Bilingual writers, (self-)translation and the stylistic revolution

Bilingualism and self-translation may be used to question or redefine one’s cultural identity and to dislocate and decentralize contextual dominant idioms. I stress the word contextual because idioms become dominant depending on the context in which they are actively practiced and pursued. The writer Antonio D’Alfonso’s Italian, for instance, is perceived as a minority language in the Canadian context, but it is definitely lived as a dominant idiom by migrant or foreign writers trying to find their way into the Italian literary system. In this regard, D’Alfonso, like the writer Tim Parks (who lives in Italy and mainly writes in English), is considered an outsider whose Italian is not sufficiently refined or literary enough in the eyes of the local/national intelligentsia. As the Italian writer Francesca Marciano comments, “Italians haven’t yet got rid of a certain elitist and pretentious view of literary style. They still have to undergo the stylistic revolution that the English went through with its Hemingways, Carvers and Faulkners” (Dagnino and Marciano, 2017).

By his own admission, D’Alfonso started off self-translating with the aim of expanding his readership and acquiring literary recognition outside the stifling cultural and linguistic borders of French Quebec:

Most of my essays written in French have never been published in French. All my essays I had to translate and publish in English. My anti-nationalism […] is clearly not appreciated by my French-language publishers […].

Dagnino and D’Alfonso, 2017

D’Alfonso thus started off as a Widener, willing to expose his work to a wider, English-reading audience. In the process, though, he understood that he could also use self-translation as a tool to call into question the centrality of two of the most influential languages (and their related literary cultures) on the global scene—namely, English and French. Consequently, he assumed the role of a Decentralizer:

Translations are required to demonstratively promote the nation’s agenda. This is why in many cases, it is the translator who is applauded and not the author of the original text. When critics speak of one translation being better than another, it is often because the translator has elaborated something that is uniquely national. We experience this reservation whenever we have to negotiate the French translation of an English-language writer: does the publisher hire a translator from Canada or one from France? This proves that language is irrefutably centralized. Whenever translation is decentralized, it is ignored.

Dagnino and D’Alfonso, 2017

That is why D’Alfonso’s self-translations may also be read—quoting him—as “subversive acts, perhaps the most subversive acts in the world today” (ibid.). We should not forget that, indeed, we are dealing with a global literary scene in which, if we just look at the United States, the biggest publishing market on earth, only an infinitesimal part of published books are translations: “The sad statistics indicate that in the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, only two to three percent of books published each year are literary translations” (Grossman, 2011, n.p.).[17] A closer look reveals an even worse state of affairs, as the two to three percent figure is considerably bolstered by technical manuals and other non-fiction texts. For literary fiction and poetry, the figure is actually closer to 0.7%.[18]

D’Alfonso’s task of acting as a language dislocator through self-translation is tremendously ambitious and perhaps defiantly hopeless, as he admits:

(Self-)Translation means leaving your windows open for the passers-by… [But] who are we to want to pretend to have something new to offer to cultures that have shut tight the gates of national imagination? […] If one considers that translations are rarely read and never reviewed, a translation is a waste of time for any writer who is content on reading himself and his buddies. Why read an author who introduces a worldview and works in a style totally foreign to yours? To do so would demonstrate an openness of spirit that is, in fact, atypical.

Dagnino and D’Alfonso, 2017

Full article

You can read the full article by Arianna Dagnino, published in the journal TTR, here:

Arianna Dagnino, “Breaking the Linguistic Minority Complex through Creative Writing and Self-Translation.TTR-Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction, Volume 32, Issue 2, 2e semestre 2019/2020, pp. 107-129.

Biographical note

Arianna Dagnino is a writer, researcher and literary translator with extensive experience as an international reporter. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Sociology from the University of South Australia and currently teaches at the University of British Columbia. The recipient of a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship (2017-2019) at the University of Ottawa (School of Translation and Interpretation), her publications include Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of Global Mobility (Purdue University Press, 2015), The Afrikaner (Guernica, 2019), a transcultural novel set in South Africa which she self-translated from Italian into English, and several books on the impact of information technology and global mobility: I nuovi nomadi (Castelvecchi, 1996), Uoma (Mursia, 2000), and Jesus Christ Cyberstar (Ipoc, 2008).

Zoe’s Story, “The Afrikaner,”​ Goes International

A woman scientist ventures into a scorching desert to search for fossils and confront the dark shadows of her Afrikaner heritage. Set between South Africa and the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, the story of palaeontologist Zoe du Plessis, the Afrikaner of the book title, has the ability to cross borders and resonate with the hearts and souls of readers far away from the hot plains of southern Africa. Because all people have a history and all nations have bloodlines. They all get shaken up and suffer trauma. But they all learn to cope with the past, learn from it and find a resolution. This is the underlying message running through The Afrikaner, which after its English publication will soon be available in German, Arabic, Italian and Afrikaans. Covid-19 permitting, the German translation will be launched at the 2020 edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.
In the meantime, the author of the novel (Arianna Dagnino) and her writing partner (Ernest Mathijs), both based in Vancouver, have completed the screenplay based on Zoe’s story and started pitching the script to interested producers and film makers. In their view, the screenplay would profit from a synergetic triangulation between South Africa, Europe and North America.
Book Trailer:
Book at Guernica’s Website:
Book Website:
Listen to Chapter 1:

How much freedom should a creative writer have?

I thank the South African writer Toni Henning for her review of my novel “The Afrikaner” (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019). One comment struck me most and made me ponder over the total freedom writers can and should have when devising their stories and the characters that inhabit them: “I can hardly believe that the author is not South African.”

Here is Toni Henning‘s full review:
“The Afrikaner stirred a number of emotions in me; pride in the beauty of the landscapes and places of South Africa, my beloved country, incredibly described by Arianna Dagnino; the pain of loss, new and old; shame and frustration triggered by the recount of history and the fact that, so many years later, we, as a nation, are still struggling to break free; disheartened that the potential of Africa is lost due to this continent’s people’s short-sightedness and the world’s indifference; and, hope that even the most dire circumstances can be healed. Arianna’s characters are genuine; their emotions are raw; their lives are real. Having read the book I can hardly believe that the author is not South African. To read The Afrikaner is to find The Rainbow Nation exposed.”


When reading is good in time of crisis: “I felt her every emotion, her pain, her anxiety, her fatigue-she became so real that I could even smell her”​

Let’s not forget that books – fiction as much as nonfiction – are our true companions and sometimes even our real saviours in times of crisis.

“The Afrikaner is a story that takes us to the past, the present and the future of South Africa. It gives us hope, as a nation. It speaks a message of love, forgiveness and peace. ”


“I absolutely enjoyed every moment with Zoe, the main character of The Afrikaner. I felt her every emotion, her pain, her anxiety, her fatigue. She became so real that I could even smell her. It was very easy for me to relate to this saga as I live in South Africa and naturally wish to learn about the history of this country. Zoe can easily represent South Africa: a young land that has suffered so much injustices, so much heartache, pain, violence and bloodshed. But she has to move on. She has to be strong. She has to find her strength in herself, in her deserts, in her oceans and rivers, in her people and in their diversity in culture and language. She has to move away from the place of pain and start afresh on a clean slate. Unfortunately, as Kurt says at page 229, “The past always resurfaces.” Humankind’s past, our individual past and our nation’s past. It cannot be buried and remain buried. How to handle it when it resurfaces is the main issue. Cyril says at page 184, “Diversity is healthy. We can accept each other and be together without giving up our differences. It’s useless – even foolish – to reduce us to a common denominator.” Kurt sums it up, “The Tribes of this country – the white, the black, the coloured – share a long history. Sure, a bloody and violent one. But we’ve been together for hundreds of years now […] This common lived history should be the foundation of our new country.”


“I was very surprised at your insight into my psyche as an Afrikaner”

South African actor Gys de Villiers (“Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom”) has kindly accepted to provide his feedback on my novel The Afrikaner, a story of hate, love, guilt and scientific obsession inspired by the five years (1996-2000) I spent in newly post-apartheid South Africa as an international reporter for the Italian press.

I am grateful for his comments, which support my understanding of how creative writers should go about their craft when dealing with other cultural landscapes and the multifarious workings of human nature – that is, with great humbleness, the utmost respect, an open mind, and an unquenchable curiosity. These elements are at the basis of any attempt at cultural permeation, interpretation, and understanding.

You can read Gys de Villier’s full feedback on The Afrikaner here:

“I really enjoyed your story. It was quite moving and I felt intrigued to continue reading till the end.

It is uncanny how you as a foreigner could pinpoint so accurately my own well-guarded emotions about being an Afrikaner.

There were times when I was very surprised at your insight into my psyche as an Afrikaner. I wanted to shout out, no you can’t share that with the world; like the complex military situation during conscription, also the lingering suspicion, resentment and racism that is still part of South Africa.

I like the exploration of Zoe into her maternal line, trying to understand and break free from the supposed curse.  I also felt her deep love and loss of Dario [her lover].

I enjoyed Zoe’s interactions with the Khoisan Koma [the shaman] and wanted more of that.

I thought Sam was a very recognizable character that I might have known in SA.

I also loved Zoe’s relationship with Georgina, the old housekeeper which is all too familiar and which forms the base of stability in many a South African household.

The determination with which Zoe tackles her archaeological digs reminds me of all the strong Afrikaner women I know and have known including my mother and sisters.

The story was quite moving and I felt intrigued to continue reading till the end.

Good luck with your film version.”

Hate, Love, Guilt and Redemption under African Skies

Authors, What are you reading right now?

“It’s simply immense in scope, character development, historical reconstruction, poetic sensibility, human empathy. I consider it a sort of secular Bible for the creative writer. It belongs to another era but it still speaks to us, to all fundamental weaknesses and strengths as human beings.” Which book am I talking about? You can discover it by reading my interview with the “well-seasoned librarian” Dean Jones, originally published in his ongoing series on Medium, the platform with 120 million curious readers.

Read the interview originally published on Medium here (with pictures) or here below:

Name: Arianna Dagnino

Author of: “The Afrikaner. A Novel” (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019); “Jesus Christ Cyberstar” (Ipoc, 2009); “Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of Global Mobility” (Purdue University Press, 2015)

Can you tell me about your latest book “The Afrikaner”?

In a nutshell, The Afrikaner is an on-the-road tale set in newly post-apartheid South Africa and in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia that covers the terrains of race, love, historical guilt, and the tensions of a society “lost in transition.” The book is inspired by the five years (1996–2000) I spent in the southern African region as an international reporter for the Italian press.

The main character, Zoe du Plassis, 33, is a young female scientist (paleontologist) of Afrikaner descent. A conflicted woman struggling with group guilt and a dark family secret, after a fatal accident Zoe embarks on a field expedition into the hot plains of the Kalahari Desert in search of early human fossils. Her journey of atonement and self-discovery will lead her to memorable encounters with a troubled writer, a Bushman shaman, and a Border War veteran.

In reviewing the book for BC Book World, Alan Twigg wrote: “Art must be cathartic, original and memorable… North Americans have gleaned a deeper awareness of South Africa through Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the Beloved Country,’ Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. We’ve also seen ‘Invictus’ or ‘A Dry White Season’ or Richard Attenborough’s ‘Cry Freedom’ about Stephen Biko, the man that Nelson Mandela described as ‘the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa.’ ‘The Afrikaner’ deserves its place in that pantheon.”

List of a few books you are currently reading?

Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of my lives; Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: turning points for nations in crisisand then a series of less renown but interesting writers (I like to discover new stuff beyond what big publishing houses are keen to promote with their powerful marketing machines): Richard Goodship’s The Camera Guy, Yigal Zur’sDeath in Shangri-La, Geoffrey Fox’s A Gift for the Sultan, Anca Cristofovici, Stela. Since I am working on the film script of my novel The Afrikaner, I am also reading Laura Brennan’s The Screening Room: Turning a Novel into a Screenplay and Ken Dancyger’s and Jeff Rush’s Alternative Scriptwriting.

What is one book you have read more than once?

Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Why? (If applicable). It’s simply immense in scope, character development, historical reconstruction, poetic sensibility, human empathy. I consider it a sort of secular Bible for the creative writer. It belongs to another era but it still speaks to us, to all fundamental weaknesses and strengths as human beings.

Do you have a “Guilty Secret” book that you have been reading for some time but have never finished?

I have so many of them! Just to mention a couple: Proust’s À la recherche, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Don de Lillo’s Underworld.

What was your favorite book as a child?

In different stages of childhood: Mary Walcott’s Little Women (Joe! Oh Joe!), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon. One can tell I belong to an “ancient” generation of writers…

Which writer do you most admire? Why?

J.M. Coetzee: Because I will never be able to write as he does: so neatly, so sparingly. All those perfectly-constructed, crystalline sentences — saying so much with so little.

Do you have a book that you have considered a “Life changer”?

Three books, actually (for three different reasons): Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Primo Levi’s If This is a Manand Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Have you ever read a famous book that you consider to be “Over Rated”? If so, which book and why?

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Tedious, navel-gazing, dull characters — a story that never picks up. The writing is damn good, no doubt. But what’s the real purpose of all this aesthetic effort and all those hours of dedicated reading? To me it’s just a waste of time on both sides: the author’s and the reader’s. After this book I doubt I would ever want to read anything else written by Franzen.

If you could invite up to 10 authors living or dead to dinner, who would you invite and what would you serve?

All dead writers: I find them more fascinating than the living bunch.

Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph ConradZelda FitzgeraldMark TwainRobert M. PirsigToni Morrison, Paul BowlesUrsula K. Le Guin, and Truman Capote. I would serve a hearty Italian meal and good red wine to ease/spark the conversation.

Any advice for aspiring writers?/Artists

Anything goes. Find/make your own rules in order to get into that sacred space of creative imagination. And once you are in there, stick to it as much as you can, blocking out any possible distractions. Thus: forget about FB, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and all that time-wasting social media stuff. Go off the grid, head into the woods, or live by an ocean. Become a recluse, lead a monastic life, find your cave, or throw yourself into the thick shrubs of urban life. But live: live harshly, widely, intensely. Talk to people: real people (not digital avatars or celebrities). Travel. Love. Suffer. And write, write, write, whenever you can, wherever you are. Live in your characters’ heads. Talk to them, talk like they would do. Hate them, love them, suffer with them, for them. And then deliver. Never leave a page, a chapter, a manuscript unfinished. And then start editing, rewriting, editing — until exhaustion, until you have no regrets. Until you will be able — and have the right — to say: “I did my best. Let’s see what you think of my work”.

About Arianna Dagnino:

In her career as an international reporter, literary translator and academic researcher, Arianna Dagnino has lived in many countries, including a five-year stint in South Africa. The author of several books on the impact of global mobility, science, and new technologies, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of South Australia and currently teaches at the University of British Columbia. Her latest novel, “The Afrikaner” (Guernica, Toronto, 2019) is an on-the-road adventure story that covers the terrains of race, love, white guilt, science, shamanism, and cultural survival.


“The Afrikaner”: Blog

YouTube Book trailer of “The Afrikaner”:

The Afrikaner: Book review 1:

The Afrikaner Book review 2:

Interview: “Writer Heads to South Africa for new Novel.”

Read the interview on Medium here:

How do South African and Canadian Readers React to “The Afrikaner”

As an Italian writer who has published her South African-based novel The Afrikaner  while living in Canada (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019), I am particularly eager to receive feedback from South African and Canadian readers. Thus, I am grateful to fiction editor Tracy Buenk from Durban, South Africa and independent writer Vernice Shostal from British Columbia for their thoughtful feedback.

“Landscapes and characters come to life in the detailed descriptions and fast-paced story of The Afrikaner. For me, the greatest achievement of this novel is Arianna Dagnino’s excellent grasp of the complex relationship between the South African cultures. A memorable and moving book” (Tracy Buenk, Fiction Editing | Reader’s Reports, )

“I found The Afrikaner an amazing work of fiction and perhaps some non-fiction, which took a look at contemporary issues in the new South Africa. The personal life of the character, Zoey, and the people she is associated with, leave the reader with a feeling of hope toward a humanitarian consciousness and resolving past issues, including her own past superstitions; however, perhaps, like First Nation people in Canada, who were also betrayed by colonialism, the novel showed that not all black South Africans are able to quickly forgive the past. The imagery in the novel presents the country of South Africa as a living, breathing soul, albeit a parched and harried one” (Vernice Shostal, independent writer)

The Afrikaner:

From Fellow Writer to Fellow Writer: “Discomfort” and “Trust”

It is always a special honour to receive the appreciation of a fellow writer for one’s work.

The Canadian writer Chantal Garand, author of the novel Natalia Z. (Annika Parance Editeur, Montréal, 2018), which will also appear in Norwegian translation in 2020, has agreed to let me publish the letter she sent me after having read my novel The Afrikaner.

Two words stand out in Chantal’s comments: “discomfort” and “trust”. In my view, these two words encapsulate what writing is all about.

Chantal has written her letter in French, the language in which she creatively writes, although her English is as good. I have provided an English translation of the text (original French text follows).

Dear Arianna,

I have just finished reading “The Afrikaner” and I want to express the pleasure I had in reading your novel. The characters’ stories are captivating and skillfully express the torments and dilemmas experienced by South Africans in the post-apartheid period. I lived 4 years in South Africa, always with the impression of living in a cocoon, totally excluded from what the different layers/cultures of this troubled society are going through. I’ve never been able to penetrate people’s souls like you have.

Your novel shows admirable sensitivity and evocative power. Having so finely described the discomfort that is palpable among South Africans, I can tell you did not waste your time during your stay in this country. You have certainly succeeded in connecting with people who have trusted you enough to let you explore what they are trying to understand themselves. Congratulations, your novel is a great success and has the merit of not making easy judgments.

Chantal Garand

Chère Arianna,

Je viens de terminer la lecture de The Afrikaner et je veux vous exprimer le plaisir que j’ai eu à lire votre roman. L’histoire des personnages est captivante et est habilement intégrée aux tourments et dilemmes ressentis par les sud-aficains en période post-apartheid. J’ai vécu 4 ans en Afrique du Sud, toujours avec l’impression de vivre dans un cocon, totalement exclue de ce que vivent les différentes couches/cultures de cette population troublée. Je n’ai jamais réussi à pénétrer l’âme des gens comme vous l’avez fait.

Votre roman démontre une sensibilité et une force d’évocation admirables. Pour avoir si finement décrit l’inconfort qui est palpable chez les sud-aficains, je constate que vous n’avez pas perdu votre temps pendant votre séjour dans ce pays. Vous avez certainement réussi à vous lier avec des gens qui vous ont fait suffisamment confiance pour vous laisser explorer ce qu’ils tentent eux-même de comprendre. Bravo, votre roman est une belle réussite et a le mérite de ne pas porter de jugement facile.

Chantal Garand

Arianna Dagnino, “The Afrikaner” (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019):

Chantal Garand, “Natalia Z.” (Annika Parance, Montréal, 2018):

Universal themes in a unique setting: An Interview on “The Afrikaner”​ by Victor Van Der Merwe

“When it comes to societies like South Africa, there is always something that will contradict your preconceived notions,” says Arianna Dagnino, author of “The Afrikaner,” published by Guernica Editions (Toronto) in 2019.

“I think what is happening now in the Western world is something that has already happened in South Africa,” says Dagnino, who spent five years in the then newly democratic South Africa and can write about that time with great ease.

This is how journalist Victor Van Der Merwe starts our interview on my South African-based novel “The Afrikaner.” The interview was published in the October issue of BC magazine “The Source” (Volume 20, Issue 06 – October 8–22, 2019).

You can read the rest of the interview here below or at this link:

The novel is set in the South Africa of 1996. The book follows Zoe du Plessis, a paleontologist of Afrikaner descent, struggling with white group guilt, a dark family secret and the recent loss of a lover and colleague. The Afrikaner begins as Zoe embarks on a journey of self-discovery and atonement, while on a field expedition into the hot plains of the Kalahari Desert. She is there in search of early human fossils.

Witness to transition

Dagnino was born in Italy but has traveled as far as London, Boston and Moscow for work and studies. In 1996, Dagnino and her husband moved to South Africa to become international correspondents who wrote for the Italian press. Aside from the wire service, she and her husband were the only two Italian reporters in the country.

“It was the right time to be there (South Africa),” says Dagnino. “All the foreign correspondents from the UK, the US, from all over Europe, they were all interested in what was happening there. It was a very dramatic moment of transition for the country, so everyone wanted to witness what was happening and report about it.”

As a former travel writer for an Italian magazine, she was mostly prepared for what to expect when arriving in Africa, but there were still facets of South African life that surprised her.

“What really surprised me was that most of the white people in South Africa had never visited a township,” says Dagnino. “So, the first thing I did as a reporter, I went into the Soweto township to see how people lived there.”

Dagnino says she ended up being the person that told white South Africans about how people live in Soweto, one of South Africa’s most famous townships. The class distinction even within a township like Soweto was another big surprise.

“It was a real city. It wasn’t a squatter camp like the Favelas in Brazil. There were people there who were very poor, but there were also people who were very rich. Some people had mansions and big cars in Soweto,” she says.

Moving to Canada

In 2000, Dagnino and her husband left South Africa and moved to Australia where she received her PhD in Comparative Literature and Sociology. After a few years of living in Australia, Dagnino and her family again faced the choice of a new destination. The couple applied for Canadian permanent residency at the same time they applied for Australian permanent residency. After Dagnino received her PhD, they figured, why not give Canada a try?

“We wanted to offer our kids the opportunity to experience being raised in an English-speaking country,” she says. “We felt it was important for them to be raised in a place that would give them a lot more opportunities.”

It was in Canada, where Dagnino started and finished the novel The Afrikaner. Although the story takes place in a very remote corner of the world and is set in a very specific time of South Africa’s history, Dagnino still feels everyone can take something from the theme of the book.

“I think the theme is very universal,” she says. “I think it is important for people to understand that they need to address certain issues related to racial divisions.”

Dagnino hopes everyone who reads her book takes away the idea that we should not be so quick to judge.

“Societies are very complex and South Africa’s society is one of the most complex I have experienced,” she says. “It is very challenging. It isn’t black and white, there are many shades of grey and we need to take into consideration these shades of grey before creating our perception, before making judgements.”

Dagnino currently teaches at UBC.

Full interview here:

For more information on Arianna Dagnino and her novel “The Afrikaner” go to:

Hate, Love, Guilt and Redemption under African Skies

Arianna Dagnino