IMLR, 30-31 May 2019

This two-day conference convened a number of scholars specialising in the fields of translingualism and contemporary women’s writing in a series of panel presentations that spanned nations, languages and disciplines. The conference was co-organised by Deirdre Byrnes (NUI Galway), Maria Cristina Seccia (Hull) and Godela Weiss-Sussex (IMLR) and was one of a series of events marking the tenth anniversary of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing having developed from a one-day workshop held in March 2018. It was part funded by the AHRC Open World Research Initiative ‘Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Communities’ (Translingual Strand).

The event commenced with a plenary delivered by Weiss-Sussex introducing concepts, definitions and contexts of translingualism and defining the conference aims. The first keynote speaker was Anna-Louise Milne (University of London in Paris) whose lecture, ‘Metropolitain.e: Language in Compressed Spaces’, focused on the symbol of the Paris Metro and its connections to the compression of the gaze. Central research questions included whether the translingual text must start and spread from the self, and how best to rethink the manifestation of the emancipatory nature of translingual writing. Translingualism, she argued, is a productive type of ‘non-arrival’ rather than a form of integration. Approaching translingual writing from this angle can prove productive in enhancing scholarly understanding of how such texts work.   

In the first panel of the conference, ‘Linguistic Strategy / Poetics of Translingualism’,  Alain Ausoni (Lausanne) started by discussing the works of French-language writer Katalin Molnár, particularly highlighting the benefits of oral pronunciation in understanding her work. In the following paper, Áine McMurtry (KCL) focused on the ‘Annaloge’ in Uljana Wolf’s Meine schönste Lengevitch. As the ‘Annaloge’ are narrated from the perspective of Bertha Pappenhim, a patient of Sigmund Freud, she discussed the relationship between the writing and psychoanalytic practices, specifically suggesting Wolf’s systematic reversal of the male gaze through her structuring of the ‘Annaloge’. The panel concluded with a paper by Claudia Zucca (Trinity College Dublin), who provided an overview of translingual terminology in the context of Amelia Rosselli’s Diario in Tre Lingue/A Diary in Three Languages.

After lunch, the first panel, entitled ‘The Hybrid and the In-Between’, featured papers on bilingualism, biculturalism and belonging in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (Aled Rees, Swansea); queer linguistic trajectories in Erín Moure’s Paraguayan Sea (Ellen Jones, IMLR); the hybrid Jamaican riffs of Erna Brodber’s Myal (Edith Frampton, San Diego), and the role of linguistic difference and transformation in Barbara Pumhösel’s exophonic writing (Alice Loda, Sydney).

The second panel, dedicated exclusively to poet Uljana Wolf, featured papers by Kasia Szymanska (Oxford), Brigitte Rath (Innsbruck) and Christine Ivanovic (Vienna). Topics included the role of naming in the depiction of border crossings in Wolf’s German-Polish poetry (Szymanska), the transformation of female authorship in the context of Wolf’s erasure poetry (Rath), and the connections between Wolf and German-Japanese writer Yoko Tawada and the development of a new concept of ‘homopoetics’ (Ivanovic). Explaining the main impetus of Wolf’s erasure project, Rath showed how the idea of erasure and complementation of text in different languages echoes that of much of the translingual writing considered at this conference: erasing differences between languages and juxtaposing them can lead to new, exciting connections that are open to interpretation, eschewing the definite. As Ivanovic pointed out, this creative openness, characteristic of Wolf’s writing, is supported by what Yoko Tawada referred to as Wolf’s ‘impurity of speech’. As a precondition for understanding writing as translation, impurity and confusion should be seen as constructive and enabling phenomena.

The final panel of the day, ‘Emancipation (and Its Limits)’, included four papers, all of  which raised the central question of the emancipatory capabilities of translingual writing. Mary Wardle (Sapienza, Rome) focused on Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to switch from her English mother-tongue to write solely in Italian. Identifying Lahiri’s Italian-language style as more basic than when she writes in English, Wardle raised questions of how such a linguistic shift affects both author and reader. Mark D. Lee (Mount Allison, Canada) examined the French-language works of Appanah and Sinha, paying close attention to what he called ‘the illusion of invisibility’. He identified the power of languages in paving paths to freedom, while at the same time highlighting the existence of cultural biases that favour some languages over others.

Núria Codina (Leuven) followed with a discussion of multilingualism and gender in the writings of Najat El Hachmi and Chika Unigwe. Discussing mother-daughter relationships and focusing specifically on the relationship between orality and literacy, Codina indicated her authors’ associations of orality (or illiteracy) with tradition, and literacy with modernity. She concluded by exploring the conflict that emerges from the absence of communication between generations, depicted most explicitly by Unigwe, and the role of writing in resolving this conflict. Both authors, she argued, can be seen as giving voices to unconventional women who break from tradition. Finally, Jeannine Woods (Galway) discussed the role of Irish folklore in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Dún na mBan trí Thine, which, due to mixed presences of Irish and English, raised questions of the role of tradition in contemporary Ireland.

To conclude the day, conference participants, as well as translators and other members of the public, gathered for a special reading and conversation with Katja Petrowskaja, a native Russian speaker and author of the German-language text Vielleicht Esther, and her American translator, Shelley Frisch. The discussion, chaired by Weiss-Sussex, centred on Petrowskaja’s experience navigating the German language, as well as on the difficulties that Frisch encountered in the process of translating her work into English. The distinction between ‘lost in translation’ versus ‘found in translation’ in translingual texts such as Petrowskaja’s was discussed at length; Petrowskaja’s use of German and other languages could be seen as an effort to find in translation her family’s history. The translator, Frisch, also characterised the translation process as a ‘grappling for language’ (native or otherwise) and highlighted the challenges resulting from the disconnect between her having to read in German and write in English. For Germanists and non-Germanists alike, the opportunity to engage with both Petrowskaja and Frisch offered a practical first-hand perspective on translingual techniques and challenges, which were analysed over the course of the conference.

The second day commenced with another parallel panel session. The first panel, which focused on the works of Yoko Tawada, featured papers by Marko Pajevic (Tartu), Beata Migut (Edinburgh), Lauren Dooley (Cambridge), and Katharina Walter (Innsbruck). The papers raised questions of reader accessibility, the positioning of grammar within translingual writing, the relationship between tradition and modernity, and the role of cross-medial interaction in her works. Across the panel, the emphasis on Tawada’s relational ethics were emphasised – as a concept that replaces the interest in the subjective and the ‘authentic self’. It is the awareness and presentation of different worldviews in different languages that lies at the heart of Tawada’s writing. Tawada’s strategies for achieving this were discussed and the question of translatability raised.

The second panel, ‘Language and Identity’, began with a paper by Deirdre Byrnes (Galway) on Katja Petrowskaja’s exploration and negotiation of identity both across and beyond languages. Focusing on the use of German in connection with depictions of the experiences of the Holocaust, Byrnes indicated the role of German in breaking the silence surrounding those events in such a way that universalises trauma. Gigliola Sulis (Leeds) examined the representation of multilingual, translingual, and transnational female lives in Laura Pariani’s Quando Dio ballava il tango and Mariangela Sedda’s Oltremare, two Italian narratives of migration to Argentina. In both texts, in which regional Italian dialects as well as Spanish intersperse the standard Italian, translingualism reflects both outer and inner influences as well as notions of regional belonging. Both works also include untranslated songs, which serve to complement the coexistence of languages throughout. In the final presentation, Jean Andrews (Nottingham) discussed the trilingual voices (Portuguese, French, and Spanish) present in the poetry of Maria Valupi. Focusing on the stylistic differences between poems in different languages, Andrews showed how Valupi’s engagement with translingual writing serves to express her wide experience with languages and her desire to be a citizen of the world, as well as providing a means of escaping patriarchal oppression.

The second keynote was delivered by Rebecca Walkowitz (Rutgers), author of Born Translated. Her talk, entitled ‘Lahiri, Tawada, and the New Migrant Novel’, focused on the notion of ‘not knowing’ as a means to increase the visibility of conflict and cooperation between languages. This ‘not knowing’ can also be seen as a rejection of the obligation to produce a secondary language perfectly, as well as an abandonment of loyalty to the mother tongue. Walkowitz used this concept in her analysis of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, asking to what extent the author sees Italian as a language to be known, perfected, and therefore owned. With regards to Tawada, Walkowitz highlighted the tension that results from Tawada’s production of the same text in both Japanese and German, which results in the dual function of texts as both originals and translations. The important question of genre indicators in Tawada’s titles was also raised. The designation, for instance, of ‘Etüden’ (Etüden im Schnee; German original) places the text in a very different context to that of ‘memoir’ (Memoirs of a Polar Bear; English translation).

The conference’s penultimate panel was ‘Autobiography’. Tom Vanassche (Freiburg) began with a talk focusing on the destabilisation of reference in the works of Ruth Klüger. Highlighting the differences between narrative emphathy (consideration of the self) and emotional contagion (control over another), Vanassche showed how the destabilisation of reference that occurs in Klüger’s autobiographical works (that is, through her use of pseudonyms to speak of real people) becomes a means of controlling empathy. Agata Lagiewka (Galway) then spoke about Eva Hoffman, Elena Lappin, and the relationship between language use, memory and representation. She specifically focused on the relationship between language and post-memory, as well as the effect of this relationship on narrative temporality. To wrap up the panel, Eglė Kačkutė (Vilnius) discussed the connections between bilingual writing and translingual motherhood in the works of Nancy Huston. Connecting her analysis with Huston’s biography and Julia Kristeva’s understanding of  the mother-child bond as preserved through language, Kačkutė argued for the enabling role of the ‘stepmother tongue’ to overcome trauma associated with the biological mother tongue.

The final panel of the conference, entitled ‘Translingualism and the Visual Arts’, featured talks on the importance of media choice and intermediality in conjunction with translingual practices. Anna Saroldi (Oxford) began by discussing the poetry of Jorie Graham and Amelia Rosselli. Centering on the use of words such as ‘campo’ – which, in Italian, could mean either ‘field’ or ‘cinematographic shot’ – Saroldi suggested that such language reflects the simultaneous linguistic struggles of both writer and reader. She, thus, linked intermediality with the linguistic status of the translingual writer, and proposed that intermediality should be seen as a tool for overcoming linguistic barriers and enabling more immediate communication. Youna Kwak (Pomona College) presented a paper on the role of a neutral ‘third’ language (French) in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Classifying Cha’s ‘errors’ as challenges to hegemony, Kwak suggested that the use of French in place of her native-Korean or English is a means of frustrating the linearity of Cha’s border crossings. Pointing also to the role of the ‘dictée’ in French pedagogy, Kwak argued that the novel serves as a record of errors, as well as of a failed paradigm.

Dobrochna Futro (Glasgow) spoke about Monika Szydłowska’s Do You Miss Your Country?, a volume consisting of watercolor images coupled with either Polish or English text. Citing Facebook posts as examples, Szydłowska pointed out that the text resulted from a collaboration between writer and reader – the writer turned to her Facebook followers to translate between Polish and English. The relationship between image and word, she argued, could be said to foster a tone of self-othering. Nafiseh Mousavi (Växjö) also focused on the relationship between image and word, centering specifically on the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi. Citing Persepolis as a specific example, she demonstrated the potential for translingualism to perform multimodally, as well as the role of translingualism in cultural transposition within multimodal comics. She argued that the mother tongue is a fluid entity in a translingual context, both in the sense that movement occurs between languages, as well as in the sense that movement occurs within the mother tongue itself.

By bringing together such a diverse group of scholars from across languages, nations and specialities, ‘Across Languages’ was a productive two days for the advancement of academic perspectives on translingualism. It demonstrated that exophonic writing should no longer be seen as an attempt to master another language and that the ‘impurity’ of language is a positive rather than a negative development in contemporary writing. The use of the term ‘stepmother tongue’ rather than ‘mother tongue’ also pointed to the important linguistic distinctions to be made between the agency of adopting a language versus the acceptance of a ‘natural’ first language. While much work remains to be done in the field of translingual women’s writing, the conference showed just how far scholarship has already come in understanding cross-linguistic contact in literature and its benefits for the female writer.

Lauren Dooley, University of Cambridge