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What we talk about when we talk about translingual poetry

Uljana Wolf (2018)

Keynote. Berlin Polylingual. Parataxe Symposium IV, 23.11.2018


The poem is written in one language.

The poem is never written in one language.

The monolingual poem speaks more than one language.

The multilingual poem speaks as language.

The poem, writing between languages, talks about head and shoulders

is riding for a fail.

This wriding is its catch, its charge.

Error in typing finger, faltering,

Shifting the dominant expression.

This poems is this, your cargo schmargo.



This keynote is a window into the Translabor. The Translabor is my own private workshop, a thinking-together of translation, poetry and multilingualism as a translational or translantic poetic practice. The forms of articulation that interest me are continuously evolving, inherently unstable or in flux. The ABC of the Translabor reads: Forms of ankomming, becoming, and curiousness. What’s spelled out is processual thinking, erroring, ear worms, the second best word, the word lingering strangely distant in kurios border regions. The name Translabor reflects the German laboratory, the English work, as well as the trans of translation, but also the trans of transgressing something that otherwise remains separate, such as languages, or discourses, forms of academic, essayistic, poetic writing. In addition, Labor from Latin labare: faltering, swaying, the uncertain movement in between states. A tremor between the territory of national languages. And finally the English labor of birth, of bringing into the world a multiplicity, more-than-one, never-one, the borrowing or burrowing jumble of languages within language.

In today’s experiment, I would like to zoom into two observations which, although they might at first sound contradictory, seem helpful in trying to further explore what we talk about when we talk about translingual poetry.

The first observation is: A multilingual poem is not necessarily a translingual poem.

The second observation: A translingual poem is not necessarily a multilingual poem.


Or perhaps also:

A multilanguage poem can be monolingual in its thinking.


A monolanguage poem can be multilingual in its thinking.


We live in a world, and we live in a city, where people often do not speak where they come from, or cannot speak where they arrive. A world where dislocated pasts and diasporic futures are becoming fundamental human experiences. As a consequence, we witness the development of a wider global range of language skills – from polyglot fluency to life-long „learner“ languages to Kiez-creolization to proud broken literary language. More and more people are multilingual. But also monolingual are increasingly navigating heterogeneous linguistic zones and learning to react to them in their language. Unfortunately this development is also flanked, perhaps even threatened, by a mode of thinking anchored in the roots of political chauvinism co-opting national philologies, a mode of thinking based on domination and exclusion. Think of Christian Lindner, the Federal Chairman of the FDP, who links the broken German of someone ordering Brötchen at the baker to a lack of integrity or even to illegality. The fact that more and more politicians of all parties publicly promote such linguistic thinking is alarming. What is needed, I believe, are subversive counter definitions, nomadic thinking sinking its teeth into the basic concepts that warrant such identitarian arguments. Sites of resistance. And such a site can be a poem? Yes, a poem.

I speak about the growth of multilingual realities, communities, and biographies in relation to literature because this growth has sparked a long wave of scholarship on literary multilingualism. But I don’t maintain that a multilingual biography is necessary to make a translingual poem. Of course, many poetic impulses come from the work of poets whose life has been marked by language shift, bilingualism, or emigration, and who speak “with a cat in the throat,“ as the multilingual poet Caroline Bergvall wrote: “One must clear one’s throat, clear a space, step away, spit out the mother tongue”. But biographical-nomadic events are no guarantee for polylingual thinking, let alone translingual experiments. This point has recently been made by David Gramling in his study “The Invention of Monolingualism.” Gramling writes: “Indeed speakers of multiple languages can and do use language in ways that are more monolingual, or monological, than those who ‘only’ speak one language.“

For my reflections on translingual poetry this means that poetic distortion of the mother tongue or mono-tongue can also be achieved by ostensibly monolingual authors—it’s an aesthetic principle, not a biographical one. To capture what cannot be captured: That one’s own language cannot be mastered, remains a place of unbelonging and unruliness. Though this might sound, in the context of today’s gathering, like a no-brainer, it is by no means a given in literary studies or in the institutions that govern much of global literature. More often than not, scholarship favors feedback readings of author biographies and socio-cultural contexts, a viewpoint that curtails the productively dissociative potential of such literature and conceals, as literary scholar Esther Kilchmann writes, the fact that “authors of so-called intercultural literature also use avant-garde methods of language experimentation.” (Kilchmann 44) Conversely, this also means that even monolingual authors can generate translingual literature through various aesthetic strategies in order to unsettle (anzetteln) fixed linguistic orders. When the Robert Bosch Foundation awarded the 2016 Chamisso Prize to Esther Kinsky and myself, it seemed for a surprising moment as if an institution (and its jury) were headed this direction with a strong vision: A literary prize for authors of all origins, including German native speakers, who thematize and play through language change and cultural shifts. Then the prize was abolished in 2018.


Back to my observations. When we talk about translingual poetry, we are not necessarily talking about an empiric presence of several languages in a poem. On the contrary, a multilanguage poem can still be monolingual in its thinking. One could argue that what we have stated above for the multilingual speaker also might apply to a poem, namely that it “can and does use language in ways that are more monolingual, or monological.” This is the case, for example, when a poem uses foreign-language names or phrases in a manner I would call tourist, or less harsh: travel-writing (I believe I did this in my first book) in order to claim authenticity or localize the poem in a foreign-language reality. This is also the case, I think, if a poem consists of lines in several individual languages which are correctly translated into one or more of the other languages within the poem. What we experience then is a coexistence of languages, multilingualism as glossodiversity—a term coined by Michael Halliday—which in turn is based on the paradigm of clearly separated individual mono-languages between which stable meaning can be translated back and forth. The languages involved, however, are little affected by the foreign exchange, they remain stable, carriers of meaning. Difference results in a multilanguage polyphony, but not a polysemy: what is said remains what is said. Little dissonance, no excess of meaning, no poverty of meaning in the indissoluble incomprehensibility that productively distorts statements emerges from the mixture of languages.

Translingual writing, on the other hand, can be seen as a site of semiodiversity, where the ambiguity between languages is shifting between poly-sense and non-sense, a form of writing through languages or writing at the edge, on the flip side, the tip of the tongue of mono-logical realities. And such texts can be monolingual on the surface. But they have undergone a history of other-tonguedness, or of translational transpositions, that make them translingual at heart, or root, or rot, i.e. dislocated between languages. I am thinking here, for example, of Ilse Aichinger’s inwardly exophonic prose poems Bad Words. Or of the “Abziehbilder” of the German poet Schuldt—texts composed of the German-language words that have migrated into British English. Or of the poems of Paul Celan, most prominently “Bei Wein und Verlorenheit,” where the word sequence “Neige-Schnee-Nähe-Wiehern” (German: snow, French: neige, English: near, English: neigh) unfolds a hypodermic network of linguistic relationships underneath the poem, a rhizome of other-tonguedness which assumingly co-wrote or conditioned the poem in the first place—thereby disturbing the monolingual postulate, making-minor the German „Mördersprache“, Muttersprache.


Es ist schwierig, von einem Gedicht zu reden.

Es ist schwierig, von einem Gedicht in mehr als einer Sprache zu reden.

It is difficult for a poem in more than one language to speak.

Das Reden keimt in den Präpositionen.

The speaking chimed in dens, proposition.

The proposition was a tensed Kaiser. Sie hatte zum Tanz keine Kleider.

After the naked dancing, key deers followed in rays.

Das Gedicht nackt sehen heißt, den Reh nicht raus zu haben.

Dear dares, what are you talking about.


Translated by the author © PARATAXE 2018


Paul Celan

Bei Wein und Verlorenheit, bei
beider Neige:


ich ritt durch den Schnee, hörst du,
ich ritt Gott in die Ferne – die Nähe, er sang,
es war
unser letzter Ritt über
die Menschen-Hürden.


Sie duckten sich, wenn
sie uns über sich hörten, sie
schrieben, sie
logen unser Gewieher
um in eine
ihrer bebilderten Sprachen.


(15.3.1959, from “Die Niemandsrose”)


Ilse Aichinger: Schlechte Wörter. Fischer 1976. Auf Englisch: Ilse Aichinger, Bad Words. Selected Short Prose. Translated from the German by Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey. Seagull Books 2018.
Robert Kelly, Jacques Roubaud, Schuldt: Abziehbilder, heimgeholt. Droschl 1995
David Gramling:  The Invention of Monolingualism. Bloomsbury 2016.
Yasemin Yildiz: Beyond the Mothertongue. The Postmonolingual condition. Fordham University Press 2012.
Esther Kilchmann: „Alles Dada oder: Mehrsprachigkeit ist Zirkulation der Zeichen!“ In: Till Dembeck / Anne Uhrmacher (Hg.): Das literarische Leben der Mehrsprachigkeit. Methodische Erkundungen. Winter 2016, S. 43-64.
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