Sorley MacLean was a Scottish poet who worked in Gaelic. This was the language of his poem, Hallaig, about the Highland clearances and how time changes our perception of history. However, he also provided an English translation. Here are the opening stanzas.

Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig

The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
a birch tree, and she has always been

between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-chuirn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a straight, slender young rowan.

In Screapadal of my people
where Norman and Big Hector were,
their daughters and their sons are a wood
going up beside the stream.

In 2002 famed poet Seamus Heaney offered a new translation. In parts, it is markedly different from the original although the broad meaning is preserved. Here is his version of the above text.

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood

There's a board nailed across the window
I looked through to see the west
And my love is a birch forever
By Hallaig Stream, at her tryst

Between Inver and Milk Hollow,
somewhere around Baile-chuirn,
A flickering birch, a hazel,
A trim, straight sapling rowan.

In Screapadal, where my people
Hail from, the seed and breed
Of Hector Mor and Norman
By the banks of the stream are a wood

When I first read the translation, it struck me as almost rude: why would someone, even of Heaney's stature, feel they could do a better job of translating something than the original author?

On reflection, I am not aware of any other instances of a work translated by its original author being re-translated by other writers. Are there any? What additional insight might such re-translations offer?

2 Answers 2


One example is August Strindberg, who translated some of his works into French, and even wrote some original works directly in French. One of the works he translated is The Father, in his transaltion called Le Père, and in a more recent translation Père (at least if I interpret French Wikipedia correctly).

From what I understand from secondary sources, Strindberg's French was passable, but it was hardly of the quality that his translation was as readable as they would have been if someone more capable had done them.

Normal translations usually age, so that a work needs a new translation every fifty years or so, even if the original might only need small adjustments in spelling. Whether this is also true for self-translations is doubtful, but this might also be an issue.

  • Just intrigued -- why do translations age more than the original works? In other words, why is a new translation of a book more necessary every (fifty years) than a new rendering in the original language?
    – Chaim
    Jul 25, 2017 at 14:30
  • @Chaim A good question, one that probably deserves a page of its own rather than as a comment to an answer. A quick, partial answer is that the ideas of what a translation should accomplish should change, and that the language of a translation seems to age much faster than original works.
    – andejons
    Jul 25, 2017 at 15:03
  • 2
    I think readers are more willing to face challenging language in originals rather than in translations. Lots of people read Shakespeare, but how many are willing to read Don Quixote written in Shakespearean English when there's a much more faithful translation into modern English?
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 9, 2020 at 2:10

Heaney, as you have suggested in your third paragraph, was a terrific translator, his finest translation being Beowulf of course.

The role of a translator is critical; translators must know more than the linguistic differences between the languages; they must be able to understand and convey the cultural similarities and differences between the source and the target languages. To do such translation requires more than technical language skills; it requires the ‘right’ awareness of the role of translation and translation issues as well.

In terms of the above passage, I think Heaney hits the right note when he translates it, the conveyance of the poem using a slight re-wording may annoy especially if the original author had not intended it this way but that is never Heany's focus. It is to tell the story from a new perspective.

To borrow his own words, Seamus Heaney, the man and his poetry, forever catches, 'the heart off guard, and blows it open'.

  • 1
    I'm not sure how this answers the question, which was, again, "For works translated by the original author, how common is it for additional translations to exist?" You do a good job of explaining the particular example of the phenomenon that the OP cited, but you do not answer the question as asked.
    – Shokhet
    Jul 21, 2017 at 14:44
  • I think this counts as an answer, and I undeleted it. Perhaps it's not a good answer, but it's an answer nerveless, and the current consensus (rightly or wrongly) is that any sort of answer shouldn't be deleted. While it's true that this answer doesn't cover every instance when a work is translated by the author, it does provide an interesting case study that might be helpful to anyone interested in this question.
    – user111
    Jul 22, 2017 at 18:56
  • @Hamlet This post explains "why," not "how common." Note also the difference between the title of the question (which I mentioned in my comment) and the question body ("What additional insight might such re-translations offer?"). This post actually does a good job of answering the actual question asked; perhaps the question title needs to be changed. -1 removed.
    – Shokhet
    Jul 23, 2017 at 2:23

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