Writing Across Languages debrief

The “Writing Across Languages” panel yesterday was, I thought, a grand success. As I mentioned in introducing the panel yesterday, the title itself was an act of what it describes, since the Chinese title of “Writing Across Languages” is 跨語際寫作 (“Translingual Writing”), which is the Chinese title of the monograph by Lydia Liu 劉禾 on how early 20th century Chinese literature crafted a new language out of the translations of other concepts and literatures; the title of her book in English–the language it was first written in–is Translingual Practice, a fine example of which is the transformation of the term “Translingual Practice” to 跨語際寫作 to “Writing Across Languages.” Our panel was also interesting in part because our panelists did not share a common language, and so we embodied not only writing across languages, but speaking across languages as well. Many thanks to our tireless simultaneous interpreters, Pan Jun 潘珺 and Wu Hui 吳惠!

All four participants–Bejan Matur (Turkey), Tomaž Šalamun (Slovenia), Tian Yuan 田原(China / Japan), and Yao Feng 姚風 (China / Macau)–had fascinating stories to tell and analyses to provide about their relationships with several languages, and how these languages and relationships helped create their poetry. Amidst Matur’s and Šalamun’s speeches about politically-motivated silencing–of Kurdish in Matur’s Turkey, and of Serbian in the Trieste of Šalamun’smother’s youth–I couldn’t help but think of Paul Celan, and how his writing in German worked to dismantle the language, and thereby cleanse it of its recent historical associations (some have said something similar about Bei Dao‘s search for a clean Chinese).

I think the role of the moderator is to speak little, a difficult task for me since my inclination is also to be a decidedly immoderate moderator. Nevertheless, I will add here a point I raised in response to Xu Xi‘s mention of the imperialism of English: it’s irresponsible–if not impossible–to talk about the spread of English without talking about the spread of American imperialism and all the changes, for the better and for the worse, that that has brought to the world; but the logic of empire is not to admit translations: much was translated out of Sanskrit, but Sanskrit evidently didn’t have a word for translation; Greek was translated into the “barbarian” languages, but what was kept in those languages was not transmitted into Greek; and Latin was translated into the other languages of Europe and North Africa, not the other way around. This model is mirrored in the obvious imbalance of translations into and out of English–much of translation around the world is from English into other languages, whereas translations only account for a notorious 3% of the American book market. To that end, the more we translate into English, the more we we allow English to be one language amongst others, instead of a hegemonic language imposing its logic and worldview on the rest of the world; in short, the more we translate into English, the more we are working against the imperialism of English and American economic and cultural domination.

Two more readings today for the International Poetry Nights, both at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity (Multi-Media Theatre, 135 Junction Road, Kowloon): at 3:30 with Vivek Narayanan (India), Silke Scheuermann (Germany), Wong Leung Wo 王良和 (Hong Kong), and Yao Feng (Macau), and then at 7:00 with María Baranda (Mexico), Chen Ko Hua 陳克華 (Taiwan), Tomaž Šalamun (Slovenia), Yu Jian 于堅 (China).

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