cellophane lenses. When you slip them on, the image on the screen leaps out at you. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen in a cinema. What is this magic?

Two superimposed reels of the same material shot from slightly different angles, one in blue and the other in red, provide half the answer. The other half depends on you, the viewer, and your 3D glasses. When you have the glasses in place, each lens blocks out the corresponding colour, so that each eye perceives only one of the perspectives. The visual cortex is responsible for merging the two views. Given your eyes are a few centimetres apart, these views are seen from slightly different angles. Colours are wavelengths; when the brain is forced to merge the images at different wavelengths, the layers of the images separate, causing the foreground to leap out and in the process transforming the whole into something greater than either of the monochromatic 2D parts.

When I imagine the best way to read a self-translated text — one whose author is also its translator — I slip on an analogous pair of glasses. The two texts are before me, and I’m somehow able to perceive and comprehend both at once, to take their twinned being as the whole. In practice, this is difficult because one version of any translated text is usually granted primacy. Often the fact that the work is a self-translation is suppressed. It’s rarely discussed in detail. Either possibility seems unfortunate given that, as noted by Anil Joseph Pinto, ‘unlike bilingual writers, self-translators make a conscious choice of creation in two languages’. Despite this effort to create doubly – if not necessarily simultaneously – the sanctioned version usually ends up being forever ghosted by its vanishing twin.

Writers self-translate for reasons ranging from the political to the aesthetic. In the former Soviet Union, Chinghiz Aitmatov self-translated from Krghz into Russian because he wanted to address both Kirghiz and Russian readers while remaining a Krghz writer. Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, after starting his career writing in English, in 1978 decided to write in Gikuyu and self-translate into English to work through the relationship between language and oppression. Samuel Beckett was a prolific self-translator, as was Rabindranath Tagore; both used the process as a way to revise the originals, re-writing as they went. In Brazil, Vilém Flusser developed a writing strategy based on multiple successive self-translations using Portuguese, English, German and French. Each new text, he wrote, has ‘the previous one in its belly’, a turn of phrase that places his practice within the tradition of modernist Brazil’s movimento antropófago, which in 1928 ironically re-appropriated the metaphor of the cannibal as a verbal weapon to fight neo-colonial dependency within Brazilian culture.

New publications Natalia Toledo’s The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems and Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear share the unusual distinction of being translated self-translations. Toledo wrote her poems in Isthmus Zapotec and self-translated them into Spanish, and Clare Sullivan translated the self-translation into English. Tawada, who has lived most of her adult life in Germany, wrote her novel in Japanese and self-translated it into German, which Susan Bernofsky rendered in English.

Both books complicate the distinction between ‘translation’ and ‘original’, the idea that there is always a definitive source version. They grapple with interesting questions about what it means to operate from translation scholar Anthony Pym’s ‘intersections or overlaps of cultures’, a phrase he uses to highlight the fact that translators are never situated in one culture or another, but instead embody, and work from, an intercultural space. This concept is further complicated by these two literary productions because both their authors, not only their translators, operate from these overlaps.

In a dispatch for Words without Borders, Karen Emmerich notes that translators are sometimes called on to ‘fix’ a text in the process of translating it, by which she means to stabilise rather than to correct: ‘that is, to choose or otherwise mediate between existing versions of an “original”’. Translators always do this on the level of meaning — in privileging some hues over others, some forms over others. In the case of translating self-translations, following this logic on a macrolevel the text being ‘fixed’ is the self-translation. In other words, translating the self-translation casts it as the definitive version, simultaneously relegating the ‘original’ to inchoate status. Such a prospect can be risky when the languages have unequal political, literary or endangerment status, as do Isthmus Zapotec and Spanish. This is especially the case when, in undertaking to make the work intelligible for a national audience, the author had to self-translate into a colonial language, as did Toledo.

The Black Flower is sensitive to this possibility in recreating the Spanish self-translation for an English-language reading public. The author, translator, publisher and other collaborators draw on a host of imaginative strategies to guard against the danger of relegating the Zapotec version to inchoate standing in the process of ‘fixing’ the self-translation. In terms of presentation, there is Phoneme Media’s decision to publish in all three languages in a collection that is aimed at a predominately English-language reading public (though no doubt a significant portion of its audience will also read Spanish, as is my case). Yet therein lies the first obstacle. The limitations imposed by the double-page spread mean the three poems cannot be typeset en-face: thus, one language is repeated, starting from the reverse of the book. But rather than the hinge language of Spanish, Zapotec is reproduced: Zapotec–English facing pages are presented at the front half of the book, and Zapotec–Spanish pages are at the reverse. Both Spanish- and English-language readers meet the Zapotec on every other page. As a counterbalance to the translation’s ‘fixing’ of the self-translation, the original is made physically present on the page and so in the reader’s mind.

Sullivan’s translation also seeks to pay close attention to the overlap (and the lack thereof) between the Zapotec and the Spanish, even as she must translate mostly from the latter. As she details in her translator’s note, she collaborated with Toledo and another Zapotec poet, Irma Pineda, to compare Toledo’s versions verse by verse, noting differences and the potential reasons behind them. Sometimes, for example, Toledo changes the images, maybe to clarify them for a broader Mexican audience unfamiliar with the specificities of her climate, geography and customs, or to enrich the sound of the Spanish in the context of the poem. Sullivan also scrutinises the Zapotec poems for rhymes and other features that are not present in the same places in the Spanish: flores (flowers) and piedras (stones) become ‘petals’ and ‘pebbles’ in her translation, in an echo of the near-homonyms in the Zapotec lade guie’ and lade guie.

This dedication and collaboration, combined with Toledo’s extraordinary capacity to be a poet in two languages, makes for an exceptional reading experience in the English. It means the poet is not, at least in this translation, ‘The curlew whose song was drowned in another / language’ (‘What I Am, What I Remember’).

In the opening poem, the poet peers from behind a ‘black leafed tree’, the first of many evocations of the natural world, especially of trees, branches and flowers. What follows is divided into five sections. Some of their thematic through-lines are stronger than others. Maybe because of the echoes it shares with ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, the Juchitecan aphorism ‘A hand in the bush makes sweet work in the kitchen’ — the title of one of those sections — had me scratching my head until I checked the less allusive Spanish and all was clear in an instant. (Nope, it does not mean gathering your foodstuff in the forest before preparing a meal; in this light, poems such as ‘Wild Cherry Sweets’ and ‘Chocolate Chili Pepper’ take on a whole new innuendo). This section’s poems on the erotics of food and the links between conception and sustenance are complemented, later in the collection, by poems on weaving that entwine women’s labour, the creation of the cosmos and procreation:

A nighttime shadow
emerges from your lap.
You weave upon a tortilla of black velvet,
flower children germinate upon the cloth.

(‘Woman Who Weaves’)

Another section immerses the reader in the world of children and their games, always deadly serious for all their apparent play.

Images are often arresting and strange, some with melancholy undertows, like when the poet speaks of ‘bitter confetti that I gathered at the fiestas’ (‘For all the ants…’). Many poems are brief, sometimes composed of only a few lines. My favourite, ‘Cochineal’, creates an unexpected syncretism that moves from the local to the global and back again. It is a commentary on beliefs, suffering and spectacle, art as sacrifice, the environmental costs of production, and the performance of identity as resistance:

Blood of nopal
ruby of prickles on insect flesh.
The thorns in Christ’s hand,
crying the dye
that Oaxacan women wear.

Sullivan’s translation often incorporates evocative vocabulary. Take the example ‘scales sluffed from God’ (‘Origin’): the Spanish version includes no participle, only ‘of’ (‘escama de Dios’). Likewise, the legerdemain that is the line ‘someone entered the picture’ in a poem about a photograph, ‘Girl with Roots’. The choice to use a dead metaphor in this photographic context reinvigorates that metaphor. It restores the literal to the figurative and in the process adds an extra layer to the experience of the poem that is not present in the Spanish ‘alguien entró a esa foto’ (‘someone entered that photo’).

Sullivan opts for an elegant, elevated register. Maybe  her intention is to evoke the formalities of a chant, a slight otherworldliness, or the sense of entering a ritual or hallowed space. This decision gives consistency across the collection. Yet at times the preferences guided by this overall strategy, especially the occasional preposition and line structure, feel longwinded or like they lack attunement to prosody. I found myself suspecting that more attention could have been paid to English-language intertexts. Not to diminish the impressive feats of the startling images, evocations and lexical shocks, but I wonder if the work done by the repetition of ‘during’, ‘like’, ‘as if’, ‘of the’ and ‘upon’ is necessary and, if so, whether that work could be performed by less conspicuous alternatives.

Elsewhere, the physical shape of the written word is brought into striking relief in the line ‘The word ojo has eyes’ (‘Still Life’). It is also perplexing. What is the equivalent in the Zapotec? A cursory glance at the verso page reveals no eye-like configuration. Does the Zapotec version draw attention to the sound of the word for ‘eye’ instead of the written form? The most I can make out is what might be a borrowing from the Spanish word for ‘to wink’, guiñar (guiñadó’), which is not present in Toledo’s Spanish self-translation. This hints tantalisingly at a different wordplay. And then, the word naxoo jumps out: do the ‘eyes’ come last in this word, without a letter-nose between them? I scrutinise the Zapotec line, none the wiser yet keenly aware of my not-knowing, of the fact that this is a translation of a self-translation, the Zapotec hovering just out of reach.

While the number of people fluent in both Zapotec and English who also possess the literary skills to translate poetry into English is no doubt tiny, there are of course many talented Japanese–English literary translators. New Directions has published Tawada titles translated from both Japanese and German, so the availability of translators from either language is not an issue here. For Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada requested the translation be made from her self-translation into German. Unlike for Black Flower, the choice to translate into English from the self-translation is therefore not a necessary compromise but an authorial choice. The reason Tawada gave for this preference was that she had already done the work of translating her novel from Japanese into a Western language.

This justification draws on interesting ideas around the perceived lexical and cultural propinquity of languages—how much overlap they share. In choosing the self-translation—in requesting that the translator ‘fix’ it rather than the original—Tawada does not cast the original Japanese version as inchoate but as remote, or at least remoter-than; this postulates a hierarchy of translatability in which less cultural and lexical overlap corresponds to more translational complexity. Tawada’s request is also an aesthetic decision that foregrounds the self-translation because, I would argue, it best expresses the work. If form is meaning, then, unlike Toledo’s self-translation, Tawada’s self-translation is more meaningful than her original because its translation of the self puts into practice the thematic that her novel explores.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear lends itself to being read in many ways, though never definitively—any interpretation you begin to feel reasonably sure about is unsettled within the space of a few pages. This is the allure of Tawada’s work: to read it is to enter a strange dream of allusions. Yet a concern with expressing oneself in a non-native language and cultural context resurfaces in each of the three parts that make up the novel.

The first part is narrated by Grandmother polar bear, a former USSR circus performer, who is writing her autobiography (polar bears must learn to navigate the world of humans in this fiction; they write, use computers and also attend conferences, those other circuses). Extracts of the autobiography are interspersed throughout this part, which is as much about writing, publication and the corollaries of success as it is a recollection of Grandmother’s early life as a tricycle-riding performer and her subsequent political exile to West Berlin and immigration to Canada.

The second part focuses on middle-aged animal-trainer Barbara, who invites Grandmother’s daughter Tosca — a ballet dancer whose objection to a theatre’s patriarchal and speciest representation of polar bears gets her fired — to join her East-German circus as an artist-in-residence. The high point of the pair’s many years of performing together is their Kiss of Death: Barbara places a sugar cube on her tongue, which Tosca removes with her own.

The third part focuses on Tosca’s son, Knut (though maybe not Grandmother’s biological grandson — the ‘Tosca’ of the previous part was in fact two polar bears; both worked with Barbara and became confused in her mind, and the first reincarnated in the second). Because of the demands of her literary work, Tosca entrusts Knut ‘to another animal’, zookeeper Matthias and colleagues. Knut finds himself performing for visitors, and becomes a ‘noteworthy environmental activist’ whose appearance on television raises awareness about climate change and the melting of arctic ice.

The narrative is haunted by texts, just as the self-translation is haunted by its original: Grandmother is writing an autobiography, while Barbara wants to write a biography of Tosca but is practising with her own life first. Yet on a narrative level, the most interesting aspect of the novel related to self-translation is the instability of the perspectives, which sometimes gives rise to confusion and disorientation, much as happens when navigating a foreign culture and language. A few pages from the end of the second part, for example, a paw print indicates a section break and the first-person Barbara perspective changes to first-person Tosca. Is this a simple switch to Tosca’s perspective for the final scene? Maybe. Though now it seems that the second part — Barbara telling her story to Tosca and others — might have been Tosca imaginatively inhabiting Barbara’s perspective. Tosca’s revelation that ‘I took upon myself the task of committing Barbara’s life to paper’ leads to a reappraisal of what we have read up to this point.

The third part opens with another surprise: unlike the previous parts, this narrates the life of its polar bear cub in the third person. But approximately half-way through, once we’ve adjusted to this perspective, on his morning ramble around the zoo Knut meets a sun bear who pokes fun at him: ‘You call yourself Knut? A bear speaking in the third person? I haven’t heard anything that hilarious in a long time. Are you still a baby?’ This prompts Knut to investigate; when he realises that his adoptive human parents Matthias and Christian both refer to themselves as ‘I’, the third-person perspective changes to ‘I’, eventually dropping the inverted commas. Yet another perspective shake-up and reappraisal. The third-person limited perspective was limited for a reason: it was Knut narrating all along.

The politics and marketability of alterity are also explored. Knut uses his difference — his polarbearness — as a tool in his climate change activism. Grandmother is confused by her publisher’s insistence that she write in her ‘own mother tongue’ rather than German, which would save time and translator fees. She suspects it is so he can ‘twist [her] text to suit his political purposes’.

Yet, what is a mother tongue? The two words suggest it is the language her mother speaks, yet Grandmother never knew her mother, who presumably spoke ‘Northpolish’. There are other absent biological mothers—Barbara’s daughter is raised by Barbara’s mother after Barbara suffers postpartum depression; Knut is rejected by New Tosca. The distance of the motherland is also key to Tosca’s sense of self: ‘I was hardly connected to my native land anymore’. This concern with origins, and thriving despite the mother’s absence, resurfaces in questions of unconscious legacy. While Grandmother’s change of career from circus performer to administrator is due to a knee injury she sustains when trying to learn Latin-American dances, Tosca masters the tango. Markus says Tosca has no difficulty standing on two legs because ‘her [mother’s] training [has] been inscribed in the genetic code and passed on’. At the zoo, Knut is not required to perform but, like his forebears, does. What of the mother language and cultural legacy do we keep with us, even when it is absent from our day-to-day life? What trace of the earlier texts is identifiable in the self-translation and translation?

As for Tawada’s language, I found myself basking in the light thrown by many of Bernofsky’s dextrous recreations, especially the humorous ones. Take this co-opting of corporate speak: ‘My mouth mastered the art of premasticating difficult-to-digest material and then communicating a persuasive plan’. And then there are the instances of wordplay: ‘I talked with his dog Friedrich too much. Karl didn’t like that. Maybe that was the bone of contention’; or, ‘When I told Pankov about the literate panda bears, he gnashed his teeth and said that was just propaganda: pro-panda propaganda disseminated by the Chinese government to justify their writing reforms’. Some of Tawada’s metaphors are striking—Grandmother’s appointment book is ‘attacked by a mildew of obligations’, and here is Grandmother on autobiographical writing: ‘in the bear’s den of my brain, I was giving birth to my own childhood and secretly attending to its upbringing’. Other metaphors, such as ‘Like a fat, hairy worm, her graze crept back to me’, miss their mark. Throughout, the predilection for adverbs might be to add to the absurd tone. It might be to remake the non-native tongue for the immigrant’s purposes, to stage an intervention. But I found it wearing. People and bears run ‘light-footedly’, smile ‘self-ironically’, roar ‘loudly’, insert their tongues ‘efficiently but cautiously’ and fall ‘snoringly asleep’.

Questions of what remains of the mother tongue and cultural legacy in a foreign land are further borne out by Tawada’s close attention to language and its absurdities, through her musings on the idea of language and her language use. Once Tosca and Barbara kiss, Tosca recounts,

her human soul had passed bit by bit into my bear body. A human soul turned out to be less romantic than I imagined. It was made up primarily of languages—not just ordinary, comprehensible languages, but also many broken shards of language, the shadows of languages, and images that couldn’t turn into words.

So language is both important—it’s the stuff of soul—and somehow too commonplace to be remarkable. This is echoed elsewhere, when a bookseller soothes Grandmother’s anxieties about her grasp of German: ‘The grammar is superfluous if you understood the story’. Language is the means to the end that is communication, not the end itself.


For English-language readers, both Black Flower and Memoirs of a Polar Bear have an ancestral text buried at their heart. A sense of unknowing permeates the reading experience, the impression that there are more versions echoing out, a proliferation; that we’re reading but one of those many echoes. It’s a reminder that we can never grasp all the meanings of a text, that there are unfathomable depths beneath the surface of any act of communication.

In what might be a dream, Barbara has the uncanny experience of comprehending Tosca. She describes it like so:

And there in the darkness, the grammars of many languages lost their color, they melted and combined, they froze solid again, they drifted in the ocean and joined the drifting floes of ice. I sat on the same iceberg as Tosca and understood every word she said to me.

Thanks to translators Bernofsky and Sullivan and self-translators Tawada and Toledo, we readers can take a seat on the iceberg, can perch in the branches of the black-leafed tree. If we’re quiet enough, we too might catch every word.


Anil Joseph Pinto, ‘Reading More Intimately: An Interrogation of Translation Studies through Self-Translation’, Salesian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 3, No. 1, May, 2012, pp. 66–72.
Vilém Flusser, Kommunikologie, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1998.

Karen Emmerich, ‘The Making of Originals: The Translator as Editor (Part One)’, WWB Daily, Words without Borders, 4 April, 2013.
Anthony Pym, Negotiating the Frontier: Translators and Intercultures in Hispanic History, Manchester: St Jerome Publishing, 2000.

Paul Lewis and Gary F. Simons, ‘Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS’, Revue Roumaine de Linguistique, Issue 2, 2010, pp. 103–120.
Suzanne Marchand, ‘German Orientalism and the Decline of the West’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 145, No. 4 (Dec., 2001), pp. 465–473.

Itamar Even-Zohar, ‘The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem’, Poetics Today 11:1 (1990), pp. 45–51.