01 June 2010
Two views on multilingualism in fiction
Paul F. Bandia, in his review of Fictionalising Translation and Multilingualism (2005), edited by Dirk Delabastita and Rainier Grutman, talks about two views about the mixing of languages in a literary text.
The first view is this: "Multilingualism in fiction can be said to challenge the dominant role of powerful global languages such as English by forcing the reader to engage in some form of translation in the reading process, thus marking the presence of other marginalized languages. The dominant global language is made to share the literary space with other minority languages in an attempt to represent the multiple voices coexisting in today’s multiethnic societies. For some the mere occurrence of these languages is an act of resistance to hegemonic languages, for others fictional heterolingualism is only an appropriate reflection of real-world language practices. In postcolonial fiction, for instance, the writing of literary heteroglossia often implies a certain quest for an egalitarian relationship between languages."
The second view is this: "Far from enacting resistance or creating a level playground for languages, multilingualism is often used not necessarily because of the incommensurability of languages, but rather for reasons pertaining to aesthetics, ideology or identity politics.”
As I've taken pains to establish (slowly and not so systematically, I admit), these two views deal only superficially with multilingual texts. It is true that, on the surface, authors either deliberately want to give importance (equal or not) to the other languages or use the other languages to beef up the main language, but on a theoretical and deeper level, all literary texts are products of the interaction between two or more languages (not just voices as Bakhtin thought) - the mother tongue of the writer (in the case of monolingual writers, the idiolect) and the main language of the text (for lack of better words, the literary register or idiom). Each language contains within itself the culture that originally or eventually created it ("eventually," because english today has replaced English). We are thus dealing not only with multiple languages but with multiple cultures, whether the writer explicitly admits it or not (not all writers are self-conscious about their aesthetic decisions).