In preparation for this week’s commentary, I was flipping through TCR’s recent special issue on multilingualism, and I came across a very interesting essay on translation by Erín Moure. The essay is structured as a kind of journal or daybook recording the process of translating Québecois poet François Turcot’s Mon dinosaureinto English. Mouré describes translation not as “bearing across” (get it?!), but as “a poiesis,a making. Each small piece of the Turcot poem, in English, takes hours of building, forming syllables, seeing how they interact.”
Earlier this week, I received an email from a friend of mine, the poet Sonnet L'Abbé. She sent me one of her poems, "Ghazals for Zahra Kazemi," which appears in her book Killarnoe (2007). The occasion for the gift of this poem was the deaths of two Canadian soldiers in two separate incidents: when I received Sonnet's email, I was listening to a news report in which the two incidents — which took place in two separate provinces, on two different days — were blended together and blamed on radical Islam. Sonn, it emerged that the shooter in the second incident was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a person with an apparent "Arabic-sounding" name.
Is multilingual poetry any different from other representations of multilingualism in contemporary culture? In my previously two commentaries, I've looked at some of the things that multilingual poetry does differently than other kinds of poetry. But what does it do differently from other cultural forms that are also multilingual?
One recent example of a multilingual cultural text is Coca-Cola's 2014 Super Bowl commercial "It's Beautiful," which was also shown during the Sochi Olympic Games. This ad touched a nerve because it features eight tween girls singing "America the Beautiful" — but they do so in, Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Hebrew, Keres, Senegalese French, and Arabic as well as English (quelle horreur!). Beginning in English with a shot of a cowboy on a white horse, the ad includes diaphanously lit outdoor scenes, wholesome images of kids in a movie theater, surfers bobbing on the waves, break-dancers, a family on a roadtrip, a brightly lit Chinatown. Representations of urban modernity and rural tradition are seamlessly interwoven, and all differences are overcome through the shared melody of the girls' multilingual hymn.
Multilingual writing has been ubiquitous since — when? The ancient Romans used it to pay homage to their literary forebears and for expedient communication. Medieval poetry mixed Latin with vernacular languages. And the modernists, of course, delighted in linguistic collage. In the 1980s, Chicana feminists moved between Spanish, English, and Spanglish as they composed their autohistorias. Meanwhile in Quebec, Francophone and Anglophone feminists collaborated on translational corps/textes.
Earlier this summer, I met up with my friend Gregory Laynor at the corner of 14th and Union in Seattle. We walked down to the Frye Art Museum to see the show Your Feast Has Ended, which featured the work of Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin, and Nep Sidhu. The show had been getting a lot of interesting reviews, and the posters advertizing it, which we were seeing all around town, featured a taxidermied wolf. In the picture the wolf looked distressed: its back half was flattened, splayed out as a rug. But its front half was stretching forward and flexing its paws. It looked like it was trying to get up.