Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW), previews one of the unmissable events celebrating the centre’s 10th anniversary.  

Across languages’, a major international conference in the Institute of Modern Language Research (IMLR) at Senate House on 30–31 May, is one of the high points of our celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the CCWW’s existence. At the same time, it is an example of the huge opportunity that collaboration between projects and centres can bring, as we join forces with the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Open World Research Initiative project ‘Cross-Language Dynamics’. Its ‘translingual strand’ is based at IMLR.

But what exactly is translingualism? Essentially, it is the practice of speaking or writing in a language that is not the speaker/writer’s mother tongue.

‘Why is this worth studying?’ you may ask. Because the texts produced in this way often, display an extraordinary richness and creativity. Grammatical structures might cross over from one language into another and create new connections. The borrowing or adaptation of words and phrases from different languages creates not only neologisms, but may also open the window towards whole new ways of thinking and of seeing the world when we are shaken out of our monolingual linear logic and ‘led astray’ into making associations by similarities of sound.

Katja Petrowskaja, a writer who grew up speaking Russian but wrote her literary quest to retrieve lost narratives of her Jewish Polish-Ukrainian family’s history in German, provides wonderful examples of this. ‘Poland, Polyn, Polonia, Polania, po-lan-ya, here-lives-God, three Hebrew words that made a Promised Land for the Jews out of the Slavic Poland’, she muses, for instance, drawing our attention to the associative power of cross-language thinking.

Translingual writing is of course not a new phenomenon. In the course of history, it has often been a necessity in contexts of migration or exile. But in our globalised contemporary world, it is a phenomenon that is frequently embraced by choice, too.

For a long time, the writing across languages – or writing in a new language while not jettisoning the old one entirely – was seen as somehow ‘defective’, labelled as ‘incorrect language use’ (Creole is a case in point here). Now we are exploring the opportunities for identitarian expression and for creativity that this jump across language boundaries brings with it. Translingual writing is growing everywhere in the world, and the enthusiastic response of readers shows its potential to contribute to a renewal of national literatures ‘from the margins’.

Our conference will be looking at translingual authors operating between a variety of languages: Japanese and German, English and Creole, Somali-Italian, Amazigh and Catalan and many more … Examining examples and practices from across the world, we will be aiming to discover what writing across languages can achieve that monolingual writing cannot.

The conference will include an author/translator conversation between Katja Petrowskaja and her translator, Shelley Frisch. Both Katja and Shelley have won several prizes for their work on Vielleicht Esther/Maybe Esther, and only last month, Maybe Esther was shortlisted for the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, which celebrates the best books about the Russian-speaking world. The event on 30 May, 6pm, is a wonderful opportunity to hear them speak, and quiz them, about the processes of writing and translating translingually.

For further information on or registration for the Across Languages conference and/or the author/translator conversation, please see: Encounters: Katja Petrowskaja and Shelley Frisch and Across Languages: Translingualism in Contemporary Women’s Writing.

Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, is a reader in modern German literature at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her current research focuses on: German-Jewish women’s writing in the 20th and 21st centuries as ‘minor literature’; metropolitan consumer culture and the literary imagination; and translingual writing.

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