The Self-Translated Author: Samuel Beckett

Published on Apr 1, 2019

by Kali Faulwetter

Samuel Beckett
13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
- Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett is regarded famously as the self-translated author of the 21st century. He is famous for a number of popular literary works, including Waiting for Godot and Watt. If he was unable to translate his work himself, he was known to supervise the translation of his work as a consultant. Ever the friend of the translation community, Samuel Beckett allowed his love for translation to play a pivotal role in his training as a writer, author, critic, and playwright. A Nobel Prize winner for literature, he wrote in both French and English.

  • Beckett began translating in 1930 but officially began publishing duplicate bilingual versions of each text in 1955. Most of his work was written in French first, then translated into English by his own hand.

  • With a literary career starting in the late 1920s, Samuel Beckett did not reach international acclaim until the publishing of Waiting for Godot in 1952. Written originally in French, of course, Beckett quickly translated this work into English to increase its already growing popularity - a pattern that he would continue until his death.

  • Waiting for Godot was first performed in Paris in 1953. 1955 would mark the opening of the English version in London. The English rendition was reviewed to be puzzling to some, under Peter Hall’s direction - a vision that emphasized silence and repetition. Some believe the play was unremarkable, some gushed that the play had changed the rules of theater entirely.

  • Beckett was no stranger to controversy. At the core of his work was a courageous pessimism, dissecting humanity’s relationship with God. In Beckett’s work, the desperate could find new life in despair. As he wrote in his novel, The Unnamable, 'You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.''

  • Almost in spite of the seemingly bleak nature of his writing, Beckett himself was a man of great humor and compassion. The installation of wit amongst the stagnation of his subject matters allows the reader to find hope among fragile banality. Many scholars and critics searched for metaphorical analysis within his work, but he consistently refused to explain any ulterior meaning that may be found in his work.
Samuel Beckett, at the height of his career, was closely aligned to existentialism by literary critics. His innovative style also grouped his work into the modernist avant-garde movement and although his bilingual talents were largely ignored by the general populace in comparison to his literary achievements, fans of Beckett were much wiser. Beckett Translating/ Translating Beckett, edited by Allan Warren Friedman in 1987 was published, exposing Samuel Beckett as the self-translating linguistic genius that he is. The ability to self-translate not only allowed Beckett to utilize a whole new medium of creativity for the same work but allowed him a level of autonomy over his art that few other authors can enjoy.

Samuel Beckett in numbers:


1969
The year Beckett’s accomplishments in drama and fiction landed him the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

83
The birthday year that marked his last known printed work, “Stirrings Still”. The piece was published as a limited edition. In this work a character who resembles Beckett sits in a cell-like room seeing his double appear then disappear. 

4
Number of full-length stage plays Beckett wrote: En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), Fin de partie (Endgame), Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Days.

For more on Samuel Beckett, click here.



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