The Palimpsest of Language: On Steven G. Kellman’s “Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism”

By Piotr FlorczykApril 10, 2020

The Palimpsest of Language: On Steven G. Kellman’s “Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism”

Nimble Tongues by Steven G. Kellman

DESPITE THE FACT that people who are bilingual or even multilingual have been around from time immemorial, the study of literary translingualism has only very recently begun to emerge. Some of this delay stems from the disciplinary limitations and boundaries of academic scholarship, but it’s become increasingly hard for the world of organized intelligentsia to ignore the fact that writing in an acquired language has become more commonplace — in large part due to the growing number of people who have been geographically displaced for political or economic reasons. By studying translingual writers, for whom linguistic distortions and deficiencies are part of the trade, we have the opportunity not only to become more welcoming toward fresh and complex styles of literary expression, but also to grasp how a first or primary language evolves in its exchange with other tongues.

The question of why writers choose to make the switch from one language to another is fascinating and not at all new, as witness the famous examples of Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, and Vladimir Nabokov. Novelist Nancy Huston, who was born and raised in Anglophone Canada, writes primarily in French and translates her own work into English. Jhumpa Lahiri, who won accolades as an American novelist, has recently produced work in Italian. For some authors who have moved to a different country, making the switch is a natural and obvious decision, stemming from the wish to fit in and make sense of their new surroundings. While they may wrestle with guilt and self-doubt, since many — as the Chinese-American novelist Ha Jin has argued in The Writer as Migrant (2008) — consider changing languages the ultimate act of cultural betrayal, they also may cherish the freedom to start over, literally from scratch, redefining themselves as artists and human beings.

As Steven Kellman observes in his excellent new collection of essays, Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism, “Every translingual is happy or unhappy in his or her own way.” Why? For one thing, switching languages makes one feel profoundly unmoored. Suddenly, the writer realizes that her prose is no longer as eloquent or nuanced as in her primary language. The words she writes seem to come not from the very core of her being but from a contrived process bordering on self-translation, which may never feel natural. The Polish-American translator Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, in her 2018 essay collection, Objects of Affection, points to a neurological component to explain the difference, citing Canadian researchers who have “recently confirmed what previously was only intuitively grasped: people who leave the country of their birth in infancy and have no memories of the language they were born into retain the pathways of the first language in their brains.” This must partly be why so-called “coordinate bilinguals” — those who learned their languages at different times and in different environments — catch themselves swearing in their primary language when under emotional stress, despite having left their native country years ago. Furthermore, however liberating the switch may feel to the individual writer, it circumscribes her facility with the written word, leading to the kind of linguistic estrangement that Beckett famously offered as an explanation for his decision to write in French. Consequently, as Kellman puts it, many translingual writers experience “a sensation of split personalities, as if each language embodied a different self.”

One of Kellman’s keenest insights is his suggestion that we think of a palimpsest as “an apt metaphor for literary translingualism.” Indeed, the concept of textual layering goes to the heart of the matter for many translingual writers because it concerns issues of style. Kellman, in addressing the question of whether the average reader can tell the difference between a text written by a native speaker and one written by a translingual, reminds us that it’s hard to find a writer who is truly monolingual, even in the United States. This isn’t to suggest that the label “translingual” can be applied to all writers, including magisterial monolinguals who produce works that are lexically rich and complex. By the same token, Kellman suggests that we shouldn’t be dismayed by the occasional grammatical mistake or the presence of loan words in a text written by a writer with a name we can’t pronounce. The writings of Joseph Conrad have been ridiculed for containing instances of mangled syntax or the incorrect usage of the past perfect tense — i.e., obvious borrowings from the writer’s native Polish and nearly native French. In the case of Milan Kundera, critics have complained that his books became underwhelming stylistically after he abandoned his native Czech in favor of writing in French. Still others, chief among them Vladimir Nabokov, produced works that foregrounded their linguistic reflectivity. In any case, Kellman reminds us that we come to literature to experience something new, to be shaken out of our stale modes of reading and writing — to step outside ourselves, as it were — and that goal also drives translinguals, no matter what their stylistic tics or shortcomings.

Throughout most of literary history, translingual writers have had to be content with being pigeonholed in one way or another. No writer wants to be applauded exclusively for how well he or she writes in an acquired language, as if they were some sort of curiosity, a circus animal who has learned a trick well enough to please the crowd. Kellman cites the example of the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, which for 33 years was awarded to translingual German-language writers. The Robert Bosch Foundation discontinued it in 2017, reportedly because it seemed to stigmatize authors rather than honor them. In the United States, this problem is exacerbated by popular attitudes toward immigrants in general. As the poet Kwame Dawes has written, “Americans like immigrant writers to acknowledge their immigrant status even as they speak as Americans.” Of course, many immigrants long to be heard and are perfectly content to play the part, but those who are not, often turn toward literary experimentation in an effort to maintain their creative independence. That they should find in nontraditional forms of writing a remedy for their acute sense of in-betweenness is a situation that deserves closer study.

“Except in linguistic atlases,” Kellman writes, “language is not defined by latitude and longitude. Language is a process, a performance, a system of communication — not a place.” So why all the spatial metaphors to describe the experience of translingualism? Kellman quotes a number of these, including the notion of “third space,” a kind of neither-here-nor-there state. This purgatory of acculturation is familiar to any translingual writer, but it’s equally important to acknowledge, as Kellman himself suggests, the porousness of it all. The path toward second-language acquisition may in fact be progressive, with the learner moving in a linear fashion through different stages of development en route to attaining proficiency, but it can also include significant periods of regression undergirded by feelings of failure and despondency.

This is why the idea of being at home in a language is so important to literary translinguals, as well as to their readers and critics. A perennial question is “What language do you dream in?” — as if the subconscious held all the answers to how people feel about their language skills. Nevertheless, many writers — in fact, many nations and cultures throughout the world — have thought of their languages as synonymous with their identities, especially during times of national upheaval or foreign aggression. The case of the great poet and essayist Czesław Miłosz is occasionally brought up, in his native Poland and elsewhere, as a cautionary tale of how switching languages can spell artistic suicide for the writer. What’s missing from this story, however, is the fact that Miłosz was 50 years old when he repatriated to the United States; a younger immigrant would likely have had a much different experience and fewer qualms about making the switch. In other words, the age at which someone acquires their second language plays a crucial role in their subsequent development as a writer in that language, although the jury is still out as to how and when the cutoff should be measured.

Given the declining enrollment in foreign-language courses in colleges across the country, Kellman’s chapter on “xenolinguaphobia” in the United States is particularly timely and poignant. The examples he furnishes range from the linguistic jingoism of Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1919, shortly before his death, wrote, “We have room for but one language here,” to the plight of Native American children who, “[a]bducted into government boarding schools, […] had their mouths washed out with astringent laundry soap for speaking their own languages.” Hostility to speaking anything other than English is often quite politicized: Kellman reminds us of how John Kerry, when running for president, was ridiculed for speaking fluent French, which he learned at a boarding school in Switzerland. More recently, Donald Trump and his supporters, in their longing to “Make America Great Again,” have targeted and vilified the Spanish speakers among us. Americans who speak imperfect English are viewed as the “other” not just by politicians but by regular folks as well. Those who feel threatened by linguistic newcomers are the ideal audience for Kellman’s fascinating discussion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which embodies the premise that, while native tongues do differ, “all languages are capable of expressing the same set of fundamental propositions.”

Kellman, who teaches at The University of Texas at San Antonio, has been at the forefront of translingual studies for decades. In fact, he is the rare case of a first-rate scholar who writes with the same erudition and passion for his colleagues — for instance, in his 2000 monograph, The Translingual Imagination — as for general readers (with his 2003 collection of essays and interviews Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft being particularly appealing). In this latest book, Kellman wears both hats equally well, writing with aplomb, wit, and generosity about a phenomenon that is only going to become more prevalent as time goes by. “The translingual project,” he writes, “is ultimately and implicitly panlingual. The urge to accumulate languages culminates in a reductio ad infinitum, the dream of transcending all languages to arrive at a space of universal Truth.” While this truth remains elusive, Kellman’s study does compellingly demonstrate that having more than one language is a blessing, not a curse. It is also a powerful way forward, for individual writers and for the cultures they enhance and illuminate.


Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of several volumes of Polish poetry.

LARB Contributor

Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of several volumes of Polish poetry, including The Day He’s Gone: Poems 1990-2013 by Paweł Marcinkiewicz (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), The World Shared: Poems by Dariusz Sośnicki (co-translated with Boris Dralyuk; BOA Editions, 2014), and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska (Tavern Books, 2016). He is the author of East & West: Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2016), a collection of essays, Los Angeles Sketchbook (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and a chapbook, Barefoot (Eyewear, 2015). He is one of the founders of Calypso Editions, a cooperative press, and serves as Translation Editor for The Los Angeles Review. He lives in Santa Monica.


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