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Reviewed by:
  • Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures
  • Manuela Costantino (bio)
Mary Besemeres and Anna Wierzbicka, eds. Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures. St. Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2007. 181 pp. ISBN 978-070-223603-7, $34.95.

In Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, Mary Besemeres and Anna Wierzbicka compile the personal stories of twelve multilingual contributors who testify to the advantages and challenges of living between languages in their increasingly multicultural Australian context. The book assembles information about the role that multilingualism plays in expressing thoughts and feelings, shaping social interactions, and articulating identities [End Page 357] with the explicit aim of expanding monolingual Australians’ awareness and understanding of various cultures. Such “intercultural and cross-linguistic empathy training,” the editors hope, could enable people to think outside the monolinguistic box in order to ease often problematic cultural interactions and help diffuse difficult multicultural conflicts fueling social issues (xvi). Besemeres and Wierzbicka see this work as a starting point for a much needed conversation that addresses the thorny issues that multiculturalism raises in a country where monolanguage and the supremacy of English are still very much taken for granted.

The editors’ effort to provide a wide range of perspectives is reflected in the varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the authors that they have selected. The volume opens with a piece by Kim Scott in which he discusses his experience of reclaiming his Indigenous Noongar language, and the role that archival research plays in his work as a fiction writer and language learner. The other writers contributing to this book draw on their complex experiences as language migrants to Australia who live in translation and struggle with their multiple languages to address the social, cultural, and emotional situations they encounter. Besemeres and Wierzbicka orchestrate voices from all over the world, with testimonies by Zengdao Veronica Ye from China, Anna Wierzbicka from Poland, Anna Gladkova and Irene Ulman from Russia, Brij V. Lal from Fiji, Andrea Witcomb from Portugal, Jock Wong from Singapore, and Kyung-Joo Yoon from Korea. In the case of Mary Besemeres, Michael Clyne, and Eva Sallis, they have inherited the task of living in translation, and relate their attempts at preserving and transmitting the languages and cultures that previous generations have handed down to them.

This volume is clearly intended for a popular Australian audience that is well versed in the types of problematic multicultural interactions and conflicts that Besemeres and Wierzbicka allude to in their introduction. As a French reader situated in the Canadian context though, I find myself wishing for more detailed descriptions of the issues that multiculturalism raises in Australia, and more substantial explanations of the specific solutions that the contributors’ testimonies gathered in this volume can help articulate. Because of my own particular reading situation, I would find it more useful to compare their issues with current discussions about the politics of multiculturalism in Canada, rather than with “bilingual experience in multiethnic societies such as the United States” as the editors suggest (xx). I think, for example, that Smaro Kamboureli’s notion that learning to “master discomfort” instead of simply making cultural and linguistic difference appear more “normal” or “comfortable” can be particularly useful in understanding the difficulties that language migrants encounter. Jock Wong confesses that he “sometimes env[ies] monocultural [End Page 358] people who remain in the comfort of their own cultural zone,” and suggests that “a cross-cultural experience” should involve “more than sampling cuisines . . . and visiting cultural fairs” (79). Wong’s reflection echoes Kamboureli’s idea that providing the cultural mainstream with information about the cultural other can indeed help raise awareness about cultural and linguistic difference, but is not sufficient to articulate transformational knowledge.

The next step for Besemeres and Wierzbicka is surely therefore to mobilize these kinds of translation studies in order to construct a theoretical framework in which they could then position their contributors’ personal stories. In this way, they will not only extract the knowledge that these testimonies construct, but also illustrate how such knowledge can destabilize and perhaps even alter the cultural mainstream’s values and identities. I imagine that this type of framing is what...