The city as translation zone

2017 update: polylingualism in Berlin as reflected in the Stadtsprechen festival, celebrating Berlin-based authors who write in languages other than German, followed up by the Parataxe events series…see also @exberlinermag

2016 update: the TLANG project (blog | @TLANGProject | aims to “to understand how people communicate multi-lingually across diverse languages and cultures”, in particular in translation zones. It is investigating language practices in public and private settings in four different research sites in Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, and London. Lots of outputs. On 13 May the conference Communication in the superdiverse city (report) focused on focus on communication in changing urban communities around two themes: Language, business and the city and Everyday encounters with heritage.

See also the Free Word Centre’s multilingual creativity series (website). In a different approach entirely, Denmark’s national gallery employs internationals to help them into the Danish labour market (SMK ansætter udlændinge i integrationsprojekt).

Cities have the potential to make us more complex human beings. A city is a place where people can learn to live with strangers, to enter into the experiences and interests of unfamiliar lives. Sameness stultifies the mind; diversity stimulates and expands it.

Richard Sennett in A flexible city of strangers, quoted at the start of the introduction of the special edition of Translation Studies on The city as translation zone. Also cited is Aristotle, who “contended in his Politics that similar people could not bring a city into existence. The city could only be the creation of different kinds of people who come together to found a community where they can live in common”, and Judt’s Edge people:”I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another – where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life”.

Below are my notes from the introduction by Michael Cronin, author of Translation in the digital age, and Sherry Simon, author of Cities in translation looking at four linguistically divided cities (Calcutta, Trieste, Barcelona, and Montreal) and Translating Montreal, written from the “perspective of a walker moving through a fluid landscape of neighbourhoods and eras”. It relates to my thoughts about the developing international literary community in Copenhagen, as well as to other themes I am exploring in my writing.

Much is written about the visual character of today’s cites, but rather less about their auditory aspects. To what extent is language a “vehicle of urban cultural memory and identity, a key in the creation of meaningful spaces of contact and civic participation”? While multilingualism may evoke a “space of plurality and diversity” translation proposes an “active, directional and interactional model of language relations”.

Four elements through which translation can be considered a key to understanding urban life:

  • the sensory landscape – to refer to the city or street by its former name/s projects a different historical view; “City streets are renamed as old heroes are disqualified, as new icons are glorified. Sometimes entire cities are covered over in a new language, as though the decor were being changed.” -> Trieste, Piran; also seen with changing ideologies
  • translation zones – an analogy with Pratt’s (1992) “contact zone”, social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and
    grapple with each other, developed by Apter (2006): a “broad intellectual topography, a zone of critical engagement” that is not restricted by the boundary of the nation -> international literary scenes may consist of mixed and polyglot communities, places of interaction and exchange across divides, a hybrid ‘intercultural’ network where diverse cultures and languages overlap; not so much source and target…
  • cultural mediators – quoting Certeau (1983): “intermediaries, shifters, connecting agents, translators and dispatchers are the ‘anonymous heroes’ of communication, making “social space more habitable”
  • digital connectivity – the uses of translation in digital contexts is various and growing in the ‘smart’ city, creating a new translational order; whereas previously living overseas involved an often decisive break with the language, culture and society of the place that was being left behind today staying in touch is simple, although there may still be pressure to “translate oneself into the dominant language of the host community” and there may be a disconnect between the public, physical spaces of the city and the privatised, digital spaces of communication

The introduction also includes an overview of the changing nature of the university within the city plus summaries of the five cities covered in the issue (Antwerp, Lviv, Istanbul, Tampere and New Orleans), focusing in particular on their translation histories as a lens for investigating their social and cultural histories. It concludes thus: “the multicultural and multilingual nature of large cities becomes the unacceptable face of a modernity that threatens unitary narratives of nation and community…the city becomes a central part of the
narrative of national decline as espoused by identitarian populists” as reflected in language tests for entry or citizenship.

Translation zones are the hub of a resilient society, the clearing house of possibility:

As any one culture will only provide a subset of all the possible responses to a situation and generally these responses are tailored to meet situations that have already been encountered, societies that are beholden to the monocultural have immense difficulty in dealing with the unforeseen or the unexpected. What constitutes resilience for societies in the liquid modernity of the contemporary world is precisely the availability of a large repertoire of cultural responses and different world views that feeds into a creativity of imagination and an inventiveness of action.

Postscript: from an interview with Sherry Simon:

  • civic plurilingualism can be a powerful creative driver, affecting the flow of new ideas across the city
  • all cities are multilingual; in translational cities there is directionality
  • translators can influence this – explore spatial aspects, eg where do they live, what are they doing, do they have a ‘cultural project’, what are their relationships
  • language relationships change over time:
    • ‘distancing’ – where communities develop their distinct independent identities – > tolerance, cf multi-culturalism and a limited form of belonging
    • ‘furthering’, the cultural encounters that are a pervasive force in modernity -> (terms of ) engagement
  • can translational practice shape the literatures of cities? what are its creative dynamics?
  • the practice and the consequences of reading one language, writing in another, ie using one language to introduce new ideas to another
  • the role that self-translation can play in the development of an author’s voice as well as the contestation of their legacy
  • using one city (your ‘home’ city) to describe another; you are prescribed by your home city

In a feature about Paul Celan in Politiken (1 Feb) Uffe Hansen (KU; retired) is interviewed about Galicia. He praises the “cosmopolitan community” of the Hapsburg Empire, where all nationalities and languages had the same rights, allowing a rich cultural climate to blossom. “A homogenous population does not create culture”. Asked whether the cultures were blended or lived parallel to each other, he definitely goes for the latter: “no one demanded integration, and definitely not assimilation…there were many disagreements, but the groups had respect for each other. They practised diversity without enforcing common denominators (fællesnævner), thus making each cultural tradition stronger.”