L.4 (Re)Defining Translingual Writing
L.4 (Re)Defining Translingual Writing
“(Re)Defining Translingual Writing” continued a conversation that has been developing across conferences and publications for the past few years, most recently at the October 2010 Watson conference, “Working English in Rhetoric and Composition.” Scholars at this conference and at others have been asking how we can best teach and research writing, discourse, and language, given that our students, our media, our jobs, and our own ways of being-in-the-world are increasingly transnational.
The scholarly conversation regarding this question reached something of an official status with the publication of “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” in the January 2011 issue of College English. As the optional and tentative prefix “re” in the panel title suggests, Bruce Horner, Paul Kei Matsuda, and Suresh Canagarajah continued the work of that article by exploring what a “translingual” approach to reading and writing might mean.
Previous iterations of this conversation have been caught up in definitions in a way that this panel avoided, a welcome shift. The Watson conference, for example, saw much debate about the lack of specificity of the terms “code-switching” and “code-meshing” in rhetoric and composition. While it’s true that the field has appropriated these terms in occasionally odd ways, debates about naming are not nearly as useful as those about understanding the function and effect of the phenomenon itself. In fact, the common theme of this CCCC panel was one of a general delay regarding labeling: The talks were tinged with ever-so-slight exasperation at the rush to apply the term “translingual” before it has been fully explored.
Bruce Horner began the panel by arguing that we need to defer a definition of “translingual.” He stressed that the College English article did not propose a new term called “translingual writing” but rather proposed a turn in the way the field understands language difference in writing—a translingual approach. While a new term might codify and explain, a new approach may remain curious and questioning.
Horner’s talk, “Toward Translingual Writing Dispositions,” pursued this distinction, suggesting translingual writing be understood as a set of dispositions—similar to those employed by English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) speakers—rather than as a new term or as a set of forms that could be fetishized. Horner noted that ELF speakers, for example, use all of their available linguistic resources, know that language meaning is dependent on context, and regard variability as a normal function of language. Following these lines, he offered three dispositions to demonstrate a translingual approach to writing. Horner first briefly compared the prefix “multi,” as in “multilingual,” to the prefix “trans.” He explained that while a multilingual approach might frame languages as static and equal elements of a writer’s repertoire, a translingual approach sees languages as fluid and ideological. (Horner’s point here echoes Canagarajah’s argument in a recent post on the CCCC diversity blog, “An Updated SRTOL?”, in which he notes the limits of a structuralist perspective that recognizes only systematic, stable varieties of English.) Horner used this contrast to show how a “trans” disposition can reveal the unpredictable quality of language—its lack of neat and tidy edges. Such a disposition, he explained, further acknowledges the responsibility of readers to negotiate meaning with writers who are composing across flexible linguistic repertoires.
This point led Horner to suggest semiodiversity rather than glossodiversity, asking that we look behind the textual features of language difference to read for potentially ambiguous or difficult meanings, treating writing not as a conduit for clear meaning but as an act of meaning-making. In this way, we might be disposed to reading for a diversity of meanings instead of patterns of error. Horner explained that such a disposition helps us resist teaching writers to approximate so-called native-like norms and instead remain curious about why writers are using certain forms to create meanings. Further, we might become attuned, as ELF speakers are, to the norm of difficulty and confusion in communication, and the norm of language difference in all, even canonical, writing.
Horner ended by suggesting that a translingual approach is a disposition toward rhetorical action and rhetorical agency, prefiguring Matsuda’s talk. Because a translingual approach asks what writers are doing with language and why, readers see writers making choices and aiming for effects by marshaling their rhetorical resources between and among languages (Horner et al., 2011, p. 301). Importantly, though, Horner reminded the audience that a translingual approach foregrounds the ideological character of language. He noted that languages carry their ideological histories along with them and thus influence a writer’s ability to enact their rhetorical agency across languages.
Introduced by Horner as “a translingual writer and transdisciplinary thinker,” Paul Kei Matsuda began his talk with an attention-getter: delivering the introduction in Japanese. (After about a minute, he asked if anyone understood him, and Suresh Canagarajah, grinning, tentatively raised his hand. Indeed, we could pick out a few English words, such as “starting point” and “translingual.”) For the rest of his talk, titled “Translingual Writing as Rhetorical Action,” Matsuda interrogated the definition of “translingual”—“a name in search of its own meaning”—using questions and heuristics such as Burke’s pentad. Is translingual writing the act we perform? The product? The process? He noted that the most troublesome aspect was the agent. After all, who gets to do translingual writing? (In the discussion, Min-Zhan Lu pointed out that the pentad is most productive for helping us see relationships between elements, not for analyzing individual elements. Matsuda agreed, saying he was indeed using it to think through different ways of defining the term.)
If translingual writers are multilingual writers, he argued, two key constituents are excluded: student writers who consider themselves to be monolingual and language learners who don’t yet have (or might not feel they have) the resources to use and interpret language rhetorically. Case in point: Suresh Canagarajah as a learner of Japanese. Matsuda asked whether Suresh would have been able to understand his introduction if he hadn’t included any English words.
Another question he asked was whether translingual writing has to look, sound, or be “different.” But translingual writing is not a new kind of writing, he argued; it’s an acknowledgement of how writing has always been, which echoed Horner’s suggestion that all writing is translation and contains language difference, even canonical writing. The term, Matsuda asserted, is valuable only insofar as it gets people to think about writing and language in this way. Matsuda asked the audience to continue engaging in conversation about these issues instead of assuming that the term has a concrete definition.
Suresh Canagarajah’s talk, “Strategies of Translingual Writing: Learning from Students,” moved beyond the complexities of definitions and looked instead at how readers make meaning of code-meshed texts. (This talk, he disclosed, was a response to a question asked by Patricia Bizzell at the Watson conference.)
Canagarajah noted that whereas his work on code-meshing has involved product-oriented analyses of texts produced in his graduate seminars, this talk focused on the strategies that classmates used to interpret their peers’ texts. He focused on peers’ response to a text by a student named Buthainah, which contained an untranslated Arabic poem at the beginning of a section. Buthainah felt the translation would not do the poem justice; she wanted to encourage the reader to continue reading for clues to the poem’s meaning, and she hoped her peers would respond to the aesthetic and material dimensions of the poem. Indeed, they took the bait.
Canagarajah then analyzed some of the strategies that Buthainah and her peers used, drawing on Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of “rhetorical listening.” Peers constructed meaning through the “let it pass principle” (one peer decided to not worry about what she couldn’t understand), performative acts (Buthainah sought to make the reader feel like a language learner or feel excluded from the audience, and she succeeded), enthymematic response (Buthainah wanted her readers to work hard to create meaning, and they did), and social interactions (talking with one another about one’s work was valuable). Canagarajah then informed the audience of Buthainah’s interpretation of the real meaning of the poem and acknowledged that he had misinterpreted it. Nonetheless, he argued, misinterpretation is part of the ongoing process of meaning-making.
The conversation on language diversity in writing continued into other panels at this year’s CCCC. A panel on code-meshing scheduled a few sessions later—“Code-Meshing as World English: Policy, Pedagogy, and Performance” (N.31)—in fact referred directly to Horner et al.’s translingual approach when one of the panel’s respondents, Vershawn Ashanti Young, quoted the College English article. With Horner, Canagarajah, and Lu chiming in during the comment period—Lu with a particularly interesting suggestion that we consider how “attachments” to languages complicate our understanding of code-meshing—the session showed that a growing number of scholars will continue to challenge and push this conversation forward in important ways.
Even though “(Re)Defining Translingual Writing” was scheduled on a Saturday, it still drew quite a crowd, and the frequent “mm-hms” and “ahhs” overheard suggested that the audience was not only interested but invested in the speakers’ ideas. The field’s conversation about language variety in writing has been around for quite some time, of course, but of late, the frequency of panels, publications (see below for a selected bibliography of recent publications), and themed conferences (including two upcoming at Penn State, Rhetoric and Writing across Language Boundaries (July 2011) and Writing Education across Borders (September-October 2011) suggests a growing desire to deepen and complicate our understanding of our students’ increasingly diverse language repertoires.
A Selected Bibliography of Recent Publications on Translingual Writing Issues
In this selected bibliography, we hope to highlight the interdisciplinary work that falls under the umbrella of a translingual writing approach: code-mixing, code-meshing, World Englishes, English as a Lingua Franca, and others. (For a more comprehensive list, click here for a bibliography that supplements the Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur article.)
Alim, H. Samy, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook, eds. Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Black, Rebecca W. Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction. New York: Lang, 2008.
Blommaert, Jan. The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010.
Canagarajah, Suresh. “An Updated SRTOL?” CCCC: Supporting and Promoting the Teaching and Study of College Composition and Communication. 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 7 Oct. 2010.
Fraiberg, Steven. “Composition 2.0: Toward a Multilingual and Multimodal Framework.” College Composition and Communication 62.1 (2010): 100-126.
Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, and Paul Kei Matsuda, eds. Cross-Language Relations in Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2010.
Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur. “Opinion: Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” College English 73.3 (2011): 303-321.
Kachru, Braj B., Yamuna Kachru, and Cecil L. Nelson, eds. The Handbook of World Englishes. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009. Print.
Lam, Wan Shun Eva. “Multiliteracies on Instant Messaging in Negotiating Local, Translocal, and Transnational Affiliations: A Case of an Adolescent Immigrant.” Reading Research Quarterly 44.4 (2009): 377-97.
Murata, Kumiko, and Jennifer Jenkins, eds. Global Englishes in Asian Contexts: Current and Future Debates. New York: Palgrave, 2009.
Pennycook, Alastair. Language as a Local Practice. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Prendergast, Catherine. Buying into English: Language and Investment in the New Capitalist World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2008.
Sebba, Mark, Shahrzad Mahootian, and Carla Jonsson, eds. Language Mixing and Code-Switching in Writing: Approaches to Mixed-language Written Discourse. New York: Routledge, 2011.
You, Xiaoye. Writing in the Devil’s Tongue: A History of English Composition in China. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2010.
Young, Vershawn, and Aja Y. Martinez, eds. Code-Meshing as World English: Pedagogy, Policy, Performance. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2011.
Watson Conference Keynote Articles. Spec. issue cluster of Journal of Advanced Composition 29.1–2 (2009). Ed. Bruce Horner with Min-Zhan Lu, Samantha NeCamp, Brice Nordquist, and Vanessa Kraemer Sohan.