In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 6: On Translingualism and Multilingualism (A Tribute to Tamar Steinitz)

We are grateful to receive Francesca Orsini’s contribution in this series of posts, based on the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022.  A description of the occasion can be found here. The final post in this series will be published tomorrow. For previous posts please scroll down.


I come from an institution, SOAS, that has recently gone through a similar restructuring to what is happening at Goldsmiths, and is now looking to regrow after downsizing mostly its Languages & Cultures department, and particularly “smaller” languages and the higher-level courses that require and encourage an engagement with texts. In fact, I was part of the down-sizing, though I chose to jump before I was pushed.

I want to focus today on the brilliant scholarship of Tamar Steinitz, who has been targeted by the cuts at Goldsmiths. Her work on translingual poets has been cutting-edge. And her own research trajectory shows how Comp Lit’s engagement with the formal and linguistic aspects of texts leads not just to finding appropriate critical frameworks that become useful for students and scholars working in quite different context. This engagement can be revelatory, showing realities that otherwise remain unseen.

Tamar’s first book, Translingual Identities (2013), starts from a “traditional” comparative reading of the works of two exiled Jewish writers and shows how switching to writing in another tongue is the result of quite different stands – a rejection of German contaminated by the Nazis for Jakov Lind, while for Stefan Heym it came from his political engagement during WWII in the US and the desire to act as a cultural mediator. Her analysis is firmly grounded not just in theory but also in the historical context of Nazi Germany and Jewish exile and post-WWII politics, and explores the relationship between self, language, and writing across different genres (the historical novel, the satirical novel). As someone working on Indian literature, I was intrigued in the “curious” phenomena like writing one’s autobiography in another language—a distancing choice adopted by some colonial Indian writers as well.

In the best tradition of Comp Lit, the close reading of authors and texts opens up to broader and deeper questions: [I quote from her Conclusions] “I have charted two models of translingualism and literary creation. On the one hand, translingualism can be a form of alienation … where identity is split and reality is destabilized. On the other hand, translingualism is … a productive doubling of perspective, allowing the author to move freely between cultures and languages, setting them in dialogic relations and allowing them to illuminate and complement each other.

The role of translingual writers as cultural mediators, reflecting the concerns of minority populations—exiles, migrants, refugees, and diasporic communities—is of particular interest as the crossing of national and linguistic borders becomes increasingly common, giving rise to a growing body of work by transnational authors. The movement between languages internalizes and reflects both the freedom associated with geographical mobility and the emotional price it inevitably entails.”

These possibilities are taken up in Tamar’s second book, co-edited with Rachael Gilmour, on Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation and Culture (Routledge, 2018)

This book is concerned with the circuits of language in the contemporary world, and with their implications for our understanding of literature now. While making no claims for a new global linguistic order entirely ruptured from those which came before, it argues that existing literary paradigms ill equip us to understand the complex forces that shape language in the present as they impact upon the production and circulation of literature. In tracing these forces, it takes up questions which, in many ways, define the current moment: the impact of accelerated patterns of migration precipitated by war and conflict, economic pressures, and environmental degradation; the relationship between national and supranational political formations and ideologies; and the transformative effects of transnational flows of culture, capital, electronic media, and technology. As we argue here, literature is sensitive and responsive to these developments, registering new kinds of linguistically and symbolically complex contexts and cultures.

This is a great volume, with some of the best people around as contributors, and offering a wide range of approaches (the polyphonic, multilingual city, region or transnational space; interlingual writers; born-translated texts, songs and diasporic subjectivity, films and novels “creating public”). It is also the kind of collegiate intellectual work and collective meeting ground that probably did not count towards the REF.

Tamar’s own work on the bilingual Hebrew/Arabic poetry of Almog Behar shows, again in an exemplary fashion, how lexical choices in the poet’s craft provide possibilities for thinking about language and identity in new ways. The choice not to translate Arabic words, or to offer specific phrases in both languages and scripts, speaks to a self that does not want to subscribe to the nationalist logic of separation and the Zionist narrative of a Jewish-Israeli identity and that finds the resources to do so.

Work on bilingual or translingual authors can appear niche within niche: bilingual Hebrew-Arabic within contemporary Hebrew poetry. But this is a wrong assumption. One of the most powerful aspects of working on and with bilingualism, multilingualism, translingualism is how widespread it actually is; how it often exists below the surface of literary texts, and literary cultures and markets, and how painful the relationship between language(s) and self often remains in this age of “global English”.

This was brought to me particularly strongly in a small literary festival called Multilingual London that my MULOSIGE project co-organized with the Museum of London in 2019 (which had to move online).

The idea behind Multilingual London was to highlight the presence of a literary London beyond English and to train the spotlight on artists who have or work in more than one language, but beyond the framework of seeing them as “community writers”. Another aim was to try and shift the conversation about languages beyond paradigms that are purely hierarchical or antagonistic, and to recognize the affective and aesthetic pull of idioms, songs, poems, and stories in languages otherwise considered “minor” or “less important”.

We had panels on languages in families and across generations (which threw up the useful coinage of “grandparent’s language” instead of mother tongue), and on writing and living across languages and places. And we had a poetry session in which poets only recited in their language of choice (Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Somali), giving others the chance to hear the poems while reading the translation on slides. The response, by writers and by audience members, was overwhelming. Selma Dabbagh’s confession about feeling an “outsider” to Arabic despite her heritage and lifelong attempt to learn it “properly” found a wide echo among the listeners, and highlighted the persistent but often painful and frustrated “language longing” among first/second/third generation speakers.

Recognizing that London is a multilingual city also in literary terms may seem obvious, but to the writers themselves it was revelatory and quite empowering. Shephali Forst, one of the poets featured, later wrote that “As a Multilingual writer in Hindi and English, in all honesty, until now I had envisaged that my writings in Hindi would not be of interest to the wider world audience. At the ‘Verses in Many Voices’ [poetry] event, I observed listeners eagerly imbibing translations, together with the rhythmic beauty of international voices, and it changed something inside me”. “There was something magical about hearing the different global musicalities of poetry across cultures”, the host Malika Booker wrote, and she added, “I was able to get access to poets and cultural poetics that are never featured on the British Literary scene.”

“I noticed everyone struggled with the same questions and anxieties”, writer Shazaf Husain commented, “but getting writers together like this helped to pool together people who deal with this problem creatively and turn it into an opportunity. It really made me less nervous about my multilingual identity, to be honest, and also removed many preconceptions I had in my mind about how academia treats other languages.”

And Aamer Hussein, “I was pleased to see many of us represent our different tongues and double heritage, and I thought the increased focus and intimacy that Zoom allows ultimately worked to our advantage. I think the session allowed many viewers apart from us to think through the question of the languages that surround us and I received enthusiastic responses from more than one monolingual member of the audience. Above all we were made aware, as Londoners, of the immense riches of our literary cultures and the realisation that so many of us chose to continue to write in our own languages while we address an audience that, in our new home, can only read us in translation.”

It strikes me that, as Goldsmiths prizes itself as a cultural hub of multicultural London, Tamar’s work on bilingual and translingual writers fits the remit perfectly. Her trajectory, as a comparatist from an English Department whose work increasingly speaks to debates about literature and language that are cutting-edge in academia and find such profound echo among artists and publics, seems to me exemplary. This is precisely the kind of work that we should cherish and hold up as a model.

… we propose to refocus the department on Creative Writing and on the study of Global Literature. This would support the centring of creativity, diversity and critical thinking in the department’s identity […]

We therefore propose to reduce FTE from areas such as Comparative literature, Translation Studies and Linguistics, whilst preserving the teaching of areas such as creative writing, Black British and Caribbean literature and world literatures, and critical thought.

(from Goldsmiths “consultation” document on the proposed redundancies, 10 October 2021)

Francesca Orsini