Translating Cultures: Reflections on a Theme

In the context of current debates over the future of modern languages, it has been important to ensure that concerns over undergraduate recruitment and over the national shortage of modern linguists in the UK do not detract from the continued development of an urgently required intellectual project and a disciplinary coherence. Over the past two months, it has been encouraging to see the (re)launch of two major research centres, at the Universities of London (Institute for Modern Language Research) and Southampton (Institute for Language and Culture), both of which aim to encourage innovative work across the subfields of modern languages whilst raising the profile of the subject area both within and beyond academia. I was very pleased to be able to talk about translating cultures at both events – what follows is the text of the Southampton presentation:

 Translating Cultures: Reflections on a Theme

The aims of these reflections are two-fold. First, I would like to explore, from my perspective as theme leadership fellow, the work currently emerging from across the Arts and Humanities spectrum under the AHRC’s ‘translating cultures’ theme; secondly, I aim to deploy some of the questions raised by, and lessons learned from, this research to address more generally the challenges you have set yourself as core activities of the Institute for Language and Culture in Southampton, namely (i) to promote innovative research on language and culture, (ii) to federate the work of researchers from Modern Languages, Film and other disciplines in the Faculty of Humanities and the wider University, and (iii) to bring the findings of your research and related activities to wider publics. Central to my presentation is the observation that the identification of new directions for research in language and culture depends, as your objectives imply, on building new communities and alliances, and on seeking new audiences.

I begin, therefore, with the third of these aims, encompassing the issues of wider understanding and of external perception. These remain in my view amongst the greatest challenges for those of us active in the teaching and researching of language and culture. I have been struck over the past year by the increasing visibility of questions of language in public life and political debate. Prominent campaigns, such as the British Academy/Guardian joint initiative making ‘the case for language learning’, have contributed to this. The development is also linked in part to the publication of the results of the 2011 census, and the sophisticated linguistic mapping of recent shifts this has encouraged. What emerges from the data released by the Office of National Statistics is a sense of the UK itself as a linguistic patchwork: over 100 different languages are now spoken in the UK, with 49 of these having more than 15,000 users; one million households have no members for whom English is a main language, although most of these remain to a greater or lesser degree bilingual since only 138,000 people were recorded as not being able to speak English at all. There have been other prominent linguistic news stories, linked not least to questions of languages, asylum and the law. These have related, for example, to challenges raised against the Home Office’s use of flawed language analysis for the determination of origin (otherwise known as ‘LADO’) of migrants, and, back in February, to the Justice Select Committee’s report, ‘Interpreting and translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract’, both of which underlined the importance of high standards of translating and interpreting to the maintenance of an equitable judicial system. (The outsourcing of these services last year has been criticized as ‘nothing short of shambolic’, not least because trials have been caused to collapse and suspects have been unnecessarily remanded in custody; at the same time, evidence of regular mistranslation by unqualified interpreters clearly compromises the credibility of legal process.) At the same time, the radical reduction of translation services – locally in boroughs such as Newham in London, or more widely by the Driving Standards Agency who from next year will insist that driving tests should be conducted in English or Welsh (‘the national languages’) – have permitted a focus on the convergence of austerity policies with ideologies of monolingualism and linguistic integration.

In the cultural sphere, linguistic diversity as a cultural condition, and translation as an intercultural process, have also attracted increasing – and ever more creative – attention, not as elements of a wider context in which cultural products circulate, but as subject matter in their own right. Critics have now written extensively on films such as Babel and Lost in Translation, and there is a growing corpus of novels in which translation or language acquisition are the motor for plot or the underpinnings for character development. (I am thinking of works such as Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar, and Vassilis Alexakis’s Les Mots étrangers.) Recent popular essays have explored the cultures of translation or the nature of the polyglot. (David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? detected and catered for a public curiosity regarding translation, and also – in its subtitle, Translation and the Meaning of Everything­ – reflected the sense that translation is one of the guiding paradigms for understanding the twenty-first-century world; Michael Erard, in Babel No More, used a study of the eighteenth-century polyglot Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti to explore the mechanics of polyglossia.) Translation is also increasingly seen as a mode of creativity in its own right. Over the summer, at the Southbank Centre, Sarah Ardizzone curated ‘The Spectacular Translation Machine’ project, in which, over a single weekend, members of the public collectively translated an entire French book into English. (Sarah spoke at a panel on ‘translation in a digital age’ we organized in association with ‘translating cultures’ as part of the British Academy/Guardian language festival in November.) This idea of translation as creative collaboration is expanded further by Adam Thirlwell in his recent anthology Multiples, in which twelve stories are translated successively, involving in total sixty-one authors and eighteen different languages. Linguistic mutability and the transformations of narratives subjected to translation become the subject of the work, a phenomenon equally apparent in other recent poetry projects, such as W.N. Herbert and Yang Lian’s Sino-Scottish collaboration in The Third Shore, a series of mutual translations produced by Chinese- and English-language poets. (Yang Lian contributed to a fascinating and very well-attended ‘translating cultures’ panel at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October.)

These rather eclectic examples – political, social, cultural and literary – suggest that a clear tension exists between – on the one hand – recognition (even celebration) that multilingualism is constitutive of globalized culture and society in the twenty-first century, and – on the other – a persistent sense that linguistic diversity is an impediment rather than an asset. In parallel, both within our institutions and amongst a wider public, there is often a limited grasp of what constitutes the study of languages and cultures – and in particular of what constitutes work at the intersection of these phenomena, i.e. – work that depends, in Mary Louise Pratt’s terms to which I shall return, on ‘the importance of knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages’. I do not need – in the present company – to rehearse the reasons for this, for we are all familiar with the belief that studying a language is primarily a matter of the acquisition of a set of linguistic skills ripe for intrumentalization in other contexts and for other ends; familiar with the misconception that research into languages and cultures is somehow chronically extroverted and lacking in relevance for national and domestic concerns; familiar with the reduction of language to a particular nation (French is a particular casualty of this fallacy), meaning that the role of languages in the understanding of complex transnational cultural formations is often frustratingly ignored.

In her 2002 Silver Dialogue at NYU, Mary Louise Pratt addressed the importance of ‘BUILDING A NEW PUBLIC IDEA ABOUT LANGUAGE’. She starts from a domestic space, the culturally diverse gathering of a ‘California wedding party at a big Bay Area hotel’, to explore the status of the U.S.A. as a ‘language cemetery’. Addressing what she sees as the ‘hundred-year American love affair with monolingualism’, Pratt repeats the well-known joke: ‘What do you call a person who knows three languages? “Trilingual.” What do you call a person who knows two languages? “Bilingual.” What do you call a person who knows only one language? “An American.”’ Writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Pratt could already see that the situation was changing, that the country was woefully underequipped in linguistic terms to deal with rapidly changing geopolitical realities, that the strategic value of languages was rapidly reappearing on political agendas, and that with such shifts came recognition of America’s status as a post-monolingual society. Pratt concluded: ‘the country is rediscovering the pleasures and pains of living multilingually; Spanish is becoming a de facto second language; people are learning to work in contact with multiple languages in every aspect of daily life.’ There are of course other national groups with monolingual tendencies – or at least complicit in the cultivation of a myth of their own monolingualism – who could easily step in to serve as the punch line for Pratt’s joke, not least in Great Britain. But what is becoming increasingly evident on both sides of the Atlantic is that, although the linguistic biases of the Anglosphere evidently favour English, the advocates of an all-encroaching, ‘English-is-enough’ monolingualism are becoming less vocal as we acknowledge that linguistic diversity is no longer only constitutive of other cultures but is also – indeed, with varying emphases, has always been – a key element of our own. For Pratt, this is the context in which misconceptions are to be challenged and in which there is a related need for ‘a new public idea about language, language learning, multilingualism, and citizenship.’ And this is where – as Pratt notes – we come in: ‘If scholars and teachers of language are able to seize this opening, they will make themselves heard as advocates not for particular languages but for the importance of knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages. Speaking as people who have had the opportunity to learn languages well, who made the effort and reap the rewards, scholars of non-English languages and cultures are uniquely situated to bear witness to the possibilities of language learning and to make the case for language learning as an aspect of educated citizenship. I believe we need to make that case in as many ways as possible, right now.’

There are clear differences in national contexts, but Pratt’s concluding proposals resonate with those articulated by public advocacy campaigns in the UK such as ‘Routes into Languages’ and ‘Speak to the Future’. I summarize them here: second-language acquisition does not have to begin in early childhood; strategic, commercial and national security concerns define our language needs too narrowly; monolingualism is a handicap by which no child should be impeded; local heritage communities must be engaged by our language programmes and included in the logic of our campaigns; advanced competence is a key educational goal; and we need linguistic pipelines at every level, ensuring that gifted linguists are encouraged and retained. We are all aware of the existence of a range of organisations, associations and initiatives in the UK whose objective is the achievement of these aims. What strikes me as important is the need for a concerted campaign with a common front, making the case for language learning in its diversity as well as seeking to encourage and protect research in the area of language and culture. Not only should strategies to further these longer-term ends be supported by a clear set of practical tactics to respond to immediate issues and challenges; but also there is a need for an approach to language that allows us to work in our chosen fields – as modern linguists or as language-based area studies specialists, for instance – whilst maintaining connections and alliances with those with an interest in community languages, heritage languages, and wider questions of translingual shift and mix. Essential also is the urgency need to ensure that an uncertain future for languages does not eclipse the excellent work – in terms of public understanding, of outreach, of pedagogical innovation and of original research – that continues to develop in the field of languages and cultures, and that your institute seeks to showcase. I come back here, of course, to Pratt’s emphasis on advocacy: ‘not for particular languages but for the importance of knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages’.

One stakeholder, matchmaker and major funder within this landscape is the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and I would like now to focus on the AHRC’s ‘translating cultures’ theme and to give you a flavour of the work that is currently emerging under that banner. Projects from across the Arts and Humanities have now been funded in relation to the theme, with a core of grants in modern languages, linguistics and translation studies supplemented by work in a variety of other fields concerned with language, translation and interpreting. To thirteen initial research development awards have now been added thirty-seven fellowships and thirty research networking projects, and three further large ‘beacon’ grants  of a scale unprecedented in the Arts and Humanities were announced in September. The theme also involves a number of external collaborators, some of whom I have mentioned already, others of whom are involved in individual projects, essential to the successful dissemination of the findings of research to wider audiences. At the same time, there are a number of additional projects associated with the theme, and we are also keen to draw postgraduate students into the wider community this work encompasses. A theme-based approach provides a clear focus for emerging areas of interest to arts and humanities researchers, and permits exploration of partnership-based activities and innovative cross-disciplinary approaches; it also recognizes that interdisciplinary and collaborative research, especially that involving a degree of speculation, disruption and risk, often requires particular forms of support to develop its full potential. The current AHRC themes were identified through the Future Directions for Arts and Humanities Research consultation in 2009, and aim to support a variety of research areas that were thought likely to shape or change aspects of multiple research fields in the twenty-first century. These areas have been grouped under our four themes, and, in addition to ‘Translating Cultures’, parallel clusters of projects are being conducted under the headings of ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past’, ‘Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities’ and ‘Science in Culture’. There have been fruitful, cross-theme collaborations between ‘translating cultures’ and each of these other themes, as well as with the cross-council programme ‘Connected Communities’, further evidence of the potentially leavening effect of work in languages and cultures across the arts and humanities, and beyond.

A few words about ‘translating cultures’. The AHRC did not coin the phrase, and the suggestive juxtaposition of these two terms has been in evidence in scholarly publications since the 1990s, in translation studies, in literary studies and in anthropology. ‘Translating cultures’ responds to an immediate context: for in a world often seen to be increasingly characterized by transnational and globalized connections as well as by the instantaneous transfer of digital communication, the need for understanding within, between and across diverse cultures is stronger than ever. Research funded under the 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. Central to this work is engagement with key concepts important across the arts, humanities and social sciences such as multiculturalism, tolerance, intolerance, and identity; the theme also provides an excellent opportunity to address major areas of public concern such as diplomacy and international relations, commerce, health and well-being, conflict and security, law and migration, and questions of identity, particularly as they are related to cultural diversity, mobility and multilingualism.

‘You will sense that ‘translating’ is presented here as a ‘translation term’, much in the same way as James Clifford suggests (in the essay ‘Translating Cultures’) we might use ‘travel’, i.e. ‘a word of apparently general application used for comparison in a strategic and contingent way’, words that ‘get us some distance and fall apart’.[1] That said, I am acutely aware of the debates around ‘cultural translation’, especially among critics of the term such as Tim Ingold and Anthony Pym, who approach with caution the (in Pym’s terms) ‘general notion that translation is not just of texts, but of entire cultural representations and identities’ – and who remind us that if translation is everything, then translation is nothing. There is also a need to acknowledge the important work on untranslatability and incommensurability. Three caveats or observations, therefore. First, it is important to understand the distinctiveness of translation in relation to other processes of interpretation, transfer, imitation, transformation and exchange with which it is at times problematically conflated; to that end, there is a need to acknowledge a range of variables: the sites, locations and zones within, across and between which translation occurs; the intermediaries and agents who perform the work of translation; the vehicles of translation, such as narratives, performances, objects and other cultural artefacts; the contexts in which translation occurs, such as those of youth culture, popular culture and diasporic culture, and of written, oral and performing cultures. Secondly, the yoking together of ‘translating’ and ‘cultures’ encourages engagement with the ways in which translation may be seen not only as a vehicle of intercultural transfer or connection, but also as a fundamental process constitutive of cultures in their very formation, self-projection and transformation; at the same time, and related to this, there is a need to acknowledge the role of translation both in processes of artistic and literary creation, and also as an active contributor in the development of new knowledge. Thirdly, it essential to recognize the extent to which that the place of translation in the work of those committed to studying languages and cultures is not an unproblematic one. There are tensions between, on the one hand, language acquisition and, on the other, reliance on translation – although of course few of those who consider ourselves to be linguists are true polyglots, and, as a scholar with interests in comparatism, postcolonialism and travel, I regularly rely on translations to reach beyond the restrictions of my own linguistic competence. I was reminded recently, however, in the context of minority languages, of the risk that an original text may be eclipsed by its translation. In his introduction to the Scottish Poetry Library’s 2007 collection, The Weaver’s Task: A Gaelic Sampler, Christopher Whyte described such linguistic dilution: ‘the original poem risked becoming a hieroglyph whose oddity could be appreciated and dispensed with at a glance.’

In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos discusses the traditional antagonism between Modern Languages and translation—an antagonism arguably detected in the occasional questioning in language departments of the merits of ‘teaching in translation’ as well as in a (now past?) reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which translation itself may be seen to constitute ‘research’. What the ‘translating cultures’ theme has revealed is that new relationships are rapidly developing between those committed to the study of languages and cultures, and those with an interest in the practice and theory of translation. Let’s not forget that a research theme – like an institute or centre – develops organically and often unpredictably, and can only succeed through the individual, collective and collaborative efforts on the ground of the community of scholars its manages to assemble. A research council theme may be seen as a directive mode initiative, but it can only develop once researchers respond to it from their own perspectives and in the light of their own interests. There are as a result ‘hot spots’, around which groups of researchers seem to cluster, and ‘cold spots’ (geographical, thematic and chronological) to which little attention is directed. What, then, have we learnt so far from work conducted around the ‘translating cultures’ theme? First, there is a primary need for clear intellectual underpinnings, and for clarity around the diverse theoretical, conceptual and methodological approaches that underpin the research being undertaken. Secondly, we must recognition that although translation is often understood initially and even primarily in interlingual terms, it is equally important to explore its intermedial and intercultural dimensions: we have a network at Roehampton on ‘Translating Music’, as well as fellowship awards on ‘Sculpture in Painting: Medial Translations in Renaissance Art’ and ‘Transcultural Encounters: Postcolonialism in the Visual Arts’. Thirdly, the theme has underlined the need to avoid any presentism in the research area as projects have approached translation from historical perspectives and also in terms of more contemporary interactions such as digital media and communication: projects range from ‘Translation in Medieval Francophone Texts and Manuscripts’ to ‘Diplomacy as translation: British foreign policy as a techno-cultural assemblage’. Fourthly, the notion of ‘translating cultures’ draws us to analyse the domestic and local as well as the distant and ‘foreign’, and importantly invites us to collapse the distance between the two: we have clusters of projects relating to particular geographical areas, most notably China and the Caribbean, which are being explored as ‘translation zones’ in their own right; also, one of our large grants, led by Angela Creese at the University of Birmingham, will transfer this notion to a domestic context and explore the concepts of translation and ‘trans­languaging’ in linguistically superdiverse wards in England and Wales’, suggesting the ways in which multilingualism might provide the new terminology to describe what was once known as the ‘multicultural’. Finally, translating cultures has underlined the importance of research on language and translation in the addressing of public concerns and also in contributions to policy, an area where – as arts and humanities researchers – we still have much to learn. There are many examples in this area, ranging from Hilary Footitt’s work on languages and international NGOs, to Sarah Craig’s network in Glasgow on Translation and Asylum Claims: Matters of law, language and silence’.

I would like to develop these reflections in conclusion with some further interlinked observations relating to today’s theme, i.e. new directions for research in language and culture. The first relates to disciplinarity – or at least to the need for a clearly articulated and distinctive intellectual project (or set of interlinked projects) with which our work is associated. We can debate the relative merits of close and distant reading, of cultural and intercultural contextualization, but I often return to Pratt’s succinct notion of ‘knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages’, for this summarizes our distinctive role in the scholarly landscape, and encapsulates the contribution we can make to a variety of other fields. Those who work on languages and cultures should be in the vanguard of research across the arts, humanities and social sciences, serving a catalytic and federating function across the full range of subject domains. My second point relates to this, and is based on the urgency of defining and redefining our objects of study: multilingualism is increasingly replacing monolingualism as the model whereby we understand the world; the erasure of boundaries promised by digital communication and improved transport technologies is in fact challenged by the proliferation of frontiers – as Régis Debray reminds us in L’Éloge des frontieres, the contemporary world is far from borderless: since 1991, particularly in Europe and Eurasia, 27,000 kilometres of new frontiers have been constructed; there are now four times as many nation-states represented at the UN as there were at the first meetings of the general assembly held in London in January 1946.[2] The task for a transnational, globalized approach to languages and cultures is precisely to engage with the hypercomplexity of the contemporary world; it is to historicize such a condition, to explore the extent to which it includes the persistence of national cultures; it is to emphasise the importance of travel and mobility (and I commend to you Stephen Greenblatt’s 2010 document, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, as a means of understanding not only border crossing, but also the fundamental importance of ‘contact zones’ and ‘translation zones’ between cultures thought to be (or that think themselves to be) distinct. The work represented by units such as the Institute for Languages and Cultures is to serve as standing challenge to what Michael Cronin has described as the contemporary ‘desire to maintain the benefits of connectedness without the pain of connection’.[3]

Thirdly and by extension, there is a question of location, and more particularly our own location. There is a fundamental reciprocity, a comparatism and an ethnographic purpose to the work we do. In the terms of the Japanese-German author Yoko Tawada: ‘Whoever speaks with a foreign tongue is both bird and ornithologist in one person’.[4] The study of languages and cultures leads invariably to an enhanced self-reflexivity, permitting what Martha Nussbaum sees 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’.[5] Cronin links this process not just to the detour inherent in the study of otherness, whether linguistic or cultural, but also to 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.’[6] In terms of articulating and sharing ‘a new public idea about language’ (and here I return to my starting point), recognising the importance of the ‘translation dynamic’ inherent in the study of languages and cultures strikes me as fundamental. I remain suspicious of the terminology of ‘impact’ and ‘public understanding’ as these emphasise reception and target to the detriment of any focus on the processes of transfer and translation they inevitably entail. ‘Knowledge Exchange’ has always struck me as preferable because at least it recognizes the unpredictability and often unexpected benefits of one of your new institute’s principal aims, that of bringing the findings of your research and related activities to wider publics. In terms of ‘translating cultures’ – of translating the significance of our work on languages and cultures into wider  disciplinary domains; of translating academic cultures into more general circulation and to new audiences – this remains our urgent task, and I wish you well as you continue to undertake it.

[1]               James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1997), p.26.

[2]               Cited by Michael Cronin, Translation in the Digital Age (London: Routledge, 2013), pp.65-66.

[3]               Michael Cronin, Translation and Globalization (London: Routledge, 2003), p.29.

[4]               Many thanks to Áine McMurty for drawing my attention to Tawada’s work in an excellent paper at the relaunch of the Institute of Modern Language Research, 7 December 2013.

[5]               Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010), p26.

[6]               Michael Cronin, Translation in the Digital Age, p.67.

David Cameron: ‘ditch French, learn Mandarin’ — a brief response

David Cameron ended his three-day visit to China last week by telling young people in the UK they should learn Mandarin Chinese as the language that will ‘seal tomorrow’s business deals’. His advice to educators was that pupils should move away from lessons in ‘traditional’ languages such as French and German, and instead focus on Chinese. The reporting on the speech picked up on the divisive, ‘either/or’ logic of the Prime Minister’s comments, and The Guardian summed up his message as: David Cameron urges British students to ditch French and learn Mandarin.

Given the purpose of his visit, Cameron’s motivation was primarily political, but he also cited Nelson Mandela on the wider value of language learning and its links to more general intercultural respect and understanding: “As Mandela once said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head, if you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.'” Adrian Armstrong and I drafted the response below on behalf of the Association of University Professors and Heads of French and the Society for French Studies:


While welcoming the Prime Minister’s public support for the strategic value of learning languages, we are concerned that he has expressed this in potentially divisive terms, setting languages against each other in an apparent competition for learners (‘Abandon French and learn Mandarin, says PM’, 5 December). The fundamental problem is not that UK citizens are learning the wrong languages. Instead, the country’s long-term needs are better served by a strategy that fosters a general commitment to a broader range of languages for all, rather than assuming that the development of capacity in some areas must entail withdrawal from others. We are encouraged by the recent British Council report, ‘Languages for the Future’, that identifies both Mandarin Chinese and French, among others, as the world languages that are priorities for future national well-being in the UK. This well-being is much more than commercial. The point emerges clearly from the late Nelson Mandela’s words, as quoted by the Prime Minister: learning other languages prepares young people for democratic and global citizenship, wherever they may eventually choose to live and work. 


Professor Adrian Armstrong (President, Association of University Professors and Heads of French); Professor Charles Forsdick (President, Society for French Studies)


Interview: Institute of Modern Language Research

The (re)launch of the Institute of Modern Language Research (IMLR) at Senate House on 7 December was a great success, and I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to share a panel with Barry Smith to present the interdisciplinary challenges afforded by the two themes for which we are leadership fellows, Translating Cultures and Science in Culture. Charles Burdett also joined us in the session to present the ‘Translating Cultures’ large grant of which he is PI, Transnationalizing Modern Languages: Mobility, Identity and Translation in Modern Italian Cultures.


The interview reproduced below, which I gave in advance of the event, is available on the SAS site in two parts: part 1, and part 2.

Despite, or because of, current challenges facing the sector, the newly launched Institute of Modern Language Research (IMLR) is determined to emphasise the pivotal role of modern languages in humanities research. This is due to the obvious multilingualism, internationalism and interdisciplinarity of its work, but also to the fact that its research agendas, along with the professional identities it creates, are marked and shaped by fundamental questions concerning: cultural communication and difference; the local, national and global; the relationships between history, place, and cultural and textual production.

On Saturday, 7 December 2013 IMLR will launch with a special conference to discuss and debate modern languages in the UK. We sat down to talk with Charles Forsdick, the James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool and President of the Society for French Studies to find out more.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us Charles. First of all, could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your area of research?

I locate myself firmly as a modern linguist, with modern languages understood in Mary Louise Pratt’s terms as ‘knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages’. One of the most important elements of the Worton report for HEFCE in 2009 on ‘Modern Foreign Languages provision in higher education in England’ was the observation that we need to construct a specialism that federates those who work across a range of languages and cultures, manages to articulate a common identity based on shared concepts and methods – and that generates as a result a unified idea of languages that we can share with those within and outwith the academy.

Michael Worton’s first recommendation was a compelling one, that we should ‘promote a clear and compelling identity for modern foreign languages as a humanities discipline’. For too long, the label ‘modern languages’ (from which the ‘foreign’ has thankfully been dropped) has designated institutional structures imposed from outside as a result of rationalisation and reorganisation rather than the urgent, lively and research-led intellectual project the discipline really deserves to be.

That said, I also remain firmly committed to working in the sub-field of French studies. My continued engagement in that area is only possible through an active interrogation of cultural formations and objects of study that are seen as postcolonial, transnational and translingual – and that allow us to understand French, France, Frenchness and the wider Francosphere contrapuntally in relation to other cultures and language traditions. I aim to practise a modern languages and a French studies characterised by a genuine, and often disruptive, openness to other specialisms and fields. As a result, I greatly value my many longstanding conversations and highly productive collaborations with scholars in fields such as post-colonialism, studies in travel writing, Caribbean studies, studies in slavery and comparative literature.

Why do you think that the study of modern languages is so important?

I believe firmly in the notion of post-monolingualism, and in the idea that the twenty-first century will be a period in which the monolingual myths that have long connected and privileged single languages, nations and identities will collapse. Most non-Western cultures have always accepted their inherent multilingualism, even during periods of colonial domination, and we are now seeing Western countries themselves actively acknowledging not only the historical range of languages they contain, but also the arrival of new languages – and the emergence of new linguistic practices that these imply.

The challenge remains that multilingualism – or at least the presence of multiple languages – is still too often seen as a problem rather than an opportunity; I am similarly frustrated by the ability of too many universities in the UK to develop internationalisation strategies without having complementary language strategies. There is a constant need to make a firm and convincing case for the contribution that language departments make to the strategic aims of our institutions and of the Higher Education sector more generally.

In all of these debates, modern languages have an important role to play, not only in challenging monolingual assumptions and in continuing to train in each generation a group of linguistically savvy specialists – experts in the languages they study as well as in language and culture more generally – but also in encouraging more generally understandings of the world through language.

The study of modern languages is essential to the development of intercultural knowledge and of an awareness of the complexity of other cultures; it is also central to self-understanding, and I am strongly committed to developing a self-reflexively ethnographic conception of our field: with appropriate modesty and caution, modern linguists can bring an invaluable outsider perspective to the cultures we research, but we are also in a position to think dialectically and to bring to bear the knowledge we develop in relation to other places in attempts to understand ‘home’. That perspective has major implications for the approaches we adopt and the relationships we assume vis-à-vis what we study.

I have always been deeply suspicious of the persistence in my own sub-field, in French studies, of a certain Francophilia that is too often seen to dictate our relationship to our object of enquiry. Personally, in my own work, I favour what the historian Herman Lebovics has very helpfully called a ‘tough love for France’, an attitude I have always espoused since first approaching the country rather obliquely, via Brittany and the politics of the Breton language movement, in the late 1980s.

Charles, you will be speaking at the IMLR launch under the heading of ‘interdisciplinarity’.  Could you give us a preview of what to expect from you?

Like many, I am concerned by the overuse of the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ to describe practices that are in fact cross-
disciplinary or multidisciplinary. That said, I will be talking at the IMLR launch about the status of modern languages as a field of enquiry that has always been, since its late nineteenth-century emergence, best understood as an ‘interdiscipline’. I will suggest that this characteristic should be seen not as a weakness, but as a strength. It permits a flexibility and originality of approach to questions of cultural complexity, and also gives us the tools to work actively, collaboratively and often catalytically with those in a number of other subject areas.

I am concerned that the relationship of modern languages to a number of other fields has been characterised in the past by a time lag as we endeavour to catch up theoretically, conceptually and methodologically; the responsibility of modern languages in arts, humanities and social science research is instead to take an intellectual lead, to have a leavening effect, and to ensure that the distinctiveness of languages and cultures is fully acknowledged. This depends in part on what I have mentioned already, a firm and clear sense of modern languages as an intellectual project, underpinned by clear concepts and methods, and a full commitment to a disciplinarity that we have rarely discussed in a serious and sustained way; but it also requires an active engagement with, and positive presence in other fields.

I will focus on my experience of leading an institutional theme in Liverpool, ‘changing cultures’, and more recently an AHRC theme, ‘translating cultures’, to reflect on the ways in which the interdisciplinary projects that such initiatives represent provide invaluable frames in which modern languages can redefine itself and continue to flourish.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The landscape of modern languages in the UK is a complicated one, often fragmented in institutional units where the persistence of old language divisions does not always allow achievement of the synergies that genuine collaboration should allow; at the same time, we do not always make the connections we should with natural interlocutors in other key departments such as history, English and politics; and there is still a tendency towards a chronic extroversion, by which I understand an exclusive focus on the cultures we are committed to studying.

I welcome the re-launch of the Institute of Modern Languages Research, and fully expect that the IMLR will be instrumental in leading the way: developing the projects, encouraging the dialogues, creating the alliances, sustaining the collaborations, training the next generation of scholars, and articulating the new public idea about language on which the success of all of these initiatives depends.


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