Translingual Writers, Multilingual Texts?


In 2000, Stephen G. Kellman’s The Translingual Imagination saw the light of day. With his book, Kellman was able to name and make visible a large group of writers from different languages and continents, who were united by the fact that they wrote in a language other than their “mother tongue”, “native language”, “L1”, or whatever name we may wish to give this problematic yet powerful concept of a “first” language.

Since then, literary translingualism has grown into a field of research on both sides of the Atlantic, and the idea of translingualism as something relevant for literary studies served as the starting point for the international symposium “Inverted Runes: New Perspectives on Literary Translingualism”, held September 4-5th at Uppsala University, Sweden.

At the symposium, Kellman himself was one of the key note speakers, and in his lecture he posed the crucial question: “Does translingualism matter?” This, indeed, was a question that lingered over the thought-provoking symposium that counted scholars from the Nordic countries, Europe and the United States. The answer, however, varied according to focus: If we ask if translingualism matters for the writer, most papers showed that yes, it certainly does. But if we ask if translingualism matters for the languages of the literary text that the writer produces – and, in consequence, if there is somehow a way to distinguish between texts written by translinguals and “non-translinguals” – things instantly become more problematic.

The symposium made visible the diversity of the field, both in terms of terminology and aims. While “translingualism” as a concept was coined by Kellman with regard to the writer, it has also been deployed in the context of the literary text, for example describing linguistic features that bear traces of “other” languages. Scholars that primarily focus on the linguistic variation of the texts (regardless of possible translingualism on the part of the author), however, often seem to prefer multilingualism as a term, if they (like yours truly) are not on the look-out for new, more supple terms that would be able to do justice to the often subtle, not easily categorizable linguistic variation that literary texts display.

Rebecka Walkowitz, the symposium’s other key note speaker and author of the brand new Born Translated. The Contemporary Novel in an age of World Literature (Columbia University Press 2015), opened up several new paths for research to come in her lecture. Walkowitz showed the need for a combination of close reading – that is, looking at how the texts themselves, by linguistic and literary means, make themselves out to be translations, for instance – and a panoramic view of the field – that is, analyzing how books today move between languages and audiences and are, in fact, written for translation. Walkowitz also brought forth the idea of partial fluency to be seen not as a flaw but as condition for reading in today’s globalized world.

The diversity, or perhaps tension, between trans- and multilingualism or between author- or text-centered study apparent during the symposium is, I argue, not to be seen as a sign of weakness. Instead, it is a sign of a field (or two fields? That remains to be seen) of research expanding and solidifying itself by becoming more varied and specific. The future does, I believe, not lie in a shared or streamlined terminology, since translingualism and multilingualism are not synonymous terms but, instead, only partially overlapping concepts that are often in a state of tension with each other.  What the two days in Uppsala made very clear, however, is that translingual or multilingual writers and multilingual texts are not just exceptions to the pre-supposed monolingualism of literature at large, but instead, a substantial, many-facetted and complex aspect of literature itself.