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In this interview we talk to Steven G. Kellman, the author of Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism

Nimble Tongues is a collection of essays that continues the author’s work in the fertile field of translingualism, focusing on the phenomenon of switching languages.


Q: Could you explain the concept of literary translingualism?

Steven G. Kellman: Literary translingualism is the phenomenon of writers who write in an acquired language. It includes writers who switch from a native language and write exclusively in another language – e.g, Joseph Conrad (who wrote in his third language, English, rather than Polish or French), Aharon Appelfeld (Hebrew rather than German), and Ha Jin (English rather than Chinese). And it includes writers who write in more than one language – e.g., Samuel Beckett (English and French), Vladimir Nabokov (Russian, French, and English), and Yoko Tawada (German and Japanese). Literary translingualism is as ancient as the writers of antiquity who employed the imperial languages of Latin, Persian, or Sanskrit rather than their native vernaculars. And it is as current as the wave of immigrants who are enriching contemporary literature with texts written in the languages of their adopted homes.

Q: Why do you feel that it is an important concept to study?

Kellman: There is an intrinsic literary value to translingual texts written by Apuleius, Petrarch, Rainer Maria Rilke, Fernando Pessoa, Isak Dinesen, Edwidge Danticat, and other outstanding authors. Any reader can appreciate how very difficult it is to write well in one’s first language – and marvel at the achievements of those who excel in a second, third, or even fourth language. However, linguistic switching also raises compelling questions about the relationships among language, thought, and identity. If, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” writers who switch languages free themselves from the limitations of one world, only to place themselves within the limits of another world. The choice of language is not a trivial matter; it determines the text. After Ariel Dorfman wrote his memoir Heading South, Looking North in English, he duplicated the feat in Spanish, as Rumbo al Sur, deseando el Norte. However, it was not exactly a translation as much as a reconception – of the autobiographical project and of the self that is its subject. There are certain themes, moods, and thoughts that come more easily to André Brink when he writes in Afrikaans than when he writes in English.

Q: Perhaps uniquely, you mention that no one scholar can possibly claim mastery in the field, could you expand on that?

Kellman: No one researcher possesses the linguistic equipment or energy to exhaust the study of translingual literature. If there are approximately 5,000 languages in the world, the number of translingual possibilities would equal 5,000 X 4,499 ÷ 2 = 12,497,500. And that is only calculating the number of bilingual translingual possibilities; authors who, like Kamala Das, Vladimir Nabokov, and George Steiner, move among three or more languages add even more possibilities to the challenge of mapping out the universe of translingual literature. Not even the most formidable polylingual scholars of comparative literature such as René Wellek or Erich Auerbach are equipped to master the field. The burgeoning study of translingual literature is a collective effort, pursued through books, dissertations, journals, and conferences throughout the world. Scholars approach it through the lenses of comparative literature, linguistics, language pedagogy, psychology, postcolonial studies, and other disciplines.

Q: Taking all of this into account, how do you feel this title contributes to the field of study?

Kellman: Nimble Tongues expands on earlier work I have done in The Translingual Imagination (2000) and Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (2003). Standing on the backs of giants, I have benefited from the growing community of specialists in translingual literature I have read and met throughout the world. The book discusses some translingual writers who have not received much attention, such as Hugo Hamilton, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Francesca Marciano. It also goes beyond just literary criticism to examine the strange case of a film made in Esperanto, the epidemic of xenolinguaphobia in the United States, and the challenges faced by the United Nations in producing a document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, intended to be universally valid and equally authoritative in all of its hundreds of linguistic iterations. The opening chapter of Nimble Tongues is titled “Does Translingualism Matter?” I hope that the book provides a persuasive positive answer.



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