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Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation, and Culture, edited by Rachael Gilmour and Tamar Steinitz

Reviewed by Georgia Nasseh, University of Oxford

Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation, and Culture, edited by Rachael Gilmour and Tamar Steinitz. London and New York: Routledge, 2018. £110. ISBN: 9781138120532.


Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation, and Culture (2018), edited by Rachael Gilmour and Tamar Steinitz, is criticism that aspires to be what criticism should be. Assuming a strong stance against what is termed the ‘ever-increasing market-driven tendency towards translation and translatability, commensurability and legibility’—notably embodied in the recent work of Rebecca Walkowitz—which demands the use of ‘language that aspires to be any language: the language equivalent of the empty, placeless space–time of late-modernity’, the volume stands firmly on the side of difference (3). By aligning themselves with the ‘critical’, and more importantly, ‘politicized approaches’ to multilingualism and translation (put forward by Brian Lennon and Emily Apter) in an attempt to resist accepted ‘neoliberal models of commensurability and equivalence’, Gilmour and Steinitz recognise that they are operating within a profoundly contested field—and act accordingly (4).

            Yet, this recognition extends itself beyond the current academic debates in and around the field of World Literature. ‘The present moment,’ note the editors in their introduction to Multilingual Currents, ‘is marked by seismic shifts in the world order: the battle lines in political and military conflicts, for example in the Middle East, are not drawn along national borders; the current wave of migration, largely propelled by such crises puts the post-war project of the European Union under extreme stress; this, in turn, may prove as foreshadowing mass migrations to come, as a result of economic instability and climate change.’ (10) Grounded also in the current political climate—one defined, in Paul Bandia’s poignant conclusion to his afterword, by ‘the extreme-right and nationalist wave sweeping across the West’—the volume and the nine essays featured therein acquire a particular sense of urgency (214). Editorial decisions become also political decisions. To invite transnational, interdisciplinary dialogue on the ‘multilingual currents running through a globalized world’ is, ultimately, to posit a much-needed ‘challenge to ideologies of linguistic and cultural purism’ that have gained traction in recent years (10, 214).

            Steven G. Kellman opens the volume with ‘Writer Speaks with Forked Tongue: Interlingual Predicaments’, a thorough survey of the many spatial metaphors that are frequently employed in descriptions of what he terms the ‘translingual situation’—that is, the situation of those ‘writers who write in more than one language or in a language other than their primary one’ (16). Configurations of language—or of the experience of language—as home or as homeland (or, indeed, as homelessness), as a state of in-betweenness or hyphenation, as a militarised or demilitarised no-man’s-land, as a borderland, all feature in Kellman’s nuanced assessment of translingual writers’ relationship with language, particularly in an ‘age of nation-states that confounds language and nationality’ (19). These spatial metaphors are, moreover, recurrent throughout the volume’s subsequent chapters: Christopher Larkosh, in his meditation on Québécois literature, describes Jacques Poulin’s novel Volkswagen Blues (1984) as moving ‘continually between French-language narration and English-language dialogue to explore a particularly North American way of being in/between languages, in the way that French-English border crossers continually blur the boundary between Francophone Québec and the rest of North America’. The protagonist of Suhayl Saadi’s novel Psychoraag (2004), which Rachael Gilmour uses as a case-study in her chapter on ‘Multilingual Scottishness and Its Limits’ is born in Glasgow to Pakistani parents, and is understood as the ‘living antithesis of the supposedly linguistically unified […] fully “at home” neither in English nor in Punjabi’. In Fiona Doloughan’s chapter on ‘Translation as a Motor of Critique and Invention in Contemporary Literature: The Case of Xiaolu Guo’, the Chinese-born writer and film-maker is seen to belong with those ‘who move across cultures, whether voluntarily or out of necessity’ and for whom ‘notions of mobility and displacement, of being subjects in translation, are part of the texture of their lives as well as aspects of the spaces of imagination’ (40, 91, 153). In this sense, Steven G. Kellman’s chapter functions as a keynote for the rest of the volume.

            Rita Wilson, in her chapter on ‘Narrating the Polyphonic City: Translation and Identity in Translingual/Transcultural Writing’, acknowledges the pervasiveness of ‘the spatial rhetoric of ‘in-betweenness’ as a discursive strategy’ for migrant writers in Italy—writers such as Indian-born Laila Wadia and Gabriella Kuruvilla, whose respective novels Amiche per la pelle (2007) and Milano, fin qui tutto benne (2012) she analyses (55). Translation is, here, mobilised as a means by which translingual subjects (embodied in the image of the migrant, who ‘live[s] both inside and outside Italian society’) might negotiate the ‘polyphonic cityscape’ and build, insofar as ‘the goal of learning a shared vernacular is not conformity but community’, networks of solidarity (61, 55, 64).

            On the other hand, ideas of untranslatability are also contemplated in light of community formation by both Carli Coetzee, in relation to the ‘unheard of things’ in NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names (2013), and Polo Belina Moji, in terms of the ‘unsayability’ of the black diasporic experience in Francophone Afropea, as represented in the work of Léonora Miano. Interestingly, both Moji’s and (to a considerable extent) Coetzee’s arguments pivot on the integration of music into the texts of Miano as well as that of Bulawayo: as glossed and unglossed intertextual references to black diasporic or traditional African musical acts in the former’s, and as ‘an untranslated song […] in isiNdebele without English translation’ in the latter’s (132). Indeed, in these two undeniably stand-out chapters, the intersection between the recently-popularised notion of the Untranslatable and music, particularly in diasporic contexts, helps us to think through conceptualisations of untranslatability not merely as provocative exclusion, but also as ‘homeopathic’—to use Emily Apter’s term—and community-forming inclusion.

            Of the untranslated song in NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel, Coetzee powerfully asserts:

The pleasure, which includes the memory of the painful and resistant contexts of the song, draws together those who do know, and do understand. When the song then narrates the loss of family and place, it is crucial that this is done through the African language script, the memory is not for the uninformed reader. She is not included in the memory; and the other readers who do and can remember are—that is precisely the point. […] Those who read the novel as an ‘American’ novel, or a novel written for the pleasure of the imagined ‘American’ reader, miss the crucial point. (143)

This question of intended readership is also taken up by Moradewun Adejunmobi, in her chapter on the uses of mono- and multilingual address in the Nigerian film industry. Through a critical engagement with Walkowitz’s work, and sharing in the awareness of the market’s (whether literary or cinematic) preference for monolingualism, Adejunmobi successfully demonstrates that it is only through the act of subtitling—that is, through the translation of potentially multilingual addresses into monolingual ones, in singular global languages—that films produced in the Global South might participate in circuits of distribution beyond the local (199).

            For all its qualities, Multilingual Currents nevertheless falls victim to a certain terminological inflation, typical of ambitious projects, which may have a detrimental effect on the volume’s accessibility. To illustrate: the terms ‘bilingual’/‘bilingualism’, ‘post-bilingualism’, ‘radical bilingualism’, ‘multilingual’/‘multilingualism’, ‘polylingual’/‘polylingualism’, ‘interlingual’/‘interlingualism’, ‘translingual’/‘translingualism’, ‘panlingual’/‘panlingualism’, and—a personal favourite— ‘anarchic plurilingualism’ are all employed throughout the essays contained in Multilingual Currents with slightly distinct connotations. One wonders to what extent such inflation is the result of (necessary) interdisciplinary dialogues between fields—such as ‘comparative literature, world literature, postcolonial studies, literary theory and criticism, and translation studies’, as indexes the blurb—that are often deaf to one another.