The Translingual Imagination

The Translingual Imagination

The Translingual Imagination

The Translingual Imagination

Synopsis

It is difficult to write well even in one language. Yet a rich body of translingual literature-by authors who write in more than one language or in a language other than their primary one--exists. The "Translingual Imagination" is a pioneering study of the phenomenon, which is as ancient as the use of Arabic, Latin, Mandarin, Persian, and Sanskrit as linguae francae. Colonialism, war, mobility, and the aesthetics of alienation have combined to create a modern translingual canon.

Opening with an overview of this vast subject, Steven G. Kellman then looks at the differences between ambilinguals--those who write authoritatively in more than one language--and monolingual translinguals--those who write in only one language but not their native one. Kellman offers compelling analyses of the translingual situations of African and Jewish authors and of achievements by authors as varied as Antin, Beckett, Begley, Coetzee, Conrad, Hoffman, Nabokov, and Sayles. While separate studies of individual translingual authors have long been available, this is the first in-depth study of the general phenomenon of translingual literature.

Excerpt

What song did the Sirens sing? Homer never tells us, perhaps because they did not sing in Greek. Not the least barbaric fact about the anthropophagous race of Cyclops is that they probably spoke an alien tongue. Wily Odysseus, who managed to cajole reluctant Philoctetes into joining the bloody battle at Troy, must have been adept at languages. In order to talk his way—sans dictionary or dragoman—past Circe, Calypso, the Phaiakians, the Lotus Eaters, and the Lastrygonians, this wandering king of Ithaca, this master of all ways of contending, surely must have had to pick up some of the native lingo of the places to which he traveled. Yet as far as Homer is concerned, the Mediterranean is a monolingual sink. It is all Greek to him.

Not every author has been as blind to the variety of human languages, however. Before he lost his sight, it is said, John Milton had read every book in every language that was then available in Europe, early in the age of printing. We do know that he wrote capably not merely in English but in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, too. Yet the Babel myth, in one version or another, is among the oldest stories told in many cultures. According to Choctaw legend, everyone on Earth spoke Choctaw until arrogant humans tried to construct a mound that would touch the heavens. And once upon a time, before haughty authors climbed up ivory towers, the job of a translator was as incomprehensible as that of editor or literary agent. There probably never was an Ur-Ianguage, a perfect primal tongue that sufficed for the entire human race. But nostalgia for it, along with the moot premise that international conflict would vanish if only we all shared a common lexicon, accounts for the invention of Esperanto, Volapük, Ido, Langu Universelle, Bopal, Spelin, Dil, Balta, Veltparl, and other artificial languages. Like sex . . .

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