What is a translingual poem?

In The Translingual Imagination Steven G. Kellman applies the term “translingualism” to writing in more than one language or a language other than one’s primary one. The translingual author, he states, is “an author whose linguistic medium is a matter of option.” Not surprisingly, he limits himself to novelists, including well-known examples like Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett. As he notes,

all else being equal, translingualism is a more arduous process for a poet or a short story writer, whose primary unit is the individual, irreducible word … It is difficult to imagine Mallarmé writing in any language other than his inimitable, untranslatable French, though another poet, one less dependent on the evocative sonics and semiotics of particular syllables, might manage the transition.

It appears that a translingual poem, while possible, is not very common — and even then seriously compromised as a poem.

I suggest another way of understanding the term “translingualism.” It doesn’t signify writing in more than one language or a language other than one’s primary one. It has nothing to do with switching languages, replacing one language with another for practical reasons. Rather, it is about the movement toward or, in some cases, away from a nonprimary language; the prefix “trans” implies a dynamic but fraught relationship with the medium. Hence, a translingual poem is about discovery, not expediency; it is about mystery, not mastery.

The emphasis on the author’s personal investment distinguishes a translingual poem from a poem that simply incorporates a foreign-language passage or passages — for ornamental purposes, as it were. Poems about the experience of immigration, especially in the context of US history, are good examples of translingualism so defined. Often the impetus behind such poems is to authenticate the speaker’s relationship with the past. A non-English word or phrase is introduced as a link (and nothing more than a link) between the speaker, usually a second- or third-generation immigrant, and some ancestral figure, usually a parent or grandparent. Some may call such poems bilingual — but bilingualism implies proficiency in both languages, which is not always apparent in the kind of poem I describe. In a translingual poem, actually quite common in American poetry, there is no equivalence between the two languages. Here are some recent examples by Eduardo C. Corral and Cathy Park Hong.

Mark Nowak’s Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000) offers a more extensive, systematic example of translingualism as I define it. Conceived as a work of meta-ethnography, the book consists of three poetic sequences about the Polish American neighborhoods in and around Buffalo, New York, where Nowak grew up. It features interviews, field notes and journals, scholarly articles, photographs, and the author’s own memories. The opening sequence, “The Pain-Dance Begins,” which takes up more than half of the volume, centers around Nowak’s own ancestral figures. It offers a series of lyric passages, shifting between monologue and dialogue, immersed in myth and history, full of references to Polish customs and traditions. Structurally, each of these is anchored on a Polish word left untranslated, always in italics, occasionally repeated throughout the poem or serving as the title. The following passages are taken from different parts of the sequence:

I would kiss you if I could find you, I would eat you raw at the

beginning of the war, ziemniak, sweet or red.


I would suppose, zboże, that the house the plow broke the prairie for

had not these hymns at heart; and yet the grass is pregnant with you.


So why the wait, pytanie, why the chewing on fingernails and the tapping

of a hand against my leg, a hand that all these years I thought was mine.


The body known as nie nazwany.


I have no cabbage, no cats to come home to, stacja,

so I sit with you, the newspaper and cigarette of you.


You are yellow, ranek, in your backyard behind vines. You

are yellow as squash is, or beans.


The ploughed field was visible across the river. But that was

another time, another time. In the morning you could see

the field, potomek, but that was definitely another time, yes.


Zakończenie, what will I brave to walk these cities’ streets again, when

the wind is blowing through the empty rooms through the houses that are

no longer filled with frying onions or your future.


As we can see, Nowak’s approach is associative, open-ended, modeled on Charles Olson’s projective technique (his statement “An American is a complex of occasions” prefaces one of the poems). For the Anglophone reader, the effect is one of disorientation — or at least interruption. It is not clear what the Polish words mean. It is not clear what is their function in the sentence or how they are supposed to interact with the words around them. What is clear is that Nowak’s translingualism is not merely decorative but integral to the compositional process. The Polish words don’t negate meaning; they only momentarily obscure it. Startling, ghostlike, they add a kinetic energy to each poem, eliminating the need for translation or even communication. “The Pain-Dance Begins” would not have existed without them. A conduit between the past and the present, here Nowak invents a hybrid form — if not a hybrid language — suitable for this sequence and perhaps this sequence only. This estranging effect is only partly mitigated by the “Glossary of Polish Terms” appended to the end of his volume.

It appears that strictly translingual poems are less concerned with their audience than with the author’s intimate relationship to a language that nevertheless remains distant to them. The maneuver doesn’t result in the assimilation of the foreign. Rather, it signifies change, otherness, absence of connection. As Nowak documents in his haunted meditation on his Polish ancestry, a recognition of the past is not always a reclamation.