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The translingual imagination (review)

The Translingual Imagination. By Steven G. Kellman. Pp xii + 134. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Hb.

© Anthony Pym 2000  
Review written for Translation & Literature, but I think I'll mix it in with a review of some Spanish books (this one doesn't merit a review to itself)


This is an essay about ‘authors who write in more than one language or at least in a language other than their primary one’ (ix). Steven K. Kellman, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, San Antonio, has assembled a significant collection of such authors, almost all in the twentieth century, almost all working into English, and has attempted to fit them under the rubric of a special ‘translingual imagination’. The first chapter establishes that there are rather a lot of such authors; the second asks why this should be so; and the rest of the book is a series of case studies that might have been first written for other purposes (no selection criterion is offered). The studies include anecdotes of African translingualism, J.M Coetzee as reader of Beckett, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation compared with the earlier and more optimistic Promised Land by Mary Antin, the novels of Louis Begley—apparently because he was a Jew born in Poland—, John Sayles’s decision to make a film in Spanish rather than English, and a brief summation in philosophical colours. 
 The topic is important and remains inadequately studied (the only significant previous book dealing with the general phenomenon is perhaps Leonard Forster’s The Poet’s Tongues of 1970). Translingualism should rightly be of interest to scholars of literary translation, if only because many translators could be described in terms of a similar ‘translingual imagination’. But this is not yet the book we deserve. 

Kellman’s essay does suggest an underlying historical thesis: when you line up Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett and Rushdie, second-language writers become a fact of Modernism, with aesthetic consequences. Then again, looking at the biographies, these writers belong to specific groups caught up in migrations and exile. It thus remains possible that anything affecting the literary comes from social displacements and not immediately from any privileged or generalized imagination. Yet Kellman seems uninterested in sorting such things out. We do find inklings of sociolinguistic categories, notably the distinction between ‘ambilinguals’ (those who have written important works in more than one language’) and ‘monolingual translinguals’ (who have written only in a language other than their primary one) (12). But that comes to no fruition, dangling in want of a clear independent variable, then squashed under lists of examples mixing both sides. 

Kellman appears more immediately happy pinning together easy generalizations like the following: ‘If identity is shaped by language, then monolingualism is a deficiency disorder’ (viii); ‘for those who live in and through words, living in translation is to be racked between life and death’ (5), ‘the compulsion to conquer multiple grammars might be a symptom of megalomania’ (37); ‘by changing tongues, authors flirt with silence’ (113), and a lot more. It is not easy to extract anything coherent from these propositions. Second-language writers are quite normal people in one place, occupy a suicidal position in another, then they are megalomaniacs, and finally they risk losing speech. The admixture of translation as yet another cheap metaphor (‘lost in translation’, etc.) helps no one. 
Perhaps the real risk behind this way of doing academic business is that everything and everyone becomes philosophically translingual, and yet the mode of argumentation (the lists of names) really needs a series of ‘special case’ scenarios. Kellman knows that most of the world is at least bilingual; he is well aware that the special case is Anglo-American monolingualism. But he still wants us to be surprised at the fact that people can write well in more than one language. Perhaps he himself is genuinely surprised: he seems more or less restricted to reading English-language texts, with only very occasional glances to snippets of French and German (plus minor mistakes in Spanish on pages 7, 18, 104). So is an Anglo-American subject perhaps the one ultimately amazed at what is quite normal for much of the world?  There is indeed a strong counter-argument to translingualism here, identified as ideological monolingualism yet associated not with Anglo-American culture but with quite a significant line-up of thinkers: Yeats, Jefferson, Eliot, Goethe and Santayana all believed that one could only express oneself completely in one’s first language, to whom might be added Romantic aesthetics en bloc, Wagner’s anti-semitism, the linguistic relativism of Humboldt-Sapir-Whorf, and latter-day nationalists of all orders. There is thus room for real debate. Yet Kellman’s own position remains built on lists of names, all possibly exceptions, and perhaps all necessarily exceptions (since great writers are still supposed to be special people). Those lists culminate in a few fragile summations like the impossibility of attaining ‘universal comprehension’ (115) (but who has the comprehension needed to judge such things?), plus sporadically stupid rhetorical questions: ‘The Sapir-Whorf thesis, the principle of linguistic relativity, haunts translinguals; otherwise, why would they bother to switch languages?’ (53). 

Why bother, indeed? Just looking at the examples mustered here, one might say writers switch languages in order to gain prestige (most switches are into the major colonial languages), to reach a wider audience, to address a more specialized audience, or as a part of personal histories of migration. True, there are cases like Beckett, who ostensibly moved to French in order to obtain a more austere, distanced style. Yet there seems little reason why such writerly motivations should weigh more heavily than the rest of the world. Kellman does not consider the dynamics of internationalized publishing, nor translingual reception patterns, as if literature were a direct result of authors’ personal backgrounds and nothing more. Indeed, if some account had been offered of multilingual readerships, the role of translation might have been more focused. The fact that Kellman only looks for writerly reasons suggests that he himself is more haunted by ideologies of natural mother tongues than are many of his translingual writers. 
The shortcomings of this book would feed into the general complaint that Comparative Literature is little more than a display of erudition, if only there were a little more erudition in sight. There are no careful translingual comparisons, in fact virtually no close readings of any kind. Such things would have been useful in the chapter on Begley especially, where there is much talk about style but no examples. 

Translation plays a very marginal and contradictory role in this essay. At one point Coetzee is approvingly cited as saying that translation privileges one language over another and is thus ‘not synonymous with translingualism’ (54) (as if most writers’ moves from one language to another were not questions of privilege). However, the book ends with a stock reference to Walter Benjamin (‘All translations aspire to pure language’), which then allows translation to become ‘a function of translingualism, which in general shares that futile aspiration’ (115). The failure to reconcile such statements remains upsetting. And of course, immediately after the futile Benjamin quote, we have standard futile Wittgenstein: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. Happily, Kellman accepts the truth of that statement and finishes his book there.

Last update 17 April 2001  

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