- English as a Literature in Translation by Fiona J. Doloughan
Fiona J. Doloughan’s new study is an examination of contemporary novels in English through the prism of translation. Taking her departure in the translational turn in Humanities, Steven G. Kellman’s influential concept of literary translingualism, and English’s role as a lingua franca for non-native speakers worldwide, Doloughan sets out to discover how writers who have found English as opposed to having been born into it (e.g., Eva Hoffman, Ariel Dorfman, Xiaolu Guo) and bilingual writers or writers for whom a non-standard variety of English is the starting point (Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, James Kelman) are changing the expression of literature in English.
Doloughan’s interest lies with what she coins as “narratives of translation,” that is, “works that thematize, narrativize and/or are structured around, questions of language, cultural identity and what it means to translate oneself or one’s culture” (79). The main focus of the study is not primarily the way the examined writers are changing the English literary language of today’s globalized world; rather, it is the thematic aspects that dominate—that is, how experiences of switching languages and/or moving through cultures are expressed in the chosen works.
It is an optimistic narrative Doloughan is writing. She wants “to suggest that the prototypical notion of language as loss, and translation of self and other as a predominantly painful and traumatic experience, have given way to a greater sense of what is to be gained, both at the individual and societal levels, through access to different languages and cultures” (1). She regards this development as correlating with a more positive understanding of bi- and multilingualism in linguistic research as well as in society.
While literary multilingualism undoubtedly is a vehicle for renewing literary expression, a question already extensively explored in literary scholarship (e.g., Doris Sommer’s Bilingual Aesthetics from 2004 and Hana Wirth-Nesher’s Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature from 2006, just to mention a couple of works), the narrative of “from loss to gain” is problematic. Firstly, the chronology of the chosen works contradicts it. The most radical argument for linguistic and cultural hybridity as gain, not loss in the study, Anzaldúa’s classic Borderlands/La Frontera from 1987, is actually the oldest of the works, preceding Hoffman’s story of language learning as the loss of another language in Lost in Translation (1989) by two years. It also precedes, by over a decade, Ariel Dorfman’s memoirs with their eroticization of language ties in terms of bigamy—itself an excellent illustration of the monolingualist conception of the mother tongue as “a family romance” described by Yasemin Yildiz in Beyond the Mother Tongue (2012). [End Page 515]
Secondly, the transformation of literature in English by writers with a background in other languages is not a new phenomenon. Multilingual modernists like Beckett, Conrad, and Nabokov that Doloughan briefly mentions (162) were not exceptions to monolingualism; instead, translingualism, exile, and textual multilingualism are constitutional traits of European literary modernism (cf. Languages of Exile, eds. Englund & Olsson, 2013).
The highlight of Doloughan’s investigation is the chapter on Kelman’s use of Scottish dialect in How Late It Was, How Late (1994), as well as his “pseudotranslation” in Translated Accounts (2001). Here, we are dealing with internal linguistic variation marked by power differences, which offers a more nuanced dynamic where foreign and domestic become ambiguous categories. In this context, the question of loss and gain is pushed to the background in favor of an exploration of the ethics of storytelling through linguistic choices, something Doloughan explores with theoretic input from Bakhtin, Bhabha, and Spivak, among others. I would have liked to see this discussion on negotiation of form and theme continue in the chapter on Guo’s novels; instead, the accented English that Guo apparently struggled to get right is primarily mentioned as illustrative of the main character’s process of second language acquisition.