Since the 1980s, poets in Canada and the U.S. have increasingly turned away from the use of English, bringing multiple languages into dialogue—and into conflict—in their work. This growing but under-studied body of writing differs from previous forms of multilingual poetry. While modernist poets offered multilingual displays of literary refinement, contemporary translingual poetries speak to and are informed by feminist, anti-racist, immigrant rights, and Indigenous sovereignty movements. Although some translingual poems have entered Chicanx, Latinx, Asian American, and Indigenous literary canons, translingual poetry has not yet been studied as a cohesive body of writing.
The first book-length study on the subject, Translingual Poetics argues for an urgent rethinking of Canada and the U.S.’s multiculturalist myths. Dowling demonstrates that rising multilingualism in both countries is understood as new and as an effect of cultural shifts toward multiculturalism and globalization. This view conceals the continent’s original Indigenous multilingualism and the ongoing violence of its dismantling. It also naturalizes English as traditional, proper, and, ironically, native.
Reading a range of poets whose work contests this “settler monolingualism”—Jordan Abel, Layli Long Soldier, Myung Mi Kim, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, M. NourbeSe Philip, Rachel Zolf, Cecilia Vicuña, and others—Dowling argues that translingual poetry documents the flexible forms of racialization innovated by North American settler colonialisms. Combining deft close readings of poetry with innovative analyses of media, film, and government documents, Dowling shows that translingual poetry’s avoidance of authentic, personal speech reveals the differential forms of personhood and non-personhood imposed upon the settler, the native, and the alien.
This book was not at all what I expected it to be. The title was listed under the poetry category on NetGalley, so I was expecting a poetry collection with a multilingual, multicultural theme. However, as I opened Translingual Poetics and began reading, I found that was not at all what this book is about.
After reading about 5% of the way in, I realized this was more of a scholarly article than anything else. There really weren’t even any poems presented and then analyzed in paragraphs after them. It was mostly just referencing different works, quoting them at times, and breaking down the multilingualism, or “translingualism” as it’s referred to in the book, and what it means in a broader social context.
Although I’m frustrated that I was misled by this book, I’m glad that I read it. I’ve said it a hundred times before and I’ll say it again: I’m studying to become a Spanish-to-English literary translator, so having read works like Translingual Poetics has helped to broaden my knowledge on this subject in ways that I never would have in my undergraduate program. I appreciate that Dowling uses many examples of authors and works from recent decades, even though I had not previously heard of any of them. It’s a refreshing break from only talking about the classics in my coursework.
So you may be wondering what translingualism is since it’s not a common term in everyday language. In fact, I had never heard of it before picking up this book, and looking to find out what it meant was part of the reason I requested it. Since the book essentially uses its 240 pages to explain all facets of translingualism, I’ll simply explain here that it is an alternative term for multilingualism that doesn’t carry the same connotations that often get in the way when using it to describe creative works. As Dowling puts it, “… the term multilingual is … increasingly critiqued because it simply describes the coexistence of languages … and is generally silent about the relationships between them. I use the term translingual… because it describes the capacity of languages to interact, influence, and transform one another.”
Honestly, this is not something I’ve thought about before. Of course, I can’t say that’s surprising considering I’m still completing my undergraduate work which focuses more on Spanish language and the cultures associated with it and less on linguistics as a whole. But the arguments that Dowling makes in this piece are interesting and thought-provoking.
The wide array of cultural backgrounds mentioned throughout the analysis and the in-depth examination of the social, political, historical, and linguistic reasoning behind using two or more languages interchangeably in one body of work was absolutely fascinating to my language-loving brain. The reason I knocked a star off of the rating is that there were times in the text when I had trouble understanding what Dowling was trying to say. This could simply be due to the fact that it’s written for an audience with a more scholarly background than I have. It was disappointing nonetheless. It brought me out of focus several times despite being genuinely interested in the subject.
Final thought: Is this something that my typical followers would like to read? Probably not. However, I still recommend it because it’s a fascinating subject. If linguistics interested you, it’s worth the read!