Translation and Translanguaging launch, 18 July 2014

I have just spent the day being inspired by speakers at the launch conference in Birmingham of the AHRC Translating Cultures large grant on ‘Translation and Translanguaging’ – the speakers included Gautam Malkani, author of LondonstaniGisela Stuart MP, Venetia Porter, Assistant Keeper of Islamic and contemporary Middle East at the British Museum, and  Professor Christina Schaeffner of Aston University; the final session was an enlightening panel discussion to which a range of project partners contributed, from the worlds of heritage, sport, law, business and social care.

A flavour of the event can be found via the reactions at #TLAUNCH14 on Twitter , and the full programme is available here.

What follows are my comments concluding the day:

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What a remarkable day! After such a rich, diverse and stimulating programme, it is a real privilege to be asked to say a few words in conclusion and in response to the proceedings.

I am going to start with the ‘MANIFESTO FOR LANGUAGES’ launched by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages which Angela Creese cited this morning  and of which I was proud to be a signatory last week. The document contains a key observation:

English is an important world language, but the latest cutting-edge research [to which this exceptional project we are launching today will surely contribute] shows that, in the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English. (my emphasis).

This is, I would argue, a notion that underpins also the Translating Cultures theme in general: contrary to the received wisdom in the UK, language barriers do not exist – they are in fact constructed; in other words [and this has been a refrain throughout today’s event], multilingualism should be a resource not a problem. We have a duty to understand the construction of language barriers, and we have much to learn from study of the ways in which languages – as vehicles of cultures, societies and communities – co-exist and negotiate their inter-relationships.

Adrian Blackledge focused this morning on the idea of the linguistic repertoire as opposed to an understanding of autonomous, atomised languages, and what is becoming increasingly clear is that the 21st century is itself post-monolingual: monolingualism was indeed an ideological invention and imposition of the Enlightenment, a phenomenon out of step with the way that most people in the world – including many in this country – lead their lives. The British Academy – in Lost for words: UK language capacity in the fields of diplomacy, international relations and security – has recognized this fact:

In an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, language skills [and I would add understandings of language] are gaining rather than losing their relevance.

This is also the logic of Translating Cultures theme:

  • First, the theme is response to a challenge – in a world seen to be increasingly characterized by transnational and globalized connections, there is a need for understanding and communication within, between and across diverse cultures is stronger than ever;
  • —Secondly, the Translating Cultures theme addresses this need by studying the role of translation, understood in its broadest sense, in the transmission, interpretation, transformation and sharing of languages, values, beliefs, histories and narratives;
  • Thirdly, the project aims for historical, geographical and disciplinary breadth.

There are two core objectives:

  • to develop knowledge of the nature of translation as a process that occurs across different languages, cultures, generations, media, genres and sectors – with an emphasis on exploration of cultural dynamics of translation [reflected in ‘Translation and Translanguaging’ with its emphasis on the importance of translation-as-negotiation];
  • to engage effectively from Arts and Humanities perspective with key areas of public concern – witnessed in the final session of today’s event – by informing the work of policy makers and public, private and third sector organizations. The public understanding of translation and multilingualism is as a result a key area of activity.

‘Translation and Translanguaging’ is part of larger constellation of projects: around 80 awards have been made so far, including research development awards, network grants (allowing new communities of academics to be formed), and fellowships; these projects are across a broad subject range, and there is evidence of interest in areas such as diplomacy, cross-cultural creativity, digital media, translation itself. Last year, three additional large grants were awarded, of an unprecedented scale and complexity in terms of Arts and Humanities research in UK. ‘Translation and Translanguaging’ is one of these, and I am delighted that the other two projects are represented in the audience today.

The large grants provide clear evidence of the ways in which thematic approaches to research should work – federating activity, and encouraging researchers to think different, to work differently, to choose different interlocutors, to move outside the academy [as today’s fascinating closing panel has made clear] in order to co-design research, to explore questions of mutual interest and to seek new audiences for the findings of scholarship. They also demonstrate the benefits of such significant investment – allowing the formation of large teams to ask complex questions with direct resonance in wider social and cultural debates.

‘Translation and Translanguaging’ is a beacon – it will be an inspiration for other researchers and stakeholders; the team is made up of a remarkable group of people – from across disciplines, across institutions and organizations, and also from a variety of countries. I have had the privilege of working with this team, of meeting a number of partners this morning, and of seeing the research questions crystalize and connections between case studies become clear.

What excites me about the project is that it will:

  • allow us to understand, in new ways, how people communicate multilingually across diverse languages and cultures;
  • contribute to redefinitions of ‘translation’ as the negotiation of meaning using different modes (spoken/written/visual/gestural) in situations where speakers often have different proficiencies in a range of languages and varieties;
  • think about place, and acknowledge that such practices occur in ‘translation zones’, and these are key to our understanding of translation and negotiation;
  • situate at the core of project the idea that speakers are not confined to using languages separately, but rather they ‘translanguage’ as they seek to make meaning – this is central to the concerns of the theme: i.e., investigating how communication occurs (or fails) when people bring different histories and languages into contact.

The context of project is clear, and includes:

  • 2011 Census
  • British Social Attitudes survey
  • BA/Guardian campaign for languages
  • APPG on Modern Languages, Manifesto for Languages

There is a genuine urgency around the questions being asked:

  • relating to mobility, and the cultural and linguistic diversity this generates;
  • relating to linguistic mapping – and what this tell us about culture and society;
  • relating to the increasing presence of ‘audible minorities’ in what are, in many place, increasingly multilingual societies – as Gisela Stuart made clear this morning, we urgently need to understand the subtleties and shifts that statistics and blanket statements about this situation tend to disguise.

To answer these questions, the challenge is to engage with sectors and experts – and a full range of these have been represented today: law, business and enterprise, politics, sport, museums; we have seen that outcomes of the project will impact on policy in areas of economic growth, migration, health and well-being, sport, cultural heritage, law and justice, by informing the work of policy-makers and public, private and third sector organisations. The project is, as a result, a clear response to a recent observation of British Chambers of Commerce: ‘The next generation of business owners must be ‘born global’ with language skills.’

But being ‘born global’ has, of course, implications beyond any particular sector and any particular group, and we have been given a flavour today of the remarkable group of researchers, collaborators and stakeholders of the ‘Translanguaging and Translation’ project who will be seeking to demonstrate this. They bring to project an impressive range of experience and knowledge. Angela Creese is doing an incredible job of bringing people together and allowing them  to think differently and work differently. The ingredients are here for a significant project likely to have resonance within and beyond academia. My hope is that team will have a leavening effect on the ways in which we think about translation and language more generally – in Higher Education, but crucially in wider society.

When I discover more about the ‘Translation and Translanguaging’ project – and indeed of much of the work of the ‘Translating Cultures’ theme more generally – I am reminded of the words of the translingual Japanese-German author Yoko Tawada: ‘Whoever speaks with a foreign tongue is both bird and ornithologist in one person’. The launched today reminds us that the study of languages and cultures leads invariably to an enhanced self-reflexivity and self-knowledge, encouraging what Martha Nussbaum has described as ‘an essential ability to see one’s own nation, in turn, as part of a complicated world order in which issues of many kinds require intelligent transnational deliberation for their resolution’.[1]

Gisela Stuart picked up this morning on the peculiarly British idea that language is something that exists and happens elsewhere. The Translation scholar Michael Cronin has challenged this notion by focusing not just on the detour inherent in the study of otherness, whether linguistic or cultural, but also on the experience of translation itself:  ‘The student of translation soon realizes […] that the genuinely strange and unexplored territory is their mother tongue. In other words, there is a sense in which translation becomes a dual experience of limits in language and culture.’[2]

I am delighted that Ian Grosvenor opened today’s event by quoting from Ben Okri’s Birds of Heaven:

Stories are the secret reservoirs of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.[3]

What excites me most about ‘Translation and Translanguaging’ is the way in which – in partnership and in collaboration – it will contribute to changing the repertoire of stories that allow us to explore limits in identity, culture, language and place. In part, this is a question of recovering narratives that have long remained inaudible; in part and by extension, this is also, of course, about allowing stories to be told in a variety of languages; but finally, it is about exploring the new languages in which those stories can be told.

Many thanks for today’s event, and good luck with the project.

 


[1]               Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010), p.26.

[2]                Michael Cronin, Translation in the Digital Age (London: Routledge, 2013), p.67.

[3]               Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven (London: Phoenix, 1996), p.21.


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