Notes on Translingual Literature

Over the past two days I attended a two day symposium held in Uppsala on translingual literature. Since I have not read widely in the field, some of the talks went way over my head, but it was a good introduction to the theories and methods and influential studies that are shaping ideas about translingual literature, and the various other labels that surround it, from world literature, to multicultural literature, to transnational literature.

Two talks during the symposium made mention of Arab authors – the first on Iraqi writer Hassan Blassim, while the second referenced the work of Palestinian-Finnish Umaya Abu Hanna, who I had not heard of – an indication of the insularity of my Anglophone/Arabic focus, I suppose, as it seems that her books have not been translated into either Arabic or English. I’ve written about Blassim previously here.

HasanBlasimOlli Löytty’s talk on Blassim had the title “Hassan Blasim: The precarious position of an Arabic author in the national literary field of Finland,” and described the tensions between the Arabic language Blasim uses and the Finnish national/ist frameworks within which Blasim has been placed in the context of awards, grants, research, and articles describing him as a “literary sensation from Pispala.” Refereincing the European Literature Night, which brings writers from around Europe to London, Löytty noted the irony of Blasim “representing” Finland, given the difficulty he has faced when it comes to procuring Finnish citizenship:

“Finland is represented by Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi-born filmmaker and writer who has lived and worked in Finland since 2004.”

Here’s an interesting snippet of a discussion with Blasim  and translator Jonathan Wright which dramatises the tensions of being an Iraqi writer who is published in English, and thus someone to ask things like: was it important to demonstrate the refugee experience to demonstrate the consequences of the war (equation, war = refugees)? do you deliberately not include American or British soldiers, was that a conscious decision or did it just slip your mind?  What about that horror?

One particular point that resonated with me in the talk was the break that occurs when Blasim’s work is positioned within and discussed exclusively as part of migrant or world literature, because of the subjects he discusses and because of his own migrant status, while no effort is made to examine ways in which his works contribute to and take part in dynamics that already exist in Arabic literary and cultural production. Blasim might be the only writer so far to achieve some level of fame as an Arabic author living in Finland, and in that sense he might be unique to the literary scene there, and maybe to the transnational literary scene, but to what extent is Blasim unique in Arabic-speaking contexts? How is he different from and how does he relate to other Arab writers? Paradoxically, for all its inclusive connotations, the category of world literature or translingual seems to work in ways that orphan the texts it embraces, cutting them off from the languages and contexts they are originally written in.

Heidi Grönstrand spoke about Umaya Abu Hanna as a way to illustrate her discussion of translation in Finnish autobiographical writing, and like Löytty discussed the tensions of having one foot in the Finnish literary scene and another in the migrant literature world – although Abu Hanna writes in Finnish, she reports that her language is not seen as “good enough” even after twenty years of being in Finland.

Grönstrand also talked about the inclusion of transliterated Arabic words, followed by translation in Finnish, in Abu Hanna’s book Sinut. This is something that I have been interested in when it comes to Anglo Arab literature – the examples of including Arabic in English works I have seen run the gamut from transliteration plus immediate translation, to only transliteration with no explaining, to transliteration with a glossary at the back to demystify the Arabic words, to a complete Arabic sentence, in Arabic, not transliterated, not translated, just there.

The last example comes from Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance, and it was pointed out to me that it occurs at an interesting point in the novel, where the father and son are acting out their “cosmopolitanism”, switching from French to English, and then there is this formulaic, hackneyed Arabic sentence: Life is for living, my son.

But what if you couldn’t read Arabic and couldn’t read what this sentence said? What would it mean that it was just there, unreadable, unpronounceable and silent?

In her talk, Helena Bodin discussed the effects of including Greek, Cyrillic and Chinese words in their actual form, untransliterated. Unlike the inclusion of European languages, French or German for example, which can at least be sounded out if the reader does not speak them, the foreign alphabets, the foreign shapes of the letters of Greek and Chinese words become silent “beautiful” runes in the writing.

Bodin’s talk reminded me of an amusing incident where residents of Gardner, Louisiana, reported what they suspected was a “terror message written in Arabic” which turned out to be a “welcome home” sign written in Hebrew – and as the sheriff’s office noted, “Not in anyway affiliated with ISIS.” Not so beautiful, in this case.

The fear of a foreign language, or of a “crabbed oriental scrolls” to quote from Jane Eyre, is one side of the coin. On the other side, there is the attraction to the “beauty” of such a script. So Bodin mentions Iranian-Swedish writer Pooneh Rohi’s Araben (The Arab) and discusses Rohi recalling her mother’s library, and the books written in this mysterious beautiful script that she wanted to read.

I recall friends who wanted me to write out their names in Arabic, because it “looked beautiful.” At the same time, they would assume that everything that exists in Arabic must be Islamic, so one friend that had read something about wudu asked if I had to wash my hands before touching anything with Arabic on it. Löytty referenced something similar, sharing an anecdote of Blasim’s, where a woman assumed he was reading the Quran because the book he was reading was in Arabic, when he was actually reading Kafka.

In her Keynote, Rebecca Walkowitz discussed Mohsin Hamid and Jamaica Kincaid, and their use of the second person and the awareness different kinds of audiences. This brought to mind Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular – although that book doesn’t actually have a second person narrative, moving instead between third and first, the title makes that jump through the reader’s puzzling out the relationship of the two characters. Anton Shammas was mentioned during the symposium, and it appears there is some work on the “translingual” aspects of literature by Arab Israeli writers, such as this article.

Another book that was mentioned is one of my favorites, Rabih Alamadinne’s An Unnecessary Woman.

As I was listening to some of the talks, I recalled Fadia Faqir, responding to a question about her decision to write in English, who pointed out that writers such as Rawi Hage combine ”French, Quebecois, Arabic and English without any explanation. And we, the readers, cope…Perhaps there is a constituency out there that is bilingual or trilingual and interested in different parts of the world.”  She goes on to imagine a future literature which is ”a mosaic made up of different languages, truly transnational, translingual and transcultural.”

For anyone looking to dive in to this field, here’s a nice, intimidating place to start. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: