Questions about writing multilingually

Reflections on the “How We Write Multilingually” Round table held at the University of Glasgow on 24 February 2016.

Sarah Stewart
School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures , University of Edinburgh

My initial reflections at the ‘How We Write Multilingually’ round-table were of the usual personal challenges of moving from one language to another and the ceaseless guilt of translation (especially for meticulous academics). We all know there are no perfect translations – hence the need for us translators with our deep knowledge of the frustration and richness of rendering concepts from one language to another. Multilinguals everywhere understand the sensation of being ‘someone else’ when speaking another language. The tools language histories provide us, the grouping of concepts from one language to another, are just wonderfully and irreducibly distinct – this is what language is.

I am a native English and fluent Spanish speaker with a beginner’s knowledge of Te Reo Maori, lately taking my first steps in German and I have long thought of language acquisition as learning to breathe underwater. At first, you are always translating in your head, making foreign concepts fit into familiar frameworks that your language lungs can process. Then you start taking your first breaths in the new linguistic element, becoming more and more adept at ‘using the force’ to muddle through intuitively, as Ben White remembered his old Turkish teacher used to say.

Understanding the shortcomings of translation, acknowledging the multilingual parts of our own identities many of us are forced to erase in academic writing, as well as the power and authority we hold as English language academics became strong themes throughout the discussion. We talked about what place name to employ when all options are politically charged; the loss or gain of originality when work is translated by academics operating in different cultural and linguistic traditions; the power an academic with shaky Arabic still holds over the native Arabic speaking subjects of her research.

The questions that stay with me have mostly to do with challenges that come with the dominance of Anglophone scholarship. At what cost are Spanish, Polish, Italian, Korean or Chinese scholars forced to abandon the marks of their native languages in order to publish as English language scholars? How does the influence of English mask advances made in other places and languages? Who is this scholarship for?

When I was studying as an undergraduate at the University of Auckland a series of seminars in the English department asked the question, who are universities benefitting? In multicultural and multilingual Auckland, who should they benefit? What attitudes and knowledge are students taking back to their communities? In the context of discussions of multilingualism, at what cost are scholars working in ‘international’ languages like English favoured over scholars actually and potentially working in and for communities speaking Samoan, Aymara, Te Reo Maori, Quechua, Gikuyu, Navajo, or Mapuzugun, to name a few?  Esa Aldegheri noted eloquently that knowledge of other languages relevant to research interests, even and especially ‘minority’ languages, gives a scholar within the English academy more power and credibility, yet native speakers of those languages are not afforded this power if they do not also possess effortless fluency in English, as well. Elwira Grossman’s comments as a native Polish scholar working in English made it clear that such people would be forced to bury their linguistic particularity, their strangeness, in order to publish and obtain research funding in the Anglophone scholarly world.

What would scholarship look like if universities and publications were more open to ‘leaving it strange’? What if other linguistic communities had a greater share of cultural prestige and the resources that go with it? A number of years ago, I was involved in a project taking Mapuche resources written in Spanish and translating them into English for a Maori audience. This work was meant to build solidarity and understanding through information sharing between the two indigenous groups but I often felt like a rather ham-fisted intermediary. What rich exchanges would emerge between these two non-western groups if they had the resources to speak and research at length and often without colonising languages always in between? When current issues and histories of linguistic oppression are so apparent, it is difficult to remember that writing in another language is a creative enterprise, that things can be gained as well as lost in translation. And, for me, these gains, these new ideas and ways of representing the world and one’s place in it are what ‘writing strangely’, writing multilingually, makes possible.

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