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Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas by Ellen Jones

Reviewed by Lúcia Collischonn, University of Warwick

Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas, Ellen Jones. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. Price: £108.00. ISBN: 9780231203029.


A recent publication, Ellen Jones’s Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas (2022) is already making waves in the world of literary translation studies and multilingualism. Recently, the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) hosted a talk with Jones introducing some of the ideas in her book, and the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) Research Centre hosted an online discussion  with the author on 16 May. Such a success is proof of the gap Jones’s study addresses. Written by a prolific translator and academic, the book explores theories of multilingualism and translation with practical examples and foregrounds a way of thinking about multilingual texts as texts that are not untranslatable, but rather demand translation. As the title suggests, Jones focuses on examples of multilingualism in literature of the Americas, bringing cases from South and Central America into dialogue with cases from the North of the continent. While cases of multilingual literature in the United States often centre on the Latinx community, much of multilingualism in Latin America tends to be forgotten. In this volume, Jones sheds light on examples of multilingual writing and possibilities for its translation across the whole continent, foregrounding texts that have not yet been the focus of academic study. 

             The book is structured into an introduction, three chapters, and a coda. In the introduction, Jones outlines the structure of the book, broaching some of the terminology that she uses throughout the publication. The introduction is focused also on explaining the concept of ‘literature in motion’, featured in the title of the book. The concept of motion, as opposed to the static and fixed, and relating to fluidity and malleability, is, according to the author, a common thread in conceptualisations of both multilingualism and translation, bringing the two creative practices closer. The author also introduces us to several portmanteau terms that will be referred to throughout the book: ‘Spanglish’, ‘Portunhol’, ‘Frenglish’. The author briefly points out the different currencies such terms have in their contexts, and why these are important for her analysis. For example, Jones discusses the use of Spanglish in multilingual US American literature, borrowing the concept of ‘borderlands’ from Gloria Anzaldúa, while also critiquing the ease of reading that some Chicano and Latinx authors provide for the Anglo-monolingual reader. Jones then proposes to look at examples of new multilingual writing in these contexts: works that destabilise fast-reading practices, and make the reader slow down by actively engaging with the multilingual at different levels. Contemporary multilingual texts are also pointed out as having a few often-recurring features: they have a commitment to slow and difficult reading, a debt to orality, metatextuality, and an unfinished/unfinalisable status. 

             The core of this book can be summarised by this excerpt from the introduction:

Translation need not—as is often assumed—undermine or eliminate the diversity, complexity, and subversive potential of multilingualism. On the contrary, the two creative practices are closely intertwined, to the extent that translation is always to some extent implied in multilingual writing. (2)

Jones furthers Rebecca Walkowitz’s (2017) notion of texts that are ‘born translated’. However, she applies it to specific multilingual texts and the attempts at translating them by keeping this multilingual feature alive with varying levels of success. It is with the examples of contemporary multilingual texts at the end of the introduction that Jones brings about three main ways of thinking about multilingual writing: namely as palimpsest, as a form of censorship, and as a queer practice.

             In Chapter 1, Jones explores the concept of palimpsests in multilingual writing and translation through what she calls Susana Chávez-Silverman’s ‘palimpsestuous writing’. Using the OED definition of a palimpsest, ‘[a] parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another’, Jones claims that, similarly, Chávez-Silverman’s writing is layered and fluid in different ways—modal, genre, and textual—and invites translation, even when it might seem to be untranslatable. In Part I, the author outlines the different types of palimpsests (namely, linguistic, sonic, textual, and creative/critical), focusing more closely on Chávez-Silverman’s Axolotl Crónica (2004). In Part II, she uses her own experience of translating the aforementioned text as a basis for a proposal on how to translate such palimpsestuous, multilingual texts. 

             Chapter 2 is centred on the concept of ‘blanks’ and pseudotranslations. In the first part, Jones focuses on examples of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) in which blank spaces say more about the narrative and cultural/linguistic references than the multilingualism of the surface text may suggest. She then explores the idea that Oscar Wao is a work of pseudotranslation. Jones argues that Wao contains the trope of ‘páginas en blanco’ or blank pages—that is, censored content that readers may or may not uncensor themselves. Through the use of translation as a narrative device, pseudotranslation creates the suggestion of these blank spaces, these censored unsaids. The translations of Oscar Wao into Spanish by Achy Obejas have two different titles and differ slightly from each other. One, entitled La maravillosa vida breve de Óscar Wao (2009) was published for the European and Latin American markets, whereas the other, La Breve y Maravillosa Vida de Óscar Wao (2008) was published for the North-American market, specifically for a Spanish-speaking audience. The chapter ultimately argues, through its analysis of two versions of Obejas’s translation , that translating a text such as Wao works by partially uncensoring it as well as by creating new blank spaces. 

             With Chapter 3 Jones broaches the important issue of queer textual practices applied to the specific case of Giannina Braschi’s bilingual novel Yo-Yo Boing! (1998) and its attempted monolingual translation into English by Tess O’Dwyer (2011). Due to the way Spanish and English are used throughout the novel, she defines Yo-Yo Boing! as queer practice because it sets out to transgress, it resists fixity and transparency, and is queer in its indeterminacy. Any translation that makes this text more fixed, determined, and transparent is thus unqueering Braschi’s writing. Jones uses the example of O’Dwyer as one of such unqueering practices, which no longer challenge normative monolingual discourse. However, the author concedes that both texts are complex and could be seen as collaborating with one another, and her proposal is ultimately that translation is in itself a condition of textual production, thus disrupting the typical hierarchy between original and translation. 

             In Chapter 4, Jones explores the idea of borders and fluidity when applied to the trilingualism of Wilson Bueno’s Mar Paraguayo (1992) and its transgressive translation, Paraguayan Sea, into Frenglish (and Guaraní) by Erín Moure (2017). Jones demonstrates that the fluidity of the  trilingual and translational text by Bueno is not only in that of genre, but also in that of its content and concepts. Then, she explores what she calls this volume’s ‘most powerful example yet of a translation that is multilingual, creative, and fluid, and which interacts with the source text in ways that enhance and extend it’ (34). Through Moure’s positionality towards her translator’s subjectivity, wherewith she draws upon Canadian feminist and queer translation traditions, Jones proposes that translation may be seen as ‘productive and original, rather than derivative and secondary’ (34). 

             The short coda that concludes the volume is a summary of the examples presented by Jones seen in practice, in the context of editing two volumes for the literary journal Asymptote. In these volumes, Jones dealt with source and target texts that are multilingual, transgressive, not ‘well-behaved’ within and conforming to a monolingual paradigm, not unlike those presented in the chapters of Literature in Motion. According to the author, ‘translation can help retain and even supplement a text’s complexity and indeterminacy’ (194). Concluding her powerful analysis, Jones proposes that in today’s highly globalised world this type of multilingual writing, constantly in transit, is increasingly present. Placing such multilingual texts in dialogue with translation as something that complements and furthers their unfinished and unbound nature is, as defended in this book, one of the ways the study of multilingual literature can move forwards.

             This is a powerful monograph brimming with rich theoretical discussions. It shows the immense breadth of knowledge Jones has as a translator and a translation studies scholar. At the same time, it is highly engaging and Jones applies the ideas she puts forth to real-world textual practices, fluidly establishing a dialogue between originals and translations. With this book, the author very strongly proves her main points while also opening spaces for discussion at every juncture. Jones’s book has already proven to be worthy of a coveted position in the libraries of anyone studying literary multilingualism and translation. As the author herself puts it:

It is likely that this kind of writing will become even more widespread in coming years (...). Increasingly, both writers and readers will have to be translators—they will have to jump on the already moving train and see where it takes them. (194)