Shakespeare’s Juliet declares, “a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet,” implying that it does not matter what language we use for describing or identifying objects or ideas. But one language may well be more expressive than another for some purposes, and only in one particular language might a speaker best communicate his or her deepest feelings, truest thoughts, or fullest meaning. From this perspective, it is vital for a writer to know other languages, in order to choose the one right for the intended medium and message. Some readers of ancient Greek consider Homer the greatest writer of all, owing, they say, to a use of language so profoundly, artistically communicative. Certainly English and other modern languages have been enriched by the Greek words that have endured to this day in the working vocabularies of so many cultures, and many of those words originated or at least survived as a result of Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Homer has been the inspiration of countless literary works in European and other languages, among them Virgil’s ancient Aeneid and James Joyce’s modern Ulysses. And yet Steven Kellman, in his The Translingual Imagination, begins his study and commendation of writers who know and write in more than one language by cleverly disparaging Homer — because he was “blind to the variety of human languages” and limited himself in his Mediterranean setting to a “monolingual sink,” because other tongues were “all Greek to him.”
Most striking about Kellman’s study is its recitation of the many world authors who have written successfully in a language other than their native tongue. The case of Joseph Conrad mastering English late in life, after having been born into Polish, is certainly the best known example of what Kellman calls “translingualism.” But Kellman also includes in his list of some 225 authors such figures as Martial, Lucan, Apuleius, Terence (these last two classical Roman writers from the African continent), Dante, Erasmus, Milton, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, J.M. Coetzee, Louis Begley, and (in Texas) Raja Rao, Lars Gustafsson, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Sandra Cisneros. The point Kellman seems to be making is that by writing in a language other than one’s first, an author’s work is ipso facto superior. His notion is that the writer in a “foreign” language somehow brings to that second language a broader perspective, even though (as Kellman notes of Conrad) the writer may also make mistakes because he is still thinking idiomatically in his first language. Even this can be advantageous, since the writer may introduce words, phrases, and idioms from the native tongue that will expand and add spice to the second language. However, in the eight short chapters of The Translingual Imagination (with chapters devoted to Beckett, Nabokov, Coetzee, and Begley, among others) Kellman does not really demonstrate how and why such writers are better in a second or third language than those who — like Homer or Shakespeare — wrote in but one.
For the most part, Kellman focuses on the move from a parental tongue to an adopted language, and what this has signified for the writer. For an immigrant to America like Eva Hoffman, the change from Polish to English was painful, but for another Polish writer like Antin who chose to write in English rather than her native Yiddish, her new language ultimately proved emancipating. Antin declares in The Promised Land (1912) that “in any other language happiness is not so sweet, logic is not so clear.” Kellman emphasizes, however, that Antin’s English version of her book, originally written in Yiddish and only later translated by the author, represses the difficulties of making the transition to another language and another life. In concluding the chapter on Hoffman and Antin, Kellman notes that Hoffman’s “life in a new language inspires fresh thoughts about language and about life,” but what these “fresh thoughts” might be, is not quite apparent.
Somewhat clearer but less interesting is Kellman’s discussion of another Polish writer, Louis Begley, who has published five novels in English. Begley’s linguistic agility helped him to survive the Holocaust, because he could speak German without a Polish-Jewish accent. Begley’s first novel, his autobiographical Wartime Lies (1991), reveals the value of knowing a second language in order to deceive — but other than this not precisely literary asset, Kellman does not consider how or why Begley’s work might be exceptional in being written in English rather than Polish or Yiddish. Several times Kellman equates Begley’s writing with Shakespeare’s, but when he recounts the plots of all five novels, these stories of wandering Jews sound like little more than potboilers. As Max Saw It is described by Kellman as “an AIDS novel that never once mentions the awful acronym.” The parallel that Kellman draws is with Macbeth, for he writes of Charlie, the male lover of the character who first dies of AIDS, that his “sanitational simile renders As Max Saw It veritably Shakespearean in its intimations of a universal void. For all Max’s bonhomie, his is a tale told by an idiot.” The point seems to be that Max, a Harvard professor of jurisprudence, doesn’t understand love — but what this has to do with being a translingual author who creates characters who have “a genius for self-invention and self-deception” may escape even a reader anxious to comprehend.
Kellman cannot really explain why Beckett and Nabokov should be superior authors, simply because they wrote in two languages instead of one. The closest he comes to such an explanation is in his intriguing chapter on J.M. Coetzee. A South African, Coetzee studied for his doctorate at U.T.–Austin, where he discovered in the Humanities Research Center a manuscript by his distant Afrikaner relative, Jacobus Coetse. Reading the manuscript inspired the young scholar to write his first novel, Dusklands (1974), as did his reading of the H.R.C.’s Beckett manuscripts. According to the principle of linguistic relativity set forth by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf and reiterated by Kellman, “language determines thought.” But in trying to show if each language offers “distinct possibilities and limits of expression appropriate to a separate genre,” Coetzee found this virtually impossible to demonstrate in the case of Beckett. Concerned about this idea in terms of Beckett and of Coetzee’s own bilingual background (Afrikäans and English), he “acknowledged that an understanding of how English and French respectively compel particular articulations would require genuinely twin texts, in which the author attempts to express identical thoughts in each of the languages.” But apparently such texts do not exist — since writers like Beckett and Nabokov and Coetzee have not written the same book in two different languages but have only reworked or translated one text into another language, which Kellman admits “is not synonymous with translingualism.”
Repeatedly the book runs up against such a dead end. As a result, one wonders what Kellman’s book has proved about the nature of translingualism — if it indeed exists. This inconclusiveness was especially frustrating to me, because I have long been a devotée of the value of knowing other languages, have tried for years to translate from Spanish, have struggled with Russian off and on for over two decades, have attempted to translate from Texas German, and have regretted for a lifetime having dropped Latin when I was just beginning to read The Aeneid. What Kellman does do quite fully, is to remind one of a number of modernist authors who employed other languages. T.S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke’s French verses, and what Kellman calls Eliot and Ezra Pound’s “macaronic verse” — a mixture of languages such as Sanskrit, Chinese, Latin, Greek, French, German, etc. — are famous examples of modernist authors writing in or incorporating other languages along with their own. In the case of Pound, his Cantos often render a Chinese ideogram or a phrase from another language into the poet’s own peculiar English. Yet whether the blending of other languages into the Cantos makes for a superior work must finally be left to each reader. For most authors, it is difficult enough to create in just one language — and some can simply never quite manage even to read or speak a second.
Some distinguished writers, like the Observer’s poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye, or Enrique Lihn, the Chilean poet whose work I have translated from the Spanish for over thirty years, confess to a block for learning other languages. Yet undeniably both are quite effective in their use of their respective single tongues. Nye has written in Roundup, an anthology of Texas poets I edited in 1998, that “the secondary-languages center of my brain is severely underdeveloped”; nonetheless, she has been instrumental in bringing to American readers the translated work of Arabic writers. Lihn wrote that “other languages” inspired in him “a sacred resentment / the fear of losing all reality along with / the mother tongue.” The Chilean, like some of Kellman’s translingual authors, seems to have been looking for a language that would transcend what Lihn refers to in the title of one of his poems as “The Limitations of Language.” His special need for another language is seen in the writing of his series of deathbed poems that attempt to penetrate the barrier between living and dead — while knowing full well that when it comes to this subject, any language is inadequate.
As might be expected by Observer readers who know his film reviews, Kellman includes consideration of a translingual film, Hombres Armados / Men With Guns, written and directed by John Sayles. The script utilizes English, Spanish, and Kuna (“a language spoken exclusively on a single island off the coast of Panama”), according to Sayles, to counter “the phenomenon of willful ignorance.” By this he means American obliviousness to other cultures and their difficult situations, such as the film’s civil war in an unnamed Latin American country. Kellman calls the Sayles film an example of translingualism as “willful awareness.” By learning some Spanish and writing his script (with the help of a translator) partly in that language, Sayles, says Kellman, “intends to open our innocent eyes to the continuing reality of spectacular brutality,” adding, “Sayles offers an alternative to the popular celluloid dramas that anesthetize their audiences to the outrages that continue just beyond the screen.” The film did not do well at the box office, but this was to be expected, since it “is an unrelenting attack on innocence that makes few concessions to viewers partial to retaining that indifferent condition.”
How using Spanish in a movie aimed principally at English-speaking viewers can raise their consciousness remains unclear, and problematic. Steven Kellman’s book certainly raises a number of thought-provoking questions, even if it does not answer many. Uppermost perhaps is whether or not the choice of a language matters quite so much as why and how effectively a writer aims, directs, manipulates the language he or she does use.
Perhaps a language does determine the way we see the world (or the afterlife), and by knowing two languages we see more of this world (and maybe the next). Yet monolingual Homer, even blind, saw possibly the most of any writer in history, with his characters including men and gods, women and goddesses, and those in the underworld, with his perspective making heroes of even the enemies of his own proud nation. He certainly depicted “spectacular brutality,” and he also vividly presented the Greek conviction that in mistreating foreigners, strangers, those from other cultures, those who speak a different language, we are flirting with disaster.
Poet and translator Dave Oliphant is the publisher of Pecan Press.