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Living Languages

The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

A New Language – A New Life? Translingual literature by contemporary women writers

Margaret May and Godela Weiss-Sussex report on this symposium held at the IMLR on 1 March 2018


Enthusiastic participants braved the wintry weather on 1 March to discuss some of the intriguing issues arising from the concept of translingualism at a symposium convened by Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex at the IMLR. Part of the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative project ‘Cross-Language Dynamics – Reshaping Community’, this event was designed to test ideas for a major international conference next year on women’s translingual writing.

What is translingualism? Although Prof Anne Fleig (FU Berlin) commented wryly at the end of the afternoon that there is actually no equivalent word in German, the definition that emerged was that of a vector, a moving between and across languages, a process showing elements of more than one language and operating from within its own uncertainties. As Dr Weiss-Sussex explained, translingualism is not new, since it is a common exile experience, but in our times, in which migration and multilingualism are more commonplace experiences, translingual language use is often a choice, not a necessity. Rather than being seen as defective, moving beyond the monolingual paradigm provides an opportunity to express complex hybrid identities – or to resist expectations of identitarian discourse altogether.

Focusing on the detailed analysis of texts in French, Italian and German, the symposium presenters considered how various writers used specific language-enriching strategies and techniques in their translingual texts. Specifically, the questions addressed in this workshop were:

• How does the particular attention to language required in translingual writing affect the text?
• What are the distinctive literary and linguistic strategies employed in translingual writing?
• Does writing in a foreign tongue go hand in hand with establishing a new identity?
• What can translingual writing achieve that goes beyond the possibilities of texts produced by mother-tongue writers?
• What is the relationship between translingual expression and femininity?

First, participating via a Skype link, Prof Mary Gallagher (University College Dublin) examined the novelist and essayist Nancy Huston’s writing in French (a language she learned as a teenager), as well as her self-translations back into her ‘mother tongue’, English. She explored how Huston’s linguistic decisions (influenced by the childhood trauma of separation from her mother) helped to construct and define her identity as a writer, a woman and a mother herself. Prof Gallagher stressed Huston’s awareness of the empowering capacity to ‘superimpose’ different identities on one another through the use of different languages. However, she also highlighted Huston’s strong and complex connection with her ‘langue mère’, English, which continues to be a point of origin and reference for Huston’s identities as a daughter and a mother.

Anne Fleig, by contrast, started her observations by sharply critiquing the concept of the mother tongue as a construct used in the service of nation building and the normalisation of monolingualism. Referring to the German language context specifically, Prof Fleig traced how, building on the ‘naturalising’ rhetoric of authenticity, a standardisation of language could be enforced in the late 19th century that is now being questioned and undermined in recent translingual writing, primarily by women. Analysing heteroglossia in the writings of Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Yoko Tawada – authors, respectively, of Turkish and Japanese origin who have achieved considerable literary success writing in German – Fleig highlighted the process of emancipation of the female voice in translingual texts and commented on the similarities between the experiences of women and migrant writers more generally.

One of the strategies Fleig highlighted in Özdamar’s and Tawada’s writing is that of ‘queering’ the mother tongue through a polyphonic, dialogical writing style. Polyphonic writing is a characteristic also of the texts by the Somalia-born author Shirin Ramzanali Fazel. In her paper on Fazel’s novel Nuvole sull’Equatore, Dr Maria Cristina Seccia (Hull) showed how untranslated Somali words and sentences in the narrative are placed in dialogue with rather than in opposition to Italian, thus making Somali culture visible served as a form of resistance to the imposition of monolingualism, and to the amnesia about the colonial policy of deliberate neglect of mixed-race Italians.

In discussing Katja Petrowskaja’s search for a sense of belonging through the imaginative re-creation of her family’s pre-Holocaust history in Vielleicht Esther (published in German in 2014 and in English translation in January this year), Godela Weiss-Sussex emphasised the author’s embrace of ambiguity and incoherencies stemming from the unreliability of fragmentary memories in the construction of a narrative that acts as a powerful tool in reworking and preserving a traumatic past. She provided many illuminating examples of the non-native speaker’s associative approach to language, in which apparently playful punning connections reveal deeper truths of an affective response to a suppressed family history. For Petrowskaja, born in Ukraine and growing up with a Russian perspective on the Second World War, writing in German (a language that she learned in her twenties) provided the freedom of otherness and enabled her to develop the concept of a cosmopolitan, universal connectedness, an identity based not on exclusion but on commonality. Her work was shown as another form of resistance, working with dissonances, questioning and probing, often in an almost child-like way, the hidden assumptions and prejudices of language to which native speakers are oblivious.

Dr Anna-Louise Milne (University of London Institute in Paris) continued this theme by speaking about her own writing journey in French, particularly in relation to her work with non-European refugees in Paris. Indeed her emphasis from the start was on ‘writing with’ – exploring the importance of what and whom one writes with, the processes of improvisation and of chiselling and crafting – rather than on the finished text or work of translation as such. She convincingly described how important it is for democracies to foster a sustainable community of languages, and presented a mapping project with the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression on the historical associations and very different modern resonances of street and place names – another revealing strand of the symposium’s focus on the renewal of literature from the margins.

The afternoon ended with a discussion of possible future directions in the work on translingual writing by contemporary women authors. Suggestions – which will feed into the larger conference envisaged for 2019 – include further exploration of:

• a theoretical base, refining concepts of translingualism, multilingualism, writing with etc.;
• translingual writing and gender;
• the mother tongue: is it a cliché to be tested and resisted or a recourse to a concept of origin and comfort; how does it help to clarify the identities of writers as daughters and mothers?
• translingual writing and the literary market
• translingual desire
• questions of identity and belonging: multiple / hybrid / resisting expectations of identity discourse?
• translingual writing and the concept of authorship: often translingual writing is polyphonic writing; what place does the author (narrator) take?
• resistance: against the monolingual paradigm? the majority / hegemonic (?) society in which the migrant writer lives and writes? patriarchal society?
• the relationship between spoken and written language
• The question of ‘authenticity’; also: how to write accent ?
• distance as a creative element;
• the translatability of translingual writing.

Watch this space! A Call for Papers will be issued shortly.

Margaret May, MRes student, IMLR and Godela Weiss-Sussex, Reader in Modern German Literature


Languages in contact. New challenges for planning and policies

Katia Pizzi reports on the conference ‘Languages in contact: New challenges for planning and policies’, held in Gorizia, Italy on 19 January 2018


This conference was the fruit of a collaboration between Dr Katia Pizzi (OWRI Cross-Language Dynamics, Translingual communities) and SLORI (Slovenian Research Institute). The impetus was to create a forum of discussion on language education policies in the border region Friuli Venezia Giulia, at the Slovenian-Italian border. Three languages (Italian, Slovenian and Friulian) are spoken in the region, with translanguaging and code switching occurring on a daily basis. Yet the official language of schooling is Italian alone.

Two keynote speakers presented case studies from other parts of Europe mapping onto this region: Prof Janice Carruthers (QUB) used the MEITS project as a springboard to introduce issues of language and identity in Celtic languages, stretching from Breton to Irish. Prof Christian Voss (Berlin Humboldt) discussed the revitalisation of Slavic varieties on the Greek-Slavic border, especially Bulgarian as spoken by the Muslim Pomak community in Western Thrace, following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Papers that followed covered aspects of plurilingualism and contact in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region (Prof Fabiana Fusco), contact-induced change in Slovenian modality (Profs Franc Marusic and Rok Zaucer) and terminology as a device shaping the linguistic landscape of contact border areas (Dr Matejka Grgic). Given the urgency of this theme, the final discussion was vibrant, even heated on occasion. Good practice was shared and a variety of issues relating to history, identity, ethnicity and social class were raised and thrashed out.

The Director of SLORI (Prof Devan Jagodic) and Dr Pizzi gave welcome speeches. Dr Pizzi chaired the proceedings. The audience was mainly composed of school teachers, graduate students, linguists and interested non-academic public. They were extremely attentive and engaged in the topics discussed, raising articulated questions. The conference attracted much media attention and was covered in the Slovenian daily Primorski dnevnik and by the national evening news.

We are currently discussing and pursuing publication venues, in Trieste or London.















Dr Katia Pizzi, Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies, IMLR

From Conference to Publication

Women’s Ageing in Contemporary Women’s Writing, a One-Day Cross-Cultural Conference, 26 September 2015, King’s College London, leading to a special issue of the Journal of Romance Studies (JRS), Vol. 17.3, Winter 2017.

Many of the conferences and workshops held at the IMLR lead to publications, in particular to special issue of the Institute’s journal, the JRS. The conference below was held in September 2015 and, after a rigorous peer-review process, was published two years later as the special issue ‘Women’s Ageing in Contemporary Women’s Writing’, edited by Kate Averis and María-José Blanco. It includes six of the revised papers delivered at the conference plus an introduction. Here is the report of the original and very successful conference, written by Maria Tomlinson (Universities of Reading and Bristol) and Polly Galis (University of Leeds). You can see how a conference leads to a publication.


This conference, organised jointly by María-José Blanco (King’s College London) and Kate Averis (previously at the University of London Institute in Paris), explored the representation of women’s ageing in a variety of works by female authors from France, Spain, Algeria, Argentina, Mauritius, Germany, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The event was supported by KCL, ULIP, the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW) and the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR). Throughout the day the papers sparked lively, wide-ranging debates on the identity of older women and the ways in which they are viewed by society.
The first panel brought together three papers that examined the representation of dementia and Alzheimer’s in novels from France, Germany, and Argentina. Literary portrayal of the retirement home was a key theme explored in this panel, with the first paper discussing French society’s promulgation of derogatory labels such as ‘mouroir’ or ‘gagatorium’ when referring to a nursing home. The second paper considered the ways in which two German-language novels attempt to persuade readers to empathise with dementia sufferers and value them as people. The final paper analysed the endeavour of two characters to record their mothers’ life experiences before their memories faded away. In the discussion that followed, the attendees discussed the changing role of grandmothers and questioned how literature could challenge the negative medical discourse that surrounds elderly people.

The second panel brought together two papers that delved into literary depictions of the ageing female body as abject and undesirable. The first offered a cross-cultural comparison between two francophone novels, set in India and Algeria respectively, that both explored the shame of menopausal characters who are silenced by the societies in which they live. The second paper investigated three novels from France, providing an analysis of their depiction of the ageing woman’s body as monstrous yet docile. These papers engendered an animated discussion on Simone de Beauvoir’s ambiguous position on the menopause as well as the power of literature to fill the linguistic void surrounding the experiences of menopausal and postmenopausal women.

The third panel highlighted the paucity of discourse on women’s ageing available to older female authors. The papers presented drew attention to older women’s antithetical perspectives on mid-life and old age. Collectively, the panellists examined the works of US-born, Canadian, French and Spanish authors. The first theme that emerged from these papers centred on the position of the older woman as an asexual ‘Other’. Even though the Beauvoirian take on women’s ageing was shown to paint a negative portrayal of otherness, the notion of becoming an(Other) was also presented as a positive process. Similarly, while the climacteric and postmenopausal years were deemed a time of degeneration or stasis on the one hand, they were depicted as a transitive period of liminality on the other. This moment is a rite of passage during which the woman stands at life’s crossroads, awaiting her future. Central to this divide was the concept of grandmaternity, since becoming a grandmother is shown to signify both a potentially liberating and fruitful experience and an entrapment.

This paradox was emphasised in the fourth panel. Here too, old age was shown to embody both limits and possibilities. The corpus of works ranged from those of a Mexican artist, and an Argentinian-born French author. This panel rejected the conceptualization of old age as a stage of stagnation, and appealed instead to its transformative capacity. The transnational sources examined in this panel served to highlight how the fluidity of a multi-lingual and transnational identity dispels the stasis that is usually associated with old age. If the liminal space of old age was linked to grandmaternity in the previous panel, it was intimately yoked in this instance to the in-between space across languages, nations and temporal spaces.

The closing discussion aptly expanded on the recurring issues at work in each panel, beginning with the pour-soi, en-soi debate. In each panel a clear tension arose between the old woman as a figure of the other in itself (en-soi) and the subject for itself (pour-soi). This perspective challenged the notion of a moi permanent. Is it ever possible to speak of a permanent ‘I’ when our identity is multi-faceted to begin with, and when this is fragmented further through such developments as (grand)maternity, dementia, bodily changes and transnational movements? Or when, as Nora Levinton asserted, ‘we are memory’? The discussion then came onto a further fundamental question: how far is it possible to say that ‘we are our bodies’? As discussed throughout this conference, neglecting the importance of bodily experience can be limiting for narratives about women’s ageing, since the gendered body draws a definitive dividing line between the male and female experience of ageing. After all, women’s life stages are reinforced through corporal processes, such as menstruation, reproductive capacity and the menopause. In addition, the changes which affect the body inevitably come to affect the ways in which we experience the world mentally and emotionally. Yet, to focus too much on the body overlooks subjective agency. To insist on the Cartesian dualism that separates mind from body may actually facilitate our attempts to undermine a patriarchal discourse that reduces women of all ages to their body. Whether these dividing lines render a focus on the female body more or less liberating for female narratives on ageing was left as a subject for further debate, as was that of a moi permanent.

Nonetheless, this conference went a long way to fill in the gaps of existing discourse on women’s ageing by enabling a dialogue to emerge between antithetical perspectives, and by shedding light on creative responses to women’s ageing from older women themselves. In all cases, the panellists rejected a purely generational model of female identity, and a linear definition of what it means to be an ageing woman.

Maria Tomlinson (Universities of Reading and Bristol); Polly Galis (University of Leeds)