Narratives of translators: the translational function of prisoner writing

Eleanor March

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Prison is a marginal space that is hidden from society, and life writing by prisoners thus offers valuable insights into prison life. This paper examines prisoner writing, as a genre neglected by academia, focusing on how the prisoner-writer describes imprisonment to the non-prisoner reader. My analysis explores Davies’s (1990. Writers in Prison. Oxford: Blackwell) assertion that prisoner writing represents an act of translation. Drawing on Doloughan’s (2016. English as a Literature in Translation. London: Bloomsbury) description of ‘narratives of translation’ that stem from multilingual and multicultural life experiences, I theorise that the prisoner-writer can be likened to a translator. In exploring this assertion, I employ archival research to compile a corpus of short stories about prison, written by UK prisoners, and published via periodicals and competitions. My reading of these texts centres on the presence of diegetic translators who fulfil a translational role, describing prison life to other characters and to the non-prisoner reader. I produce a typology of these translators, and examine how they establish their authority and credibility to translate prison life, to understand how prisoner-writers conceive of the carceral authorial process. My analysis offers further evidence of the translational function of prisoner writing, and demonstrates the value of reading life writing through the lens of translation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalLife Writing
Early online date30 Jul 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • British literature
  • Prison writing
  • contemporary literature
  • short story
  • translation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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