A look at the eipcp workshops: heterolinguality put to the test of the literary text by Myriam Suchet*

The eipcp workshops that were held at the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers from September 14 to 16 provided the opportunity to envision Europe as an area of translation and consider the policy of heterolinguality. These three days of cross-disciplinary discussions were an opportunity to develop a shared “theory-practice”(1). The eipcp team, composed of Boris Buden, Birgit Mennel and Stefan Nowotny, was joined by Amina Bensalah, Abdoullah Ben Said, Sonia Chikh, Françoise Dibotto Soppi, Anne Querrien, Boris Seguin and myself. Each participant brought a different field of expertise to the table. Sonia Chikh of Engraineurs and Abdoullah Ben Said of Musik À Venir opened the notion of heterolinguality to the experience of artist collectives. Discussions were held mostly in French with some English and German. Our reflections then stood the test of the very heterolingualism that we were examining. And yet, heterolinguality seemed astoundingly difficult to define… Is that then the paradox of this idea? – that it is as ungraspable in theory as it is omnipresent in practice? Only a collective reproduction could give a fair, full account of the workshops as they truly happened, by giving the different perspectives of those involved. I choose not to give a summary, then; I think it wiser to look at how our discussions got my work on literary analysis started.

A prerequisite: an archeological brief
It is possible that the idea of “heterolinguality” works better as a practical tool than as a concept. It is still no less necessary to recall the discursive constellations in which the theory was developed, and so an archaeological brief.
It was in his thesis written at the Université de Montreal and published in 1997 that Rainier Grutman forged the neologism heterolingualism (hétérolinguisme in French), defined as “the presence in a text of foreign languages, in whatever form they may take, as well as variations (social, regional or chronological) in the main language”(2). Within the term, the prefix highlights difference more than it does plurality, and this choice can be explained in part by a negative explanation: it was important not to employ the controversial notions of “diglossia” or “bilingualism”. For Rainier Grutman “there is no single, indivisible Saussurian language” to the extent that “unilingualism and plurilingualism are two extremes in a continuum and their opposition has more to do with opposite poles than with a dichotomy.”(3)
The other fundamental reference is Naoki Sakai, professor of literature and Asian studies at Cornell University. In his work Translation and Subjectivity, published like Grutman’s in 1997, Sakai opposes homolingual communication – which starts from the principal that reciprocal, transparent communication is the standard – and the heterolingual address – which does not believe in the transparency of communication nor in the homogeneity of a “we” made up of the whole community(4). Unlike communication, which is sure to transmit its message, the address is never certain that it will reach the listener. The heterolingual address, subversive and out of place, recalls the historic, constructed character of an entire community, preventing it from closing in on itself and naturalizing its borders(5).

Changing paradigms – bringing down the translation-bridge
Grutman and Sakai’s theoretical proposals call for a paradigm shift: this is an escape from a logic that excludes third parties into a perspective of a constitutive heterogeneity. Yet it remains phenomenally difficult to escape in the long term from the reign of homogeneity. An image as simple as that of the bridge, often used to illustrate the process of translation, attests to the persistence of a binary logic. Considering translation as a means of passing from the original “tongue” to the target “tongue” just like crossing over a bridge perpetuates the idea that languages and cultures are as stable and distinct as the two banks of a river. Yet there is a great risk that translation causes or at least maintains the linguistic borders that it is supposed to cross with its bridges of concord. Boris Buden talked to us (in English) about the explosion of Yugoslav into various languages for which translation served as a dividing line. As I listened to him, I remembered the story told by Irina Vilkou-Poustovaïa, in which I. I. Bodiul, first secretary of the CP of Moldova brought along an interpreter to talk with his Romanian counterpart Ceausescu… when both spoke the same language6! In a tragic-comic case like that, translation serves to separate two languages and two nation-states that did not exist separately before translation was brought into the equation.

Reading a literary text through a heterolinguistic prism
The unique novel by Nigerian poet Gabriel Okara, The Voice (1964) provides the perfect experiment in a heterolinguistic reading and the chance to enrich our understanding of the notion of heterolinguality. The Voice tells of Okolo’s quest for the mysterious “it”, a quest that will lead the hero to exile and eventually to death. But the most extraordinary adventure in the novel is the tongue or language used, English made foreign to English-speaking readers. In an article published in 1963, Gabriel Okara says that he translated his mother tongue Ijaw literally into English7. Claiming the use of the language of the former Empire is radically different from Wali’s stance against English, published in a nearby column of the same journal (Transition) under the title “The Dead End of African Literature”. The debate between the two authors was an intense one, on one side the proponents of writing in one of the majority languages of Nigeria (which does not include Ijaw) and on the other those who defended English as a common language – there were few who defended a plurilingual policy(8). The question in this case seems at best doubly poorly posed.
It would be wrong to consider Okara’s text a translation as there is no original document written in Ijaw – the feat achieved in The Voice is the ability to produce the impression of Ijaw even though it is not translated. The English as used in this text is the instrument that gives an impression of Ijaw to a reader who knows nothing of the language. Then, and this is surely the most important part, the question of the identity of the “tongue” gets pushed to the back, less important than the enunciation.
Let us observe the council of Elders, gathered together in a circle around Chief Izongo. Abadi stands and speaks, in English the book specifies, then it is Izongo’s turn to speak, this time in “the vernacular”. Both speeches are in direct discourse but they are in the same language in the text. Izongo says that he did not understand all of what Abadi said (“many words missed our ears” p. 45) but he does not ask for any explanation because understanding the message is less important than the ties that bind the speakers, who all speak the same language – no matter what language they are speaking. The tyrannical Izongo, in effect, refuses to hear a different voice (“There should be no different voice”, p. 46). Okolo will be a prisoner as long as he does not accept his situation among them (“Your hands will only be untied if you agree to be one of us”, p. 47). At the other end of the village is Tuere’s isolated hut, who is accused of being a witch. It is with her that Okolo finds refuge. One day, he meets an as yet unknown character, the cripple Ukule, whom Tuere introduces as a friend, saying “It is only Ukule. He is one of us” (p. 116). This time, the first person plural pronoun does not indicate an alienating group but a collective resistance – the banished man, the witch and the cripple do not melt into the monological “we”. The word is in fact used very differently among these three people and in Izongo’s circle. Ukule agrees to be the recipient of the words pronounced by the two heroes when they are put to death (“Your spoken words will not die” p. 127). The relationship between Tuere and Okolo is even more singular – they hear the other’s voice inside of themselves “As Okolo stood thus speaking with his inside, a voice entered his inside asking him to bring some firewood” (p. 33). This voice that enters “his inside”, we understand it to be the voice of Tuere, but how do we interpret the “inside”?

Heterolingualism understood through literature – the contribution of “inside”.
Where heterolingualism seems to stumble with the literary text, it is the text itself that again makes it possible to understand heterolingualism. “Inside”, which appears twice in the above quotation and in multiple other places throughout the text, brings a new dimension to the question – that of the depth of the discursive subject.
Jean Sévry, who wrote the French translation published in 1985 by Hatier, translated “inside” by “le for intérieur” and she says in her Explanation: “What the author refers to as the “inside”, in French “le for intérieur”, comes from the Ijaw “Biri”, which is located in the abdomen and is the seat of the emotions” (La Voix p. 8). It is possible that some of the occurrences of “inside” coincide with the Ijaw concept of “biri” – but the linguistic preoccupation seems to us to hide other issues within the writing.
In this text, “inside” is used both as a preposition and as a noun. Okolo, whose name means “the voice” in Ijaw, claims to speak for the inside “I am the voice from the locked up insides” (The Voice, p. 34). For that reason, he is utterly open to the voices of others, like a sounding box. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Izongo prevents the voices of others from reaching him: “What you say does not enter my inside (p. 35), “Your teaching words do not enter my inside” (p. 36), etc. Regardless of its meanings in the language, “inside” traces a dividing line between monolithic subjects and characters who are profoundly dialogical. We can then see this “inside” as the speaker’s black box (“Your inside is your box. We cannot open it and see what is inside” p. 109) that must be opened to dispel the illusory uniqueness of the speaker(9).
A single speaker has multiple voices and can “change speaking hats”(10) as it were. Is this fundamental polyphony not the pre-condition for any translation to be possible? It does seem that translating has less to do with moving from one language to another and more to do with lending one’s voice to another. The enunciative economy of translation is the same then as in a representative – a speaker stands in for another person and speaks in his name. The political and ethical implications of such a system are clear – how can we be sure that the substitution is not a usurpation? One of the functions of heterolinguality seems to me to be a form of vigilance – it recalls the constitutive dimension of heterogeneity. I propose redefining the heterolingual text as a literary text that shows a language as foreign in order to denature a whole series of political views which have in common the fact that they rely on a logic of homogeneity and exclusion: about origin, purity, belonging, etc.

In place of a conclusion - the voices of the text and the “tongue” as an organ of heterolinguality
Through its title and the name of the protagonist, The Voice shows the importance of that faculty. However, “the voice” of a literary text is metaphorical and acousmatic, displaced from the place of its origin. A body should be reconstituted for it, the body of the subject for whom the “tongue” is also an organ. It is undoubtedly there that the workshops – and the continuing discussion with Amina Bensalah – mark both the specificity of literary analysis and its short-sightedness. Attaching heterolingualism to the letter of the literary text means we risk forgetting the body as the place where heterolinguistic policies have an effect. What the literary text does bring is the force to open new paths, the subversive power of an enunciation that becomes an event. Can we hope to bring the two perspectives together and give the heterolingual address back the parameters of an event that is taking place hic et nunc between incarnate, speaking individuals? Heterolingualism has served then to consolidate human and social sciences and to create a dialogue between practices and theories that are perhaps necessary to a different view of Europe, an alternative to national imagination.


Text published in Le Journal des Laboratoires January-April 2012

* Myriam Suchet defended her doctoral thesis in comparative literature Textes hétérolingues et textes traduits: de «la langue» aux figures de l'énonciation prepared jointly at the Université Lille 3 and Concordia University in Montréal. An earlier version of this work appeared in 2009 under the title Outils pour une traduction postcoloniale in the Malfini collection published by Archives Contemporaines. Myriam Suchet currently holds a temporary teaching and research position at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon and is a member of CERCC, the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Comparées sur la Création. 

Multitudes 45, summer 2011: «Du commun au comme-un. Nouvelles politiques de l’agir à plusieurs». Also see http://www.artfactories.net/ which makes the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers a prime place to host such a reflection.

2  Rainier Grutman, Des langues qui résonnent. L'hétérolinguisme au XIXème siècle québécois, Fides, Québec, 1997, p.37.

3  Rainier Grutman, «Le bilinguisme comme relation intersémiotique», in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature XVII (3-4), 1990, p.199.

4  Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997, p.8.

5  Naoki Sakai, "Translation as a filter" in Transeuropéennes, 25 Mars 2010, http://www.transeuropeennes.eu/fr/articles/200

6  Irina Vilkou-Poustovaïa, «De l’autre côté du miroir», in Sonia Branca-Rosoff, L’institution des langues. Autour de Renée Balibar, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, 2001, p.71.

7  Gabriel Okara, “African Speech... English Words”, in Transition n°10, 1963, pp.15-16. Republished by G.D. Killam (ed.), African Writers on African Writing, Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1973, pp.137-138.

8  Ayo Bamgbose, “Pride and prejudice in multilingualism and development”, in Richard Fardon et Graham Furniss (ed.), African languages, development and the state, Routledge, London, 1994, p. 33-43.

9  Oswald Ducrot, Le dire et le dit, Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1984, p.171.

10  Erving Goffman, Façons de parler, translated from Egnlish by Alain Kihm, «Le sens commun», Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1987, p.154.