Multilingual Imaginations: Celebrating Asymptote’s 5th Anniversary in London

London - Mar 23, 2016

featuring Caroline Bergvall, Hamid Ismailov, Tena Štivičić and Ros Schwartz. View photos here.


On March 23, we were delighted to welcome Asymptote devotees to an intimate and illuminating discussion in the heart of London at Waterstones Piccadilly. This year over 50 readers, writers and translators joined us to hear a conversation between three of the most exciting writers engaged in multilingual work—poet and artist Caroline Bergvall; Uzbekistan’s ‘unmentionable’ writer, Hamid Ismailov; and Croatian playwright, Tena Štivičić. The panel was moderated by Ros Schwartz.

After a brief delay in getting started due to a technical fault (affording our guests the opportunity to settle in with a complimentary glass of wine), the event got underway with opening remarks from our Criticism Editor, Ellen Jones. Ellen introduced Asymptote to those with only a passing familiarity with the journal, highlighting our wider mission when she stated that “everything we do, including hosting events such as this one, is in the name of promoting a truly global conversation.” She also took the opportunity to draw attention to Asymptote’s recent successes and accolades, such as our revamped website and London Book Fair award, and our tireless supporters and staff who keep the journal’s wheels spinning—including a shout-out to our translation agony aunt, Daniel Hahn, who was in the audience for the evening.

Using the success of last July’s multilingual writing feature as a springboard, Ellen introduced our speakers to the audience with a roll call of their respective accolades and accomplishments—noting the multiple languages that each writer engaged with through their work—before handing the reins over to moderator Ros Schwartz to get the discussion underway.

To open proceedings, Ros asked each of the speakers to shed light on their linguistic backgrounds and the ways language has informed their work. Tena then offered a glimpse of her childhood in Zagreb, Croatia, where she was exposed to English from an early age through television—foreign shows always subtitled, never dubbed – so that “various idioms and cultural references become very normal” in the minds of young Croatians. This later manifested itself during her years studying theatre and playwriting in Zagreb, when she had the opportunity to work on a number of international theatre projects in English—offering a modern, contemporary alternative to Croatia’s “outdated” model of teaching theatre, with old men who appear to “have been talking for decades without a break in a very Proustian kind of a way.”

For Hamid and Caroline, it was growing up between cultures and languages that cast the mold for their future experiments with language—the former likening Central Asia to a nexus point between languages and identities, while Caroline’s peripatetic education required an adaptive approach; the sense that one was always jumping from one language to another.

One of the difficulties in bringing together such disparate authors is finding a common thread that unites them but, as Ros expertly pointed out, each of our speakers had “a sense of mission” to their work. Caroline responded by discussing her ‘archaeological’ approach to language, which she has written about at length in her essay ‘Middling English’, and her interest in “allowing for gaps” in knowledge, “allowing for what I don’t know, and feeding off that along the way.” For Hamid, the mission was to adequately represent the fluid, nomadic cultures of Uzbekistan and Central Asia more widely—its great melting pot of beliefs and ideologies—while for Tena it was to redress the dearth of writing on migration, having inadvertently found herself a “part of that sea of Others” in London (it was only after moving to the United Kingdom, she quipped, that she learned she was ‘Eastern European’).

Pulling on the thread of otherness raised by Tena, the speakers moved on to how the sense of being an outsider looking inwards affected their own literary identities. Caroline sensed this early on, she told us, as a result of her queer identity, and she thereafter made a conscious effort to redress the labels imposed on her by society—proposing, in her words, an alternative way of thinking about differences. Both the other speakers echoed this point, stressing that although society insists upon neat categorizations and labels, there is always room to assert one’s identity. “On the one hand, you want to belong to something,” said Hamid, “but on the other you want to keep your autonomous self […] It’s your position: be brave enough to be different.”

Ros concluded her questions on a light note, asking which language the speakers swore in. For Tena, it was Croatian—no hesitation. Hamid, as a result of his multicultural upbringing in Central Asia, claimed that he could swear in all languages, while Caroline swears and dreams in the language of the country wherever she laid her hat.

The speakers then opened the discussion to the audience. One attendee asked whether the English that Tena and Caroline wrote was different from that of a native speaker, a kind of ‘hyper-English’ in that it was written by an outsider. Tena responded by saying that it was only in English that she could frame her opinion on things like the Tube (Croatia has no underground system, and therefore lacks the vocabulary, in her estimation). She continued to say that multilingual writing results in a “schizophrenic kind of work”, where the different voices and versions rapidly develop a life of their own.

One notable question was about whether the speakers had ever tried writing in all the languages they know within one text—and whether, in fact, there is only one archetypal language. While hesitant to assert that there was one universal language, Caroline returned to what interested her in her work—the paralinguistic elements that transcend linguistic barriers. Tena was also reluctant to make sweeping claims, but she stated that as a playwright she was more concerned with how languages can help or hinder the dramatic power of a scene.

Bringing the discussion to a close, Hamid cited a parable by Rumi, a thirteenth-century Persian poet, as a lesson on the pitfalls of translation—before treating the audience to a recital of his Uzbek translation of Paul Verlaine’s poem, “Chanson d’automne” (the original French version was read aloud by Caroline).

Both the team and our speakers were delighted with the turnout, and it was a joy to see the audience so captivated. If you weren’t able to make it, then make sure to listen to the recording of the night’s talk below—roll on the next event!

—David Maclean


Photography credit: Miriam Sherwood