Menu Sidebar

Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s Bilingual Oeuvre: Style, Sin, and the Psychology of Literary Influence

“This year marks the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s English publication — Beckett’s self-translation of his original French play, En Attendant Godot, back into his native language. Godot was not Beckett’s first attempt at French composition; he had begun writing poetry in French as early as 1938 and translated Murphy into French in 1939. But Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s major foray into what would become his career-long routine of composing in French and self-translating into English.”

via The Millions : Beckett’s Bilingual Oeuvre: Style, Sin, and the Psychology of Literary Influence.

Back when I was studying French, before I moved to France, I was also discovering Samuel Beckett. I was fascinated that he had written in a second language, then translated himself back into his mother tongue. Some of the first books I read in French were by Beckett, because his style is very simple.

I lived in France for 28 years (I now live in the UK), and, having become bilingual, was especially interested in authors who write in another language. There are many of them, from Joseph Conrad to Vladimir Nabokov, and even Jack Kerouac, whose first language was Canadian French.

And Milan Kundera, who is Czech, wrote a number of novels in his native language before immigrating to France in 1975. He then oversaw French translations of his works, and now considers those to be the definitive versions of his novels, and, from the 1990s, wrote only in French. He only allows translations from the French versions, not the original Czech texts.

Beckett forged a different identity in French. He famously said that in French, it was “easier to write without style.” He certainly had a unique style, in both French and English.

Audiobook review: Molloy, by Samuel Beckett

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

I have long been a fan of Samuel Beckett’s works. I first discovered him when I was in my early twenties, and soon became an avid reader of his fiction, which ranges from very short works to plays and novels. I was intrigued by the fact that this Irish author, who moved to France where he consorted with James Joyce, among others, decided, after World War II, to write in French. This prompted me to refresh my high-school French in order to read his works in the “original” language.

But Beckett’s choice of language went much further–he translated most of his own writings from French to English, and, when he later wrote in English again, translated those works into French. (Molloy is one of the rare exceptions: Beckett did not translate this novel into English on his own, but worked with Patrick Bowles, who rarely gets credit for this today.) Molloy was Beckett’s “breakout” novel, written in a style that would become his trademark: stark, minimal, even dark at times. Written in the same period as Waiting for Godot, Molloy started Beckett’s career as one of the world’s leading authors of fiction in that post-war period; it was followed by two other novels that are considered to be parts of a trilogy: Malone Dies and The Unnamable.


Writings about Macs, music, and more by Kirk McElhearn