Creative writing and the art of self-translation

A growing number of bilingual writers are now self-translating their work, from or into English. Why is this happening? What does the process of self-translation imply in terms of cultural negotiation? And what happens to the cultural dimension of the self-translated text in this translative movement?

Self-translation has been efined as “the act of translating one’s own writings into another language and the result of such an undertaking” (Grutman 2001, 17).

The reasons why nowadays writers decide to self-translate are manifold and closely linked to growing migratory flows, diasporic movements and transnational relocations, which have created new generations of bilingual writers, especially in settler countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States, or in former colonial powers such as France, Spain and the UK.

Drawing upon existing literature and a series of one-on-one interviews with six self- translators, I have identified and compiled a list of reasons for which writers decide to self-translate based on their self-perceived level of bilingual proficiency and socio-cultural status (that is, whether they are emerging writers or already established writers, whether they are mainly active in a minority language or in a majority one). I have also produced a Table that summarizes my findings and that I provide herewith (see Table 1).

No alt text provided for this image

Whatever the reasons for self-translating may be, in most cases English is always part of the equation (whether writers decide to self-translate from or into it). Undoubtedly, as Philipson (2009, p. 10) remarks, nowadays English plays a dominant role not only as “lingua economica” but also as “lingua emotiva,” “lingua bellica,” “lingua academica,” and, most importantly, “lingua cultura.” As publishing consultant Jane Friedman notes,

When it comes to global sales, books in English are at an advantage. English is spoken as a first language by around 375 million people and as a second language by an additional 375 million people. Around 750 million people speak English as a foreign language (where English is not spoken as a first or second language). One out of four of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence, and demand from the other three-quarters is increasing (n.p.).

Thus, for most writers the choice of English – especially when adopted in a translingual mode as the primary language of creative expression – is highly justified by its role as the dominant global idiom (De Swaan 2001; Philipson 2009).

Self-translation requires a huge effort in terms of cultural mediation and literary re-creation. As such, it is usually practiced by a small number of writers who are not only bilingually but also biculturally proficient. As they move into the role of translators of their own work, writers need to devise strategies of cultural reframing and intertextual transfer which imply a renegotiation of their cultural identity and creative sensibility. In so doing, more or less consciously, these writers use the process of self-translation to translate not only their texts but also their cultural selves into another linguistic and cultural milieu, contesting the idea of a single, self-contained identity and embracing instead the notion of a dialectic, pluricultural self.You can read t

The whole article “Translingual writing and bilingual self- translation as transcultural mediation” published in Traditions and Transitions (Sofia University), here.

I myself have self-translated from Italian into English my transcultural novel The Afrikaner (Guernica, Toronto, 2019), inspired by the five years I spent in South Africa as an international reporter. www.ariannadagnino.com

“The Afrikaner” shortlisted “Best Fiction 2020” by Miramichi Reader

Arianna Dagnino’s THE AFRIKANER shortlisted for ‘BEST BOOK’ by Miramichi Reader. “Best Fiction” is the most popular category at The Miramichi Reader. Here are the seven “Best Fiction” titles of 2020:

“Side by Side” by Anita Kushwaha (Inanna Publications)

“The Afrikaner” by Arianna Dagnino (Guernica Editions, guest post at “Consumed by Ink” by James Fisher).

“Some People’s Children by Bridget Canning” (Breakwater Books)

“The Tender Birds” by Carole Giangrande (Inanna Publications)

“A Song From Faraway” by Deni Ellis Béchard (Goose Lane Editions)

“Lay Figures” by Mark Blagrave (Nimbus Publishing)

“All I Ask” by Eva Crocker (House of Anansi Press)

Of the above seven titles, three will be awarded either gold, silver, or bronze award early in September 2020. The entire longlist can be seen here.

Arianna Dagnino’s website: https://www.ariannadagnino.com/

Finding oneself on the wrong side of history

Alan Twigg’s review of my novel The Afrikaner in the spring issue of “BC Booklook” goes to the core of the predicament faced by the protagonist of the story, Zoe du Plessis, a young female scientist (33) who grew up in South Africa in a deeply entrenched white family: “Zoe is little concerned with money, status or personal appearance. Instead she seeks belonging.”

Later on, Twigg thus describes and comments on Zoe’s field expedition in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia in a hunt for fossils and for herself: “In the field, near an encampment of twenty some Bushmen people, in charge of men under strenuous circumstances, able to have a brief shower only once a week, Zoe proceeds to explore her place in South African society, contemporary and otherwise, with a candour that makes The Afrikaner increasingly engaging.”

At the end of his review Twigg hints at the film transposition of Zoe’s story, which would allow to show southern Africa’s majestic beauty, its cultural complexity and historical fault lines.

You can read the whole review here:


Arianna Dagnino, The Afrikaner. A Novel  (Guernica, 2019)

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: https://www.ariannadagnino.com/post/bilingual-writers-self-translation-and-the-stylistic-revolution

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). www.ariannadagnino.com

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXmKFWMLgKM
Book at Guernica’s Website: https://www.guernicaeditions.com/title/9781771833578
Book Website: https://blogs.ubc.ca/afrikaner/
Listen to Chapter 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rogbi6kmmkw&feature=youtu.be

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.”


Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXmKFWMLgKM

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: https://medium.com/authors-what-are-you-reading/what-are-you-reading-right-now-with-arianna-dagnino-75bd82bbb052