Plunge into the Multilingual Writing Feature from the July 2016 Issue

Readers must ask themselves whether they are entitled to a full understanding —or indeed if such a thing is ever possible.

The past two Mondays here at the Asymptote Blog, we’ve brought you highlights from the July 2016 issue, THE DIVE. This week we’re back with Ellen Jones, editor of the vibrant and provocative multilingual writing section.

The Asymptote July issue special feature on multilingual writing is the second of its kind. The more than two hundred pieces of original poetry and fiction received in response to last year’s call for submissions—many, many more than we were able to publish—opened our eyes to the wealth of new writers who are experimenting with language mixing, and persuaded us that it was necessary to run the feature again.

What I love most about this work is its variety. There are seven contributions, from writers as far afield as Peru, South Africa, and India that, between them, incorporate English, German, Spanish, French, Romanian, Sanskrit, Afrikaans, Italian, Nahuatl, and Arabic. But more importantly, they also make use of the spaces in between these languages: unique cross-lingual sound combinations and associations, and spoken varieties that are thriving but have yet to be documented. There is some poetry, some prose. Some written by well-established literary figures and some by poets who are only just finding their voices. Some pieces for readers of only English, others best left to the true polyglots among us.

But we can still discern, among all the variety, the colour, and the chaos, one or two distinct patterns threaded through. The first is that almost all these contributions have a rich oral life, one that differs from their lives on the page. This is most apparent, perhaps, in Noel Quiñones’s poem ‘Arroz Poetica Battle Rhyme for Kendrick Lamar’. Quiñones is an AfroBoricua spoken word poet raised in the Bronx, and a member of the 2016 Bowery Poetry Slam team. His poem is testament to a strong performative tradition in Spanish-English bilingual writing, and Asymptote’s audio recording facility is especially valuable for the way it allows listeners to hear the poem’s powerful cadence and rhythm. Sound is important in a quite different way in Kanya Kanchana’s sequence, from ‘Grammar of the Goddess’, built around Sanskrit ‘seed syllables’ that are valuable for their phonic rather than their semantic connotations. A third example, again distinct, is Șerban Foarță’s ‘Papillonage’, the issue’s most ostentatiously multilingual piece. As well as being a poet (and essayist, translator, editor, and playwright…), Foarță is a renowned writer of song lyrics. His translator MARGENTO’s wonderfully exuberant rendition of the poem foregrounds that musicality, allowing us to hear the way the different languages twist and bend around one another, as well as drawing on his own experimentations with multimedia cross-artform performance.

Foarta’s poem leads me to the second common thread among many of the contributions, which is their strategic (in)accessibility. Combining as many as six different languages, and refusing to explain or translate, ‘Papillonage’ compels us to read slowly and attentively—to re-read, to research, and to read (or listen to) different versions. The idea that everything must be transparent or easy is very far from what this kind of work is about, and this is one of many reasons why it poses such a challenge to translators. Nevertheless, MARGENTO disputes the frequent assumption that multilingual work of this kind is ‘untranslatable’. His version, ‘Buttérflyçion’, pushes the boundaries of the craft in innovative ways in order to preserve the poem’s difficulty while reorienting it toward readers with more competence in English than in Romanian or French.

Some contributors have made use of Asymptote’s online format to strategically mediate the amount of information readers can access—the degree to which they are forced to confront and accept the unfamiliar. Klara du Plessis, for example, includes pop-up translations of Afrikaans words in some of her poems but not others, which readers may choose to consult, or not. Greg Nissan makes even more creative use of the online format in his highly allusive and intertextual poem, ‘For Whom the –R Rolls’. The poem is a written experiment with ‘Kiezdeutsch’, a little-documented multi-ethnic youth dialect spoken in Berlin. Pop-up notes allow the poet to offer translations for non-standard German words, and etymologies for phrases deriving from Turkish and Arabic. But the poem is also a complex palimpsest of material from different sources. These are accessed via hyperlinks, and flesh out many of the debates surrounding Kiezdeutsch; about language change, linguistic ‘purity’, immigration, and the tension between speech and writing. Readers of these poems, and of almost all the pieces in this feature, must repeatedly ask themselves whether they are entitled to a full understanding—or indeed if such a thing is ever possible.

These pieces may be linguistically and stylistically, even generically complex, but they also have a playful, irreverent approach to language that makes them a joy to read. This is especially apparent, I think, in Karina Lickorish Quinn’s ‘Spanglish’. Karina’s is the second piece in this feature representing the enormous number of submissions from Spanish-English bilinguals in the Americas, and her short story packs a punch from the first line: ‘Oye, you. Yes, tú. ¿Have you ever alguna vez mordido your lengua?’ Funny, direct, and rich in metaphor, ‘Spanglish’ reminds us that speech is a bodily act, and denounces the ludicrous stigma we so often attach to speakers of other languages. Quinn creates her own evocative hybrids like ‘desentanglear’ and ‘mumureando’, demonstrating that, far from being impoverished media of discourse, new varieties like ‘Spanglish’ and ‘Kiezdeutsch’ can be just as expressive as any other kind of language.

Our goal, at the outset, was to curate a section that challenged the traditional binaries between domestic and foreign and between source and target, that showcased the hybrid varieties used in ex-colonial nations and in immigrant communities, and that explored the boundaries of supposedly discrete languages. The seven contributions making up this year’s feature collectively respond to each of these issues, but also, most importantly I think, they celebrate the beguilingly unstable ontology of a multilingual subject. Klara du Plessis, for example, chooses ‘Ekke’ as the title and cornerstone of her first poem, a word that is a doubled first person pronoun as well as a doubled version of her own name. We also see Karina Lickorish Quinn insisting firmly that, despite her bilingualism and biculturalism, she is not some monstrous hybrid, but rather a complex, undamaged whole—she simply has ‘dos lenguas’, which ‘a veces bailan solos y otras veces bailan juntos’. Omar Berrada’s ‘Pax Babeliana’ echoes this sentiment beautifully. The poem is an attempt to reclaim fragments of childhood language and memory by weaving the Arabic of the poet’s early self together with other languages that now equally constitute his identity. Amid all the tension between the Middle East and Europe, Arabic and English and French, the poetic subject inhabits a fragile linguistic peace: pax babeliana.

I must admit—it’s been no easy task to edit and publish this kind of writing. My own limited language skills do not make me the perfect reader for any of these pieces, except in the sense that I have the often thematically relevant experience of partial incomprehension. Putting together this feature was by no means a solo endeavour, and I have my colleagues Alexis Almeida and Julia Leverone to thank for their thoughtful comments and recommendations, along with many other valued readers who lent me their competence in other languages as well as their literary acumen. The process of collaboration and research has been wonderfully edifying, and is in projects such as this that I am most grateful for Asymptote’s network of experts in diverse areas of language and literature.

 Ellen Jones is Criticism Editor of Asymptote. She has a B.A. in English literature and Spanish, and an M.St. in English Language from the University of Oxford. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Queen Mary University of London, researching English-Spanish bilingualism in contemporary prose, and the particular challenges associated with reading, publishing, and translating this kind of writing. Her translations have appeared in the Guardian, Asymptote, and Palabras errantes.


Read More on the July 2016 Issue