Your English Is Showing

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Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Tower of Babel, c. 1563

If one suggests that the international literary market is also a power game where different nations set their cultural and political might against each other in bestseller lists and international prizes, one inevitably arouses a certain amount of hostility from those who like to think of literature as operating in a more idealized world of noble aspiration and expression. The hostility intensifies if one seeks to exemplify one’s ideas with reference to individual writers, to the point that I fear that my recent piece on Jonathan Franzen and the Swiss writer Peter Stamm may have generated more heat than light. At the risk, then, of turning down the heat without exactly achieving a blaze of illumination, let me offer a more general word about present developments in the international spaces where contemporary novels from different countries vie for attention.

The recent acceleration in communications and the process we’ve gotten used to calling globalization have renewed debate about the relationship between lingua franca and vernacular. The nations of the European mainland are constantly anxious that the adoption of English words and even syntactical structures may be seriously reshaping their languages. Meanwhile, in many technical fields, scientific papers are now written almost exclusively in English, with the result that certain concepts become difficult to express in the vernacular since no one is at work developing a vocabulary for them.

Back in 2000, in his intriguing article, “Cosmopolitanism and the Vernacular in History” Sheldon Pollock discussed the possible ways a lingua franca can relate to different vernaculars by comparing the fortunes of Latin and other languages in the Roman Empire with those of Sanskrit and local languages in India and the East during the same period (roughly from the beginning of the first millennium to its end). His general claim is that while in the West Latin was ruthlessly imposed on the back of Roman military conquest and tended to obliterate the languages of peoples subdued, in the East there was a more relaxed coexistence between the cosmopolitan lingua franca and the surrounding vernaculars, Sanskrit gaining a general currency more through trade and a desire to be widely understood than through military conquest or political coercion.

The burden of Pollock’s article is clear enough: that we needn’t think about the spread of English as necessarily in conflict with the world’s vernaculars; he wants us to avoid thinking in terms of “either/or” and work towards a relationship that is “both/and.” The advice is good, and eleven years on the article is as intriguing as ever, though perhaps what struck me most on a recent rereading was the contemporaneous nature of these linguistic experiences in East and West: both saw the rise and decline of a lingua franca at more or less the same time, suggesting the working out of an underlying process and the manifestation of a collective will. All of this inevitably leads one to ask: so what are we up to now, what are we collectively, and quite probably unconsciously, willing to happen now?

In this regard, I want to suggest—to toss out for debate, if you like—an idea that has forced itself on my mind in the reading I have been doing over recent years: reading about translation and international literature, reading novels in translation from many nations, but also reading the work of post-grad students of translation and creative writing. I have gathered the impression that we are heading for a new and rather different resolution of the tension between lingua franca and vernacular, something no longer comparable to the situation Pollock describes centuries ago.

While easily conceding that certain areas of highly specialized knowledge become the exclusive domain of English, most people are not so willing, nor able, to read novels, or indeed any prose that involves strong elements of style, in a foreign language. There they want to keep to their vernacular. Nor are many creative writers able and willing to follow in the footsteps of a Conrad or Nabokov, or more recently the many Asian and Indian writers who have switched from their native tongues to more marketable English. Most writers want to go on writing in their own languages.

Yet at the same time, neither readers nor writers are happy any longer with the idea that a literary text’s nation or language of origin should in any way define or limit the area in which it moves, or indeed that a national audience be the first and perhaps only arbiter of a book’s destiny. We feel far too linked, and linked in the immediate present, not to want to see immediately what books are changing or at least entertaining the whole world. And if we are writers, of course, we want our own books to travel as widely as possible.


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The obvious solution is translation. And indeed, there has never been so much translation as there is today, nor has it ever happened so quickly, with groups of translators sweating over typescripts of blockbuster thrillers or even literary works so that they can be published at the same time in many countries with a simultaneous and unified promotional campaign. Few people realize how many books are now translated by more than one translator (often this is not made clear on the credits), nor how quickly translators are expected to work. But the success of translation very largely depends on the levels of complexity in the original text.

It might be argued that the literary world is merely following the cinema with its international distribution circuits. But books are not films. While most films can survive subtitling or dubbing, the success of translation very largely depends on the levels of complexity in the original text. Above all there is a problem with a kind of writing that is, as it were, inward turning, about the language itself, about what it means to live under the spell of this or that vernacular.

Of course one can translate Joyce’s Ulysses, but one loses the book’s reveling in its own linguistic medium, its tireless exploration of the possibilities of English. The same is true of a lot of the experimental writing of the 1960s and 1970s. It is desperately hard to translate the Flemish writer Hugo Claus into English, or indeed Gravity’s Rainbow into anything. There was a mining of linguistic richness in that period, and a focus on the extent to which our culture is made up of words, that tended to exclude, or simply wasn’t concerned about, the question of having the text travel the world. Even practitioners of “traditional” realism like John Updike or, in England and in a quite different way, Barbara Pym, were obsessively attentive to the exact form of words that was their culture.

It was when I was invited to review in the same article a translation of Hugo Claus’s Wonder (1962) alongside Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2003), and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (2006) that it occurred to me that over the forty years between Claus and the others an important change had occurred. These more recent novels had, yes, been translated, from Norwegian and Dutch into English, but it was nothing like the far more arduous task of translating Claus and many of his peers. Rather, it seemed that the contemporary writers had already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things. Naturally, there was an impoverishment. Neither of these authors have the mad fertility of Claus; but there was also a huge gain in communicability, particularly in translation where the rhythm of delivery and the immediacy of expression were free from any sense of obstacle.

Was it possible, I asked myself, that there was now a skeleton lingua franca beneath the flesh of these vernaculars, and that it was basically an English skeleton?

Of course as soon as one has excited oneself with an idea, one finds confirmation of it everywhere. As I said in my recent blog post, Peter Stamm very much fits this description, likewise the German Siegfried Lenz, and many other French and Italian authors. So strong is the flavor of English in the Italian of the bestselling thriller writer Giorgio Faletti that a number of readers suggested it was actually translated into Italian from an English original written by someone else. At my own university, IULM, in Milan, we have a project GLINT (Global Literature and Translation) of which one area involves studying the extent to which Italian syntax has shifted toward English models over the last fifty years. There is no shortage of evidence. Contemporary Italian more frequently puts the adjective before the noun, more frequently uses possessives for parts of the body, more frequently introduces a pronoun subject, all changes that suggest an influence from English.

So that is the intuition. The idea is not so much the old polemic that English is simply dominant and dangerous; but rather that there is a spirit abroad, especially in the world of fiction, that is seeking maximum communicability and that has fastened onto the world’s present lingua franca as something that can be absorbed and built into other vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily translated into each other.


One may see this as a wise compromise between lingua franca and vernacular, or as a slow caving in to rampant English. Certainly it’s hard not to regret the dazzling and very Italian density of an author like Carlo Emilio Gadda, unthinkable today and still only very inadequately translated. On the other hand it’s intriguing to see that in resistance to the general drift towards the international—a game of polarities if you like, where one trend is confirmed by the extent to which it provokes its opposite—there is also a flourishing of dialect poetry, texts comprehensible only for a very small community (I cannot understand the poetry of my close colleague Edoardo Zuccato in the Milanese dialect). But such poetry is almost always published with an Italian translation alongside it, suggesting the poet’s desire for intimacy and authenticity on the one hand and an eagerness, perhaps anxiety, to be widely understood on the other. Any eventual translations, of course, will be made from the Italian, not the dialect.

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