Category Archives: Comparative Literature

Writing Humanity: on the Readings of a War Reportage

BY ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

War correspondent Marie Colvin used to say that what she fears the most is not a war, but indifference; a moment when stories of terror and injustice might cease to matter. Driven by a need to bear a witness, for over four decades she covered virtually all contemporary military conflicts: Iran–Iraq War; Kosovo; the intervention in Libya; Sierra Leone; Afghanistan; Gaza. The list goes on, as impressive as it is terrifying. By driving into the epicentre of danger, Colvin hoped to give voice to the voiceless; civilians whose stories might otherwise remain untold. ‘Marie has an eye for that’ – Colvin’s friends reflected, darkly, referencing her loss of an eye in a grenade explosion at Sri Lanka. 

Marie Colvin covering the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/Sunday Times/EPA 

Against the backdrop of a turbulent century, reporting means witnessing – integrating oneself into the situation and writing about the experience with honesty and compassion, hoping to provoke a sense of activism in the reader. Despite the usual associations we share for the noun ‘report’ as an objective, evaluating account, a summary, the genre of reportage departs from the verb ‘to report’ that specifically designates an action of relating, recounting, describing, and telling a story. It offers the reader the account on humanity in extremis. For those of you who would like to delve deeper into the topic, the Washing Post’s list of the 100 best pieces of journalism (at the same time reflecting on the likely absurdity of creating such rankings) can be a helpful source, though not a definitive one [1]. Following the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction would also provide recommendations to start on.

Studying comparative literature brings with it the excitement of reading material, yet it its purpose is to reveal unobvious links between authors, their biographies, and styles that we now call ‘intertextuality’, in the vocabulary of literary theory. It is not a simple source-hunting (or flex during literature classes) but an attempt to get ‘behind the scenes’ of the creative process and better understand an author’s motives, hopes, and anxieties. If Colvin’s war correspondence is now among the genre’s finest – lately popularised by the biography suggestively entitled In Extremis (2018) by Lindsey Hilsum, and film The Private War – she is certain not alone at the top.


The Book Cover of In Extremis 

Her exceptional journalism is only part of a larger tradition of reportage; deploying changes of style and technique to keep the reader’ attention, and the examining the ethics of witnessing war.

In taking on this genre, the most salient question is: ‘what are my motivations for reading non-fiction?’ Why, of all of the books and work available to me, do I choose those that ground me in reality, instead of taking me away from it; floating me away into the welcoming arms of fiction? Asking these basic questions of ourselves helps us define the expectations we share about non-fiction and verify whether they accord with our actual experience of reading this work.

In recalling my own encounters with the genre I think of Martha Gellhorn; an American journalist and correspondent for Collier magazine, one of the first non-fiction writers to strike me as deeply observant and very well-written. In the early 1940s, her writing re-shaped modern war correspondence. In much of her journalism Gellhorn describes scenes from conflict zones with remarkable ease and vividness. Her attention, however, quickly shifts from a comprehensive presentation of facts to a subjective description of standing at the epicentres of conflict and, most importantly, listening to people’s stories.

Portrait of Martha Gellhorn w Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Consider, for instance, this author’s reports from the RAF control station in 1943 as ‘The Bomber Boys’ prepare for taking off:

The motors were warming up, humming and heavy. Now the big black planes wheeled out and one by one rolled around the perimeter and got into position on the runway. […] Then the first plane was gone into the blackness, not seeming to move very fast, and we saw the tail-light lifting, and presently the thirteen planes that were taking off from this field floated against the sky as if the sky were water. Then they changed into distant, slow-moving stars. That was that. The chaps were off. They would be gone all this night. […] They were going to fly over France […] to bomb marshalling yards, to destroy if possible and however briefly one of the two rail connections between France and Italy. If they succeeded, the infantry in southern Italy would have an easier job for a little while.

The author paints this scene with broad strokes; detailed and novelistic descriptions intertwine with very short sentences, making the prose pulse and pause. The purpose of this cinematic technique is to replicate the intensity of what the author has witnessed and bring the reader into the scene. What would later come to be called ‘New Journalism’ [2] in the 1960s deployed techniques such as: realistic though often ‘eavesdropped’ dialogue, scene-by-scene reconstruction, recounting of the prior life and experience of ‘characters’ in the story, alternating between first- and third-person narrative. Even if the author condemns any form of violence, vivid prose poses questions about the potential fetishization of war and conflict, especially if augmented by a representation of brutal, yet still somehow glorious, war. The excerpt reads like an action novel, or the opening sequence of a blockbuster movie. [3]


Martha Gellhorn with Royal Air Force pilots, England 1943 

Even though this short excerpt does not do justice to all the variation in Gellhorn’s style, one quickly notices that her prose does not claim objectivity. Reflection on the place of the author’s subjectivity in the genre of reportage pervades Gellhorn’s entire body of work. Known for her sharp tongue, Gellhorn despised the conventions of writing from the distance, referring to it bluntly as ‘that objectivity shit’. Among her most well-known books, we may list The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936) – a set of short stories taking the reader through America during the Great Depression; A Stricken Field (1940) – a novel set against the backdrop of a war-tormented Czechoslovakia; and The Face of War (1959) – a wide collection of war journalism. The only openly autobiographical book she published was Travels with Myself and Another (1978), in which the titular ‘another’ refers to Gellhorn’s late husband husband, Ernest Hemingway.

Judging from the title, we might indeed suspect that the marriage was not a great success. The biopic film Hemingway and Gellhorn from 2012 captures some of their personal tensions, against the background of subsequent wars. After their divorce Gellhorn would tactfully avoid commenting on the writer; any interviewer bold enough to bring up the topic of their failed marriage was reportedly treated to a stern look. Given how one of Gellhorn’s first books, The Trouble I’ve Seen, was warmly received and prized for an ‘amazingly unfeminine’ quality, perhaps her stand against what she called seeing oneself ‘as a footnote to someone else’s life’ is self-explanatory.

Gellhorn was, reportedly, the only woman to see the front lines of D-Day. As the Oxford Companion to American Literature notes, ‘in a characteristic act of daring, when no publisher would send her to the front lines on D-Day during World War II, Gellhorn sneaked aboard a hospital ship and became the only woman in the field and the only journalist to set foot on shore.’ Despite that, Gellhorn held the personal conviction that ‘Courage Knows No Gender’ [4] – as Colvin called the speech she gave whilst receiving one of her many journalistic prizes. Consider its opening passage:

Do women report wars differently from men? The question used to make me bristle. It irritated me to think that I would be judged as a woman war correspondent rather than as a writer, taking the same risks and covering the same story as my male colleagues. My feelings were hardly new. ‘Feminists nark me,’ wrote Martha Gellhorn, one of the great war correspondents of the century. ‘I think they’ve done a terrible disservice to women, branding us as women’s writers. Nobody says men writers; before, we were all simply writers.’

Colvin’s vision of writing not labelled by gender might sound eminently sensible and intuitive. However, it is also decidedly idealistic and the debate on this topic has a rich history (or perhaps more aptly, HERstory) in both second- and third-wave feminism, and in cultural studies. A helpful point of reference in thinking about literature and gender would be to follow readings suggested by Poetry Foundation [5].

Writing about these two female war correspondents is not just a topic in its own right but also an opportunity to think of how we talk about the influence in literary studies. The most well-known single book about dialogues of literature is still Harold Bloom’s Anxieties of Influence. In this indeed influential (and in a way, anxious) book Bloom sees literature as a battlefield, a setting for rivalry between new authors and their predecessors. But does it always need to be this way? What if the authors let themselves be marked, changed, and challenged by the text without a constant urge to battle authority and tradition? In other words: what if inspirations go beyond the notion of rivalry and take the form of imaginative collaboration instead?


Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War Photo: Aviron Pictures

Every time she went to the frontline, Colvin would take only one book. This was The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn, whose reportage Colvin loved dearly; she often spoke about the lasting influence that this previous generation’s correspondent had had on her writing. It is uncertain whether they ever met, but the similarities of their turbulent biographies, styles, and  journalistic achievements alongside their life-long addictions to danger are striking; striking to the extent where the reader might speculate on how they would have related to each other as contemporaries. Of course, for the young Colvin the beloved elder correspondent was not her only inspiration. It was during her studies at Yale that Marie decided to become a journalist, and learnt from another legend of non-fiction.

Addicted to the ‘New York Times’ since her teenage years, in her second year of university Colvin signed up to lessons led by John Hersey, known for his pioneering book Hiroshima (1946). Hersey introduced elements typical of literary fiction to the genre of non-fiction, giving it a fresh and novelistic touch. His work still features amongst the highest-rated books ever written.

In the classroom, Hersey would speak of the importance of searching for truth and cultivating narrative flow over guarded objectivism and gathering information. The values of this approach would not simply resonate with Colvin but would later on become her own:  

To me, bravery is not something gigantic and definitive. I don’t get into a war thinking I have to prove myself brave: that would be about me and that would be bravado. […] The point is to try to report as truthfully as you know how. […] You can’t get that information in a war without going to a place where people are being shot and they are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that someone will care. 

The last line from this excerpt, in particular, invites reflection and encourages a return to the question: ‘what is it that makes me care?’ Complex in its socio-historical focus and multivariate storytelling methods, modern war reportage offers a unique reading experience. Most importantly, it calls for readers to be ready to be – as Colvin once was, reading Gellhorn for the first time – marked, struck, and challenged by the text.

ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/01/business/media-journalism-s-greatest-hits-two-lists-of-a-century-s-top-stories.html

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/New-Journalism

[3] Read more excerpts at: https://www.military-history.org/feature/world-war-2/war-reporters-martha-gellhorn.htm

[4] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/courage-knows-no-gender-r5tqg9zzxjp

[5] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/feminist-theory

Responding to Literature through the Arts II

Oxford first-year Spanish students have taken the opportunity to respond creatively through the visual arts and creative writing to some of the literary works they had studied earlier in the year, or works they plan to study next year. We saw one project last week. Here are samples from three more.

 Josh Aruliah (Spanish and Linguistics, Keble College)

“This drawing depicts my interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, which is a hypothetical library that consists of an indefinite number of identical hexagonal galleries and contains every possible book that could be written (up to a certain length). I featured illusions, drawing inspiration from the work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher, to convey the impossible and bewildering nature of the library; the staircase and the railings are inconsistent and demonstrate the lack of a fixed direction of gravity. It is not a literal depiction of the library as I aimed instead to portray the perplexing experience of trying to visualise Borges’s fascinating creation. The short story reveals that almost all of the books contain complete gibberish and, therefore, the librarians seem to be condemned to an eternal and vain search for meaning. There is little distinction between the books and galleries in the drawing, with the upper gallery perhaps giving the impression of a reflection, which demonstrates this idea of endless futility.”

Darcie Dorkins (History and Spanish, Exeter College)

“I chose to paint Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most important figures of Spanish colonial literature, whose works were widely acclaimed during her lifetime and continue to be celebrated today. I was inspired to visually explore the conflicting notions of restriction and freedom in Sor Juana’s life which stemmed from her overlapping roles as a nun, woman, and outstanding writer, with a particular focus on one of her most widely read poems, ‘Hombres necios’. Thought to have been written in around 1680, I felt that the poem was a valuable representation of the precarious space she occupied between contemporary religious, intellectual and literary spheres in both her native Mexico and in Spain, where her works were also popular. To this end, I aimed to incorporate various symbolic elements within the piece: Sor Juana herself, as the subject of many striking portraits; the visual prominence of religion, a defining feature of her life with considerable implications for her literary career; and a book, to represent her extensive learning. I also included a mirror, as in ‘Hombres necios’ Sor Juana symbolically confronts men with the realities of their irrational and impossible standards for women, along with birds and an open cage to reflect the issues of restriction and liberation in her life.”

Darcie also translated the closing lines of Sor Juana’s Primero sueño (First Dream), a notoriously complex and linguistically rich poem:

Llegó, en efecto, el sol cerrando el giro                                    

que esculpió de oro sobre azul zafiro.

De mil multiplicados                                                            

mil veces puntos, flujos mil dorados,

líneas, digo, de luz clara, salían

de su circunferencia luminosa,

pautando al cielo la cerúlea plana;

y a la que antes funesta fue tirana                                       

de su imperio, atropadas embestían:

que sin concierto huyendo presurosa,

en sus mismos horrores tropezando

su sombra iba pisando,

y llegar al ocaso pretendía                                                  

con el sin orden ya, desbaratado

ejército de sombras, acosado

de la luz que el alcance le seguía.

Consiguió, al fin, la vista del ocaso

el fugitivo paso,                                                                   

y en su mismo despeño recobrada,

esforzando el aliento en la ruïna,

en la mitad del globo que ha dejado

el sol desamparada,

segunda vez rebelde, determina                                         

mirarse coronada,

mientras nuestro hemisferio la dorada

ilustraba del sol madeja hermosa,

que con luz judiciosa

de orden distributivo, repartiendo                                        

a las cosas visibles sus colores

iba, y restituyendo

entera a los sentidos exteriores

su operación, quedando a luz más cierta

el mundo iluminado, y yo despierta.                                 

And sure enough, the Sun arrived, sealing the orbit

it etched in gold upon the sapphire blue sky.

Born of a thousand

times thousand points, a thousand golden streams,

and lines, I say, of pure light, which radiated

from its luminous circumference,

marking the sky-blue page;

and, converging, they charged towards

that former sepulchral tyrant of their empire,

who, stumbling over her own horrors,

treading on her own shadow,

erratically with haste, trying to reach the West

with her now confused, disorderly

army of shadows, pursued

by the light following closely behind.

At last, that fugitive retreat

gained sight of the West,

and, recovering from her downfall,

steeling her crushed spirit,

rebellious for a second time,

she resolves to see herself crowned

in that half of the globe that

the Sun has left unprotected;

meanwhile, the golden tresses of the Sun

beautified our hemisphere,

and with judicious light

and ordered generosity reimbursed

all visible things with their colours,

and restored the external senses their full

operation, leaving the world illuminated

by a more certain light, and I awake.

Why should we read translated texts?

This week, we’re back to the Linguamania podcast, produced by the Creative Multilingualism research programme. The third episode in the podcast series explores the question ‘Why should we read translated texts?’ and features two of our brilliant Modern Languages tutors: Prof. Jane Hiddleston, Tutor in French at Exeter College, and Dr Laura Lonsdale, Tutor in Spanish at Queen’s College.

In this episode of LinguaMania, we’re exploring what we lose or gain when we read a translated book. Are we missing something by reading the English translation and not the original language version? Or can the translation process enhance the text in some way? Jane Hiddleston and Laura Lonsdale from the University of Oxford discuss these questions and also look at what fiction and translation can tell us about how languages blend with one another and interact.

Listen to the podcast below or peruse the full transcript here.

A Writer’s War

Last week we brought you news of an exciting new podcast from Creative Multilingualism. This week, we have another new podcast to share with you – this one produced by some of our academics in collaboration with the wonderful Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy. The podcasts are available to listen to here.

The Oxford Spires Academy’s project “A Writer’s War” was designed to examine how writers from the UK, France, and Germany responded to the First World War in poetry and prose. Students were encouraged to draw parallels between texts in three languages, and examined the respective authors’ experiences of the war, as well as cultural and artistic reactions to war. To this end, students were encouraged to ponder whether war, for the writers in question, was seen as a patriotic endeavour, or as a time of suffering, or as something altogether quite different. Students were shown archive documents sent from the trenches or diary entries from those at home.

The students were also taken to Magdalen College, where they examined various memorials such as that commemorating Ernst Stadler, a German Expressionist poet, Rhodes scholar, and Magdalen alumnus. Stadler was killed in battle at Zandvoorde near Ypres in the early months of World War I. Stadler was not named on the Magdalen War Memorial as he was a foreign combatant, but later received a separate plaque on Magdalen’s grounds. This opportunity enabled students to examine the politics of commemoration and the question of post-war reconciliation. Students were encouraged to think about such issues beyond the case of WW1.

Royal Irish Rifles ration party Somme July 1916 . Via Wikimedia Commons.

Organised by the Head of Languages, Rebekah Finch, students at the Oxford Spires Academy engaged in research-led workshops with interventions from Professor Toby Garfitt, Professor Ritchie Robertson, and Andrew Wynn-Owen (a current Ph.D. student and published poet) on the literatures of the three linguistic areas. The students also enjoyed a creative writing workshop with Andrew Wynn Owen, where they wrote their own poems about war.

Catriona Oliphant of Chrome Media presented a skills workshop on creating podcasts, after which each pupil made a short podcast about the project and experience, discussing what they had seen, read, thought, or written.

Professor Toby Garfitt, Professor Ritchie Robertson, Andrew Wynn-Owen, Professor Santanu Das (a specialist of WW1 and the Indian sub-continent) and Professor Catriona Seth also recorded podcasts on the topic.

The students enjoyed studying parallel and diverging literary traditions, and gained a greater awareness of various literary genres, the politics of commemoration, gendered reactions to war, and war as the subject for literary texts.

Cilck here to access the podcasts. There are nine episodes:

  1. Dulce et Decorum Est. In the first four podcasts, we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  2. Fête. This is the second of four podcasts, in which we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  3. All Quiet on the Western Front. This is the third of four podcasts in which we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  4. In Memoriam. This is the last of four podcasts in which we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  5. Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! In this podcast, we hear from Prize Fellow and poet Andrew Wynn Owen and Senior Research Fellow Prof. Santanu Das of All Souls College about the British response to the First World War.
  6. Art, Adventure, Love. In this podcast, we hear from Prof. Toby Garfitt, Emeritus Fellow of Magdalen College, about the response in France to the First World War.
  7. Storm of Steel. In this podcast, we hear from Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of the German Language and Literature and Fellow of The Queen’s College, about the German response to the First World War.
  8. From Across the Seas They Came. We conclude this group of podcasts with a discussion about responses to the First World War in former colonies of the British and French Empires. Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature and Fellow of All Souls College, chairs a conversation between Prof. Santanu Das, Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, and Prof. Toby Garfitt, Emeritus Fellow of Magdalen College.
  9. President Warren at Home. In the final podcast in our series, we visit the archives of Magdalen College to hear from archivist Dr Charlotte Berry and archives assistant Ben Taylor about some of the items in the College’s First World War collection.

Linguamania Podcast

There’s an exciting new podcast out there for all you language lovers. Creative Multilingualism, an AHRC-funded research programme examining creativity in language learning, has launched a podcast which explores different aspects of language learning and how these interesect with the programme’s different strands.

Produced by researchers from Creative Multilingualism, the LinguaMania podcast explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more… So stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

The first episode examines the question “How ‘foreign’ are ‘foreign languages’?” Many people think foreign languages are alien to us, unless of course we’ve spent years studying them. But is this really the case? Or can we actually understand some words in a different language – even if we’ve never studied that language before?

In episode 1 of the LinguaMania podcast, Professor Martin Maiden suggests that languages aren’t always as foreign as we think, especially if we have some tricks up our sleeve to help us decipher them. You can see the full transcription of the podcast on the Creative Multilingualism website.

And here’s the episode itself…

An interview with Dr Analía Gerbaudo, Part 2

Last week, we brought you part 1 of an interview with Dr Analía Gerbaudo, who was Global South Visiting Fellow at Oxford last term. Today, our undergraduates Stephanie and Sarah bring you the concluding part of this interview, which covers Dr Gerbaudo’s experience founding a literary magazine and an insight into her own writing.

SL & SW: En 2014, usted fundó la revista literaria El Taco en la Brea, además de ser la directora de la editorial Vera cartonera. ¿Qué la inspiró a fundar una revista literaria? ¿Qué desafíos enfrentó al fundar la revista y qué desafíos sigue enfrentando al ser la directora de una editorial?

AG: Mis fantasías de intervención son pretenciosas. Porque sé que es imposible, me encantaría que nuestra revista tuviera el impacto que tuvo en el campo intelectual argentino Punto de vista. Sé que es absolutamente imposible que una revista universitaria tenga el alcance y la llegada que esa revista cultural tuvo en Argentina, en Latinoamérica y más allá, entre 1978 y 2008. Siendo un poco más realista, y en un orden más “nano”, me interesa que los resultados de investigación realizados con fondos públicos puedan ponerse a disposición en una revista on line, de calidad y con acceso abierto para todo aquel que necesite utilizarlo.
La editorial cartonera también se mueve en una tensión entre lo pensable y lo posible, tanto en términos de producción como de circulación y consumo: se intenta contribuir a generar nuevos lectores porque se apuesta a la lectura como una de las vías privilegiadas en la construcción de agencia política. Se intenta, entonces, acercar un bien simbólico de calidad a bajo precio: el libro es un objeto suntuoso incluso para un amplio sector de la clase media baja argentina y de nuestro estudiantado universitario, aun cuando la carrera elegida haya sido letras (recordemos que las carreras de grado universitario en Argentina son gratuitas: a ellas acceden estudiantes de ingresos económicos diversos).  Y como en el caso de la revista, nuestras fantasías de intervención también tienen un ángulo desmesurado y delirante: estamos trabajando en una página Web para colgar todos nuestros libros cartoneros en acceso abierto. Intentamos con esto generar una circulación que vaya más allá de Argentina. Intentamos generar una circulación que contribuya a incidir en la configuración de la Word literature.
Nuestros desafíos son los que atraviesa cualquier espacio institucionalizado en un país inestable como Argentina, con políticas públicas variables. Es decir, nuestros desafíos son poder sostener la calidad a pesar de la falta de financiamiento. Parece una tontería pero tener dinero para invertir en un buen diseño o para algo básico como comprar el papel (en el caso de la cartonera) no son cosas aseguradas. Como Sapiro muestra en sus análisis de la producción literaria bajo la ocupación alemana, el acceso al papel era un problema. En Argentina, el acceso al papel fue un problema no sólo bajo los regímenes dictatoriales. Este es un ejemplo, entre otros. Podríamos analizar con detalle qué relación hay entre, otra vez, activismo y trabajo intelectual en países periféricos como Argentina, Chile, Brasil, Bolivia, constantemente jaqueados por diferentes formas de violencia estatal dados los vaivenes entre ciclos expansionistas de derechos  y posdictaduras.

SL & SW: In 2014, you founded the literary magazine El Taco en la Brea, in addition to being the director of the publishing house Vera cartonera. What inspired you to found a literary magazine? What challenges did you face in founding the magazine, and what do you continue to face in being the director of a publishing house?

AG: My “fantasias de intervención” are ambitious.Although I know it is impossible, I would love for our magazine to have the same impact as the cultural magazine Punto de vista did on the Argentinian intellectual scene. But I know that it is absolutely impossible for a university magazine to have the same reach and reception that Punto de vista had in Argentina, in Latin America and beyond, between 1978 and 2008. When I’m being a bit more realistic, and on a smaller, more “nano” scale, I want the research results carried out with public funds to be made available in a quality, online magazine, with open access for anyone who needs to use it.
The cartonera publishing house also shifts in a tension between what is conceived and what is possible, as much in terms of production as circulation and consumption. It aims to generate new readers because it is committed to the discipline of reading as one of the privileged methods involved in the construction of political agency. We therefore also have the intention of symbolically reconciling high quality with a low price. Books are a luxury even for a wide section of the lower-middle class in Argentina, as well as for our university students, even when the degree chosen is literature (getting a university degree in Argentina is free, accessible to students from diverse economic backgrounds). And, as in the case of the magazine, our “fantasias de intervención”also have a boundless, delirious element: we are working on a web page to upload all of our cartonero editions with open access. With this, we aim to circulate our work beyond Argentina, and generate a circulation that contributes to underscoring the shape of “world literature”.
Our challenges are those that cross into any institutionalized space in an unstable country like Argentina, with changing public politics. That is, our challenges are to be able to maintain quality despite the lack of funding. It seems silly but having money to invest in a good design or for something basic like buying paper (in the case of the cartonera books) is not assured. As Sapiro demonstrates in her analysis of literary production under Nazi occupation, access to paper was a problem. In Argentina, access to paper was not only a problem under dictatorial regimes. This is one example among others. We could, once again, analyse in detail what the relationship is between activism and intellectual labour in peripheral countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia – countries constantly rocked by different forms of state violence, given the see-sawing between the expansionist cycles of rights and the post-dictatorial regimes.

SL & SW: Habrá estudiantes que cuando lean esta entrevista tendrán interés en estudiar sus obras. ¿Qué consejos les daría a ellos y a las personas cuyo idioma nativo no es el español si le preguntasen: “por dónde empezar”?

AG: La línea de trabajo que desarrollo se abre con un libro que publiqué en 2016: en Políticas de exhumación. Las clases de los críticos en la universidad argentina de la posdictadura (1984-1986) ensayo una articulación metodológica entre las teorías de Jacques Derrida y de Pierre Bourdieu para analizar cómo se enseñó la teoría literaria y la literatura argentina en mi país durante los primeros años de la restitución “democrática”. En ese libro se muestran modos de leer y de enseñar literatura y teoría literaria desarrolladas entre 1984 y 1986 por algunos de los mejores críticos de argentina: Beatriz Sarlo, Josefina Ludmer, David Viñas, Enrique Pezzoni y Jorge Panesi. Enviar a leer ese libro es enviar a leerlos a ellos. Esa es otra de mis fantasías de nano-intervención más poderosas.

SL & SW: There are students reading this interview who will be interested in studying your works. What advice would you give them, and other people whose native language isn’t Spanish, if they ask where to begin?

AG: The line of work I have developed opens with a book that I published in 2016: in Políticas de exhumación. In Las clases de los críticos en la universidad de argentina de la posdictadura (1984-1986) ) I try out an interactive methodology with the theories of Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu to analyse how literary theory and Argentinian literature was taught in my country during the first years of the “democratic” restitution. This book shows the ways of reading and teaching literature and literary theory developed between 1984 and 1986 by some of Argentina’s best critics: Beatriz Sarlo, Josefina Ludmer, David Viñas, Enrique Pezzoni and Jorge Panesi. In recommending this book to others, I’m urging them to read these critics too. This is another of my more powerful “fantasias de nano-intervención”.

Concluding thoughts from Stephanie and Sarah

Throughout the course of this interview, Gerbaudo gives us an insight into her time at Oxford, the instrumental role of Oxford academics in furthering discussions and a taste of her own approaches to literature and literary theory, especially under censorship and dictatorship. She highlights the influence of Jacques Derrida on her own work, focussing on exhumation policies in her study of historical literary practices. Words are undeniably powerful as she demonstrates with her current role as director of Vera Cartonera editorial. Through her ambitions for the future of the literary magazine, Gerbaudo provokes us into questioning the role of activism, translation and publication in the global dissemination of literature.

We would like to thank Professor Gerbaudo for taking time to talk to us and we hope this taster of her work will inspire others to explore her work further.

An interview with Dr Analía Gerbaudo, Part 1

This blog post was written by Stephanie Long and Sarah Wadsworth, who are in the final year of their degrees in Spanish. Here, they interview Global South Visiting Fellow, Dr Analía Gerbaudo and discuss literature and political activism, and the role of the translator. Dr Gerbaudo gave this interview in Spanish, and Stephanie and Sarah have translated it into English. As this interview is quite long, we will be publishing it in two parts – check back next week for part 2.

At the end of 2019, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Dr Analía Gerbaudo, a Global South Visiting Fellow appointed by the Research Centre for Humanities (TORCH) here in Oxford. She is Professor of Literary Theory and Didactics of Language and Literature at the National University of Litoral in her home country of Argentina, as well as the director of the independent publishing house Vera cartonera, and editor-in-chief of the online literary journal, El Taco en la Brea, which she founded in 2014. Given that one of the key aims of the TORCH project is to help diversify the curriculum at Oxford University, it seems only fitting that such a talented individual with involvement in the “cartonero” movement in Argentina – a movement dedicated to providing quality literature at an affordable price – should have received this appointment. “Translation is necessary in order for one to share texts,” Dr Gerbaudo tells us in one of her answers. For that reason, we feel privileged to have conducted and translated from Spanish the interview presented below. It is a pleasure to share with others Dr Gerbaudo’s obvious knowledge and experience.

SL & SW: Tenemos el privilegio de tener una entrevista con usted aquí en Oxford. En el verano, usted fue nombrada por la organización TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) como una << Global South Visiting Fellow >>. Según usted, ¿en qué consiste dicho nombramiento y cómo se relaciona con sus investigaciones literarias?

AG: Resulta complejo expresar con palabras lo que la experiencia habilitada por este nombramiento de TORCH me ha permitido. Se trata de algo mucho más complejo que la ya enorme posibilidad de transmitir en uno de los centros de producción intelectual más prestigiosos del mundo los resultados de mis investigaciones (siempre repito que el mapa mundial de los estudios literarios tiene tres grandes polos situados en Francia, en Estados Unidos y en Inglaterra): para alguien que estudia los procesos de institucionalización de las disciplinas, conocer las condiciones de producción de la Universidad de Oxford ya es, de por sí, una experiencia intraducible (es decir, es necesario atravesarla, no hay otro modo de sintetizar las sensaciones que uno siente cuando descubre estas increíbles bibliotecas, los equipadísimos espacios de trabajo, los edificios cuidados, los lugares de recreación, la universidad misma en su conjunto).
Y en esa línea, hay algo de la sociabilidad académica que me ha parecido muy interesante. Me refiero al modo en que los profesores que confiaron en que mi visita podría realizar algún aporte han organizado los coloquios, los workshops y las presentaciones: se trató de un trabajo realizado con una responsabilidad, un profesionalismo y una obsesión que merecen verdaderamente destacarse (además de donarme su tiempo para organizar cada detalle: recordemos que el filósofo francés Jacques Derrida nos advierte que el único bien del que se tiene derecho a ser avaros es el tiempo dado su carácter irrecuperable). El trabajo que han realizado Stefano María Evangelista, Ben Bollig y Laura Marcus es absolutamente imposible de resumir en dos líneas de una entrevista. Gracias a sus intervenciones se generaron interesantísimas conversaciones con otros profesores participantes de las actividades: con Gisèle Sapiro (CNRS, EHESS, París) trabajo desde el año 2011, pero antes de esta estadía nunca había conversado con Peter McDonald ni con María del Pilar Blanco ni con Patricia Novillo-Corvalán. Es impresionante lo que ha sucedido porque si bien trabajamos mucho durante mis semanas en Oxford, sobre el cierre de la experiencia empezaron a aparecer proyectos de continuidad de la conversación: traducciones, publicaciones en la editorial cartonera que dirijo y un largo etcétera que involucra a este grupo de personas que he mencionado.

SL & SW: We’re privileged to have an interview with you here in Oxford. In the summer, you were appointed by the TORCH organisation (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) as a “Global South Visiting Fellow”. What does such an appointment involve, and how is it connected with your literary research?

AG: It is hard to express in words just what experience this TORCH appointment has afforded me. It goes far beyond the already enormous opportunity of sharing the results of my research in one of the most prestigious centres of intellectual output in the world (I have always said that the world map of literary studies has three large poles located in France, the United States and England). For someone who studies the processes of institutionalisation within disciplines, knowing the environment of the University of Oxford is already, in itself, an indescribable experience. That is to say, one has to go through it, there is no other way to accurately sum up the sensations one feels when discovering these incredible libraries, extraordinarily well-furnished workspaces, cherished buildings, recreation areas, the university itself as a whole.
Along those lines, I have been pleasantly surprised by the great enthusiasm and interest of academic circles at Oxford. I refer to the way in which the professors – the ones who believed that something would become of my visit – have organized talks, workshops and presentations: such work was carried out with a responsibility, a professionalism and a dedication that truly deserve to be mentioned, in addition to giving me their time to organize every detail. Let us not forget what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida said: he warned us that the only good that comes from entitled greed is time, given its irretrievable nature. The work that Stefano María Evangelista, Ben Bollig and Laura Marcus have done is absolutely impossible to summarize in two lines of an interview. It is thanks to their involvement, that fascinating conversations have taken place with other professors participating in the activities. I have been working with Gisèle Sapiro (CNRS, EHESS, Paris) since 2011, but before this stay I had never properly spoken to Peter McDonald or María del Pilar Blanco nor to Patricia Novillo-Corvalán. What is truly striking is that although we worked continuously during my weeks in Oxford, towards the end of the experience, projects continuing the conversation began to appear, including translations, publications in the cartonera publishing house that I am director of, and much, much more all involving the group of people that I mention above.

SL & SW: Un artículo publicado por el blog de la facultad de Humanidades de la universidad nos dice que: “Las obras de la doctora Gerbaudo abordan la actual y complicada cuestión de la relación entre los estudios literarios y el activismo político”. ¿Cómo describiría esta relación entre la literatura y el activismo? ¿Se considera usted una activista política?

AG: Hay sobre este punto una larga deriva de una conversación y de una enseñanza de Gisèle Sapiro. Los trabajos de Sapiro muestran que no hay un divorcio entre autonomía y política, como se nos suele hacer creer: nadie le pagaba a Sartre ni a Zola por sus asunciones políticas que atravesaban su filosofía y su literatura. Mis trabajos siguen esa línea abierta por Sapiro: ninguna de las dos somos neutrales. Nuestras posiciones políticas se advierten en todos y cada uno de nuestros trabajos y en nuestras acciones públicas, incluidas nuestras investigaciones.
Suelo hablar en mis escritos de “políticas de exhumación”. Jacques Derrida ha escrito, en un texto memorable, “One transforms while exhuming”. Exhumar prácticas clandestinas de enseñanza de teorías literarias y de literatura censuradas durante el terrorismo de Estado en Argentina así como exhumar prácticas que dan cuenta de la continuidad de políticas económicas, culturales y simbólicas de la dictadura, aún bajo el orden “democrático”, es parte de mi trabajo de investigación. Si esas intervenciones pueden considerarse una forma de activismo, entonces se podría decir que soy una activista. Creo y sigo, a pesar de todo (es decir, a pesar de que no pueden tanto como uno quisiera), una tradición francesa que apuesta al poder de las palabras. Trabajamos con palabras y en ese trabajo hay una potencia y una peligrosidad notable. No por casualidad durante la dictadura argentina era complejo hacer circular un texto como How to Do Things with Words

SL & SW: An article published by the University’s Humanities faculty’s blog tells us: “Dr Gerbaudo’s work tackles the difficult, charged and extremely topical question of the relationship between literary studies and political activism.” How would you describe the relationship between literature and activism? And would you consider yourself a political activist?

AG: A large amount of work by Giséle Sapiro, derived from conversations and her teaching, deals with this subject. Her work demonstrates that neither autonomy nor politics can be divorced from each other, as we are often led to believe: nobody paid Sartre or Zola to include the political suppositions that run through their philosophy and literature. My own work follows the thread drawn by Sapiro: that neither of the two are neutral. Our political stances are apparent in each and every part of our work and in our public activities, including our research.
I often talk about the “politics of exhumation” in my writing. Jacques Derrida wrote in one memorable text: “One transforms while exhuming”. Exhuming clandestine teaching practices of literary theories and literature censored during state terrorism in Argentina, as well as exhuming practices that account for the continuity of economic, cultural and symbolic policies of the dictatorship, even under the “democratic” order, constitute part of my research work.
If these interventions can be considered a form of activism, then you could say I’m an activist, despite everything. I mean to say we cannot do as much as one would like to. I believe in and follow a French tradition that gambles on the power of words.We work with words and in such a labour, there is remarkable power as well as a marked danger. It’s no coincidence that during the Argentinian dictatorship it was difficult to circulate texts such as How to Do Things with Words.

SL & SW: El artículo dice también que usted es una “traductora activa”. ¿Qué significa ser una traductora de obras argentinas y qué opina de traducirlas de español a inglés? Por otro lado, para usted, ¿qué es lo que más le gusta de la traducción?

AG: La traducción es una herramienta fundamental, en especial en países de preponderancia monolingüe como Argentina: lamentablemente nuestro sistema educativo no afianza la enseñanza de lenguas extranjeras, ni siquiera el portugués que es la lengua que se habla en uno de nuestros países vecinos, Brasil. Por lo tanto traducir es necesario si uno quiere compartir con los estudiantes los textos que ayudan a complejizar ideas, análisis, metodologías, perspectivas de investigación, de reflexión, de pensamiento. En ese sentido, mis traducciones son de textos del francés y del inglés al español. Elijo, en cada ocasión, textos que me permitan introducir categorías teóricas o maneras de leer que problematicen las discusiones recortadas en el campo nacional y, si se quiere, latinoamericano, ya que solemos publicar nuestras traducciones en revistas on line con acceso abierto.
El inglés es hoy la lingua franca de la ciencia. ¿Cómo no ponerse contento cuando un texto o una idea se pueden hacer circular por canales que permitan su diseminación por los espacios por los que esta lengua transita?

SL & SW: The article also says that you are an “active translator”. What does it mean to be a translator of Argentinian literature, and what is your opinion on translating them from Spanish to English? On the other hand, what do you enjoy most about translation?

AG: Translation is a fundamental tool, especially in countries like Argentina where monolingualism is dominant. Unfortunately, our education system hasn’t acted to strengthen the teaching of foreign languages, not even with Portuguese – the language spoken in one of our neighbouring countries, Brazil. Therefore, translation is necessary in order for one to share texts with students that help them deal with more complex ideas, analyses, methodologies, research perspectives, reflection, and thought. In that sense, my translations are from French and English into Spanish. At every opportunity, I select texts that allow me to introduce theoretical categories or ways of reading that consider the problems found in discussions cut short in the national sphere, and if you like, the Latin American sphere, too, since we usually publish our translations in online magazines with open access.
English is the lingua franca of science today. How can one not be pleased when a text or an idea can circulate by channels allowing their dissemination in spaces where English permits them movement?

Join us next week for the concluding part of this interview…

Paper Frenchmen: Francophone Indian literature

In late November, Oxford welcomed the writer Ari Gautier and his translator into English, Prof. Blake Smith, for a discussion about Francophone Indian Literature and about Gautier’s writing in particular. Part of the ‘World Literatures’ strand of the Creative Multilingualism programme, this event was convened by Prof. Jane Hiddleston and Sheela Mahadevan. Here we reflect on a few highlights…

Currently based in Oslo, Ari Gautier spent his childhood in former French colony Pondichéry, India. He is the author of Carnet Secret de Lakshmi and Le Thinnai, two novels which creatively intersperse Tamil, Hindi, Créole and English with French, reflecting the multilingual identities of those living in Pondichéry. His works give an insight into the impact of the French rule on the lives of Pondichéry citizens, their constantly vacillating identities, the multicultural aspect of the city, the Indian caste system, and the history of Pondichéry.

The ‘World Literatures’ strand of Creative Multilingualism is interested in texts where multiple languages brush up against one another, prompting questions about the boundaries of what a language is. This research wants to explore how worldliness and cultural transfer is present within a text from the moment of its inception, and how multilingualism speaks to multiculturalism. The research aims to expose interactions between different languages within a text, not just by examining the different languages in which a text is written, but also seeking out the traces of other languages through allusions to them or even by the notable absence of certain languages in a text. Gautier’s novels, with their interspersing of at least five languages, therefore seem like a perfect fit.

Prof. Smith gave a useful overview of the status of Francophone Indian Literature. To begin with, he acknowledged that it’s not necessarily something the general English reader will be aware of. When we think of Francophonie, we perhaps automatically think of certain countries in West Africa, Canada, or French-speaking East Asia or Oceania. However, France had a colonial presence in India from the seventeenth century. That said, Francophone Indian Literature was only really published from the late nineteenth century onwards and, during the twentieth century, French acted as a secondary language for many writers who were primarily writing in other languages. Academic interest in the French colonial legacy within Indian writing is fairly recent, and Prof. Smith recommended an anthology of Francophone Indian short stories for anyone who wishes to explore further: Écriture indienne d’expression française, edited by Vijaya Rao (Yoda Press & La Reunion par Le GERM, 2008).

Photo by Muhammed Jiyadh on Unsplash

The panel then turned to a discussion of how multilingualism operates within Gautier’s writing. Here is an extract from Gautier’s novel, Le Thinnai:

— Gilbert, va m’acheter un Suruttu à la boutique. Il te reste encore de la monnaie, n’est-ce pas ?
Voyant Gilbert fouiller désespérément ses poches, mon père lui dit d’aller chez Karika Bhai et d’acheter un paquet de Suruttus sur son compte.
— Oh, je suis à la retraite depuis une bonne dizaine d’années. J’ai fait le strict nécessaire sous les drapeaux pour pouvoir bénéficier de la retraite et je suis retourné au pays, répondit mon père après s’être allumé une cigarette.
— Pourquoi vous n’y êtes pas resté ? Vous ne vous plaisiez pas en métropole ?
— Ce n’est pas une question de s’y plaire ou pas. J’avais juste envie de revenir parmi les miens. Même si je m’étais fondé une famille là-bas, il me paraissait tout à fait naturel de rentrer chez moi.
— Mais la France, c’est aussi chez vous ! Vous êtes citoyen français.
Papa laissa échapper une bouffée de fumée ; il tapotait la cigarette sur le bord du cendrier et parut réfléchir.
— Oui, je suis français. Mais je suis indien en même temps. C’est ici que je suis né, mes ancêtres sont d’ici. Mes racines sont là. Même si j’ai vécu en métropole pendant quelque temps, il m’a paru normal de rentrer chez moi. Il n’y a aucune différence entre moi et un Breton ou un Normand qui aurait envie de retourner chez lui après avoir passé du temps en dehors de sa région natale. Sauf que moi, c’est un peu plus loin… Il marqua un temps d’arrêt pour tirer une bouffée. Mais vous connaissez aussi bien que moi l’histoire de notre pays ; surtout, l’histoire de Pondichéry. Ma famille est française depuis deux générations et je fus le premier à partir en métropole. Jusqu’ici nous n’avions que le statut de Français sur les documents ; mais nous étions profondément indiens. Enfin, nous le sommes toujours. Comment pouvez-vous vous sentir français, sans avoir jamais mis les pieds dans ce pays. Mes parents viennent d’un milieu modeste et n’ont pas eu accès ni à la langue ni à la culture française. L’univers français nous était totalement étranger. La seule chose qui nous rapprochait des Européens était le culte de la religion catholique. À part ça, nous vivions dans deux mondes différents. Notre allégeance à la France se trouvait enfermée dans une vieille malle en ferraille dans l’espoir qu’un jour, un des descendants l’ouvrirait et utiliserait ce morceau de papier. Pendant longtemps, nous ne fûmes pas considérés comme citoyens français ; nous n’étions que des sujets de la nation.
—Mais, toute ces années passées dans l’armée française n’ont pas su éveiller en vous un sentiment d’appartenance à ce pays ?
Mon père écrasa la cigarette au fond du cendrier et se versa une nouvelle rasade. Il se leva pour aller servir le vieil homme et vint s’asseoir sur le petit thinnai. Il tenait le verre de whisky dans sa main droite et regardait les bulles de soda qui remontaient à la surface du verre. Il reprit la parole en se passant la main gauche sur les cheveux d’avant en arrière ; geste qu’il avait l’habitude de faire quand il réfléchissait longuement.
— Je ne connais pas votre histoire, l’ancien, mais vous avez l’air de quelqu’un qui connaît la vie. Vivre en exil est une énorme malédiction. Certes, mon éloignement fut volontaire ; mais à mon époque, nous n’avions pas beaucoup de choix. Partir était le seul moyen d’échapper à une vie indigente. Nos parents et grands-parents qui avaient opté pour la nationalité française avaient fait de nous une génération d’immigrés dans notre pays qui était la France. Indigènes de la nation, nos vies n’ont connu que les tranchées, les coups de feu et les rations militaires. Inconscients et aveugles ignorants, nous sommes partis combattre nos frères malgaches, indochinois et algériens. À aucun moment, la notion que nous étions coupables de complicité involontaire aux massacres d’un pouvoir colonial ne nous a effleurés. Nous nous battions contre des ennemis de notre Mère patrie. Nous en étions fiers. Mais malgré notre fidélité envers elle, l’idée du retour fut plus instinctive. Après tout, nous n’étions que des indigènes des Troupes Coloniales ; la France n’a jamais été notre patrie. Cet attachement ambivalent que nous avons envers elle est une anomalie de l’histoire.  

And here it is in Prof. Smith’s English translation:

 “Gilbert, go buy me a suruttu at the shop. You still have money, don’t you?”
Watching Little Gilbert fumble despairingly in his pockets, my father told him to buy a suruttu from Karika Bhai, and add it to the soldier’s account.
“Oh, I’ve been retired for twelve years now. I did the absolute minimum to earn my pension, and now I’m back.” My father answered, lighting a cigarette.
“Why didn’t you stay? You didn’t like it in France?”
“It wasn’t a question of liking it or not. I just wanted to come back to my own people. Even if I started a family there, it seemed natural to come back home.”
“But France, that’s home too! You’re a French citizen.”
My father exhaled a puff of smoke. He tapped the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and seemed to think it over.
“Oh, I’m French. But Indian, too. I was born here. So were my ancestors. My roots are here. And after spending some time outside their own province, even a Breton or a Norman wants to go home. It’s the same with me. But my home is a little farther… you must know the history of Pondicherry as well as I do. My family has been French for generations, but I was the first one to go to France. Until then we were just paper Frenchmen; really we were Indians. Really we still are. How can you feel French, if you’ve never set foot there? My parents came from nothing; they didn’t know French or French culture. The only thing that connected us to the Europeans was the church. Besides that, it was two different worlds.”
“But all those years in the French army, didn’t they make you feel like you were part of the nation?”
My father crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and poured another drink. He got up to fill the old man’s glass and sat back down. He held his whisky in his right hand, watching the soda bubbles rise to the surface. He ran his left hand through his hair, which he always did when he had to think hard about something.
“I don’t know your story, old one, but you seem like you know a thing or two about life. Living in exile is a curse. Sure, I chose it, but back then there wasn’t much to choose from. Leaving was the only way out of poverty. Trenches, gunshots, and rations, that was all we knew. We fought our brothers in Madagascar, Indochina and Algeria. We never thought we might be guilty of anything. We felt nothing, saw nothing, understood nothing. We fought the enemies of the motherland. We were proud. But in spite of our faithful service, we wanted to come home. We were just colonial soldiers. France was never our country. What we had with it was just a quirk of history.”

The question of French culture and how far it can coexist alongside an Indian identity is central to this passage, a fact that is emphasised and complicated by the fact that the novel is written largely in French. But, of course, this passage is not entirely in French. What about that reference to a suruttu? A suruttu is a cigar, what we would call in English a ‘cheroot’, from the French cheroute, which itself comes from the Tamil curuttu/churuttu/shuruttu/suruttu. In this way, a single word, referring to an everyday item, can illuminate a complicated multilingual interaction.

Similarly the reference to the Tamil word thinnai is an example of what we might think of as an untranslatable word. A thinnai is a raised platform built adjacent to the main entrance of a house. It is common in Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India. Traditionally, it was a place where elders could rest to talk to neighbours and friends, and where strangers could stop for respite when passing through the town. Thus, in a text written mostly in French we see how a reference to another language can evoke a whole set of cultural values – hospitality, community, conversation. The porous borders between languages can facilitate and reveal the coexistence of multiple cultures.

Gautier talked about his own multilingual background, explaining that he spoke French with his father but Tamil with his uncle. Growing up in Pondicherry, he said that every street seemed to have its own language and he moved around a lot: his universe evolved with languages. When asked about the fact that his first novel included footnotes to explain Tamil words to non-Tamil speakers, but his second novel did not, Gautier confirmed that this was a deliberate decision. Footnotes could be seen as a form of linguistic colonisation – an attempt to make the Tamil words fit more comfortably within a French-language text. By deciding not to explain the Tamil in his second novel, Gautier refused to compromise Tamil. He said that using footnotes made him feel alien to his own language.

The wide-ranging discussion moved on to cover many aspects of Gautier’s writing, including its cinematic quality, the role of received memory in constructing his narratives and the question of mythology. While we don’t have room to touch on all those topics here, we will end by mentioning one further question that was raised, and which again highlights the porous potentiality of multilingualism: the use of Creole in Gautier’s novels.

Le Thinnai includes a character called Lourdes, a servant who speaks in Creole. One of the important roles Creole plays in a novel written largely in French is to recognise a community that has been overlooked. Gautier explained that in Pondicherry there is a problematic hierarchy between what is known as ‘haut-créole’ and ‘bas-créole’. Someone who is ‘haut-créole’ is of mixed French and Indian descent, whereas someone who is ‘bas-créole’ is not of French descent but nonetheless speaks a creolised form of French. The character Lourdes is ‘bas-créole’. She insists that she speaks French but other characters think she is speaking in Creole. The inclusion of Creole in this novel therefore performs the difficulties of thinking about translingualism: how far is it a language in its own right? How far is it a corrupted form of French? Might we think of it as an enhanced form of French?

These are just a few of the questions raised by the notion of multilingualism and translingualism in World Literatures. You can dig a little deeper into Francophone Indian literature by reading Prof. Smith’s piece ‘Indian Literature speaks French‘ or follow Ari Gautier on Twitter.

Mapping Jane Eyres across the world

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Creative Multilingualism is a four-year AHRC-funded programme investigating the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity.  Regular readers of Adventures on the Bookshelf will remember Prof. Matthew Reynolds’s earlier post about translations of Jane Eyre. In this post, Prof. Reynolds talks about the process of mapping different translations of the novel.

In April, Prismatic Translation’s  Associated Researcher in Digital Humanities, Giovanni Pietro Vitali, stayed in Oxford to work with me on mapping the global diffusion of translations of Jane Eyre. Giovanni Pietro’s trajectory has taken him from Pisa to Perugia, Nancy and Leipzig (where he trained in Digital Humanities); he is now a Marie Curie Fellow attached to Cork, Reading, and NYU.

Mapping Jane Eyre’s translations is a challenge, on several fronts. First, where do you locate a translation on a map? It will have been done by a translator in a certain place, or places; but then it may have been published somewhere else; and it can be read wherever there is a reader who understands its language – which is, in many cases, pretty much anywhere.

Usually, we can find no information about where a translation has been written (often translations are anonymous). We don’t want to attach the translations to particular nation states, because languages don’t correspond to nation states: think of the many languages spoken in India (or indeed the UK), or the many states that have Spanish, French or Portuguese as official languages. So we have opted for the place of publication – not endeavouring to put boundaries around the territory inhabited by a translation, but showing the point from which it came out into the world.

Yet where exactly is a place of publication? For one set of maps, which allow readers to trace the development of the cover images in connection with the place and time of publication, we have used the publishers’ street addresses (this necessitated much careful work on the part of the project’s researchers – and caused some anguish!). Here we find a by-product of looking at the world of books through the lens of Jane Eyre: tracking the translations, we discover the bits of cities where publishers cluster, and find harmonies between the books’ designs and their locales. But for the general maps, which allow us to see and understand the spread of Janes across the world, street addresses seemed too specific. For these visualisations, the city seemed the right unit of location.

When I made this theoretical decision, I hadn’t quite understood the relationship between the computer-magic of Digital Humanities and the mind-numbing, slow, human labour that lies behind it. Once you know a translation’s place of publication, the computer can do quite a good job of assigning latitudes and longitudes to the given names. But not a perfect one: it can’t know if you mean Paris (France) or Paris (Texas), the Tripoli in Libya or one of the lesser-known Tripolis in Lebanon or Greece. And you can’t know when it is going to make a mistake – which means that every point needs checking by human eye and hand. In the case of Jane Eyre the number of points that have needed checking (so far) is 543.

But latitude and longitude still do not amount to a city. For that, you need to find the outline of each city and paste it onto your map. In our case, that meant 171 cities from Addis Ababa to Zutphen. You find the outline of a city in a long list called a ‘Shape File’; and there are separate Shape Files maintained by every State. So you go to the Shape File for India and find Ahmedabad; then you go to the Shape File for Syria and find Aleppo, and so on. And on. The process is not so very painful when you are dealing with Berlin or Rome; but when it is Dushanbe in Tajikistan, or Kaifeng in China (written in non-alphabetic characters) you feel your life draining away as you struggle to be sure you have pinpointed the right place.

Then, after days of labour, the moment of magic, when you are suddenly able to witness the spread of Jane Eyres across the world, like this:

Or zoom in for a more detailed view, like this:

Map of Jane Eyre translations zoomed in

And this is only the beginning. The maps that we are currently working on organise the translations according to region and language, allowing a more analytical understanding of the processes at work; and they also show the translations unfolding year by year. So now (or, soon) you will be able to see before your eyes the startling spread of Jane Eyre translations that had already happened by 1850: Berlin, Brussels, Paris, St Petersburg, Stuttgart, Grimma, Stockholm, Groningen and – Havana!

68 ways to say ‘plain’: translating Jane Eyre

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Creative Multilingualism is a four-year AHRC-funded programme investigating the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity.  The programme is split into seven research strands, one of which is ‘Prismatic Translation’. In this post, Prof. Matthew Reynolds, Co-Investigator on the strand, explains how they have been looking at translations of Jane Eyre through a multilingual prism…

I spent March mainly in Pisa, working on fifteen Italian translations [of Jane Eyre] with a group of graduate students and early career researchers co-ordinated by our collaborator in the project there, Professor Alessandro Grilli.

It was an exhilarating experience, eight or ten of us grouped around a table in an airy room high up in an eighteenth-century palazzo overlooking the oldest botanical garden in Europe (even older than Oxford’s!) sharing our findings with the help of a projector pointed at the uneven wall.

Various discoveries emerged which will make their way into the webpages that are being created and book that is being written. The earliest Italian translation, done anonymously and published in Milan in 1904, mainly follows the 1854 French translation by Noémi Lesbazeilles (née Souvestre): for instance, Bertha Mason’s ‘red eyes’ become ‘yeux injectés’ and, in turn, ‘occhi iniettati’ (injected/blood-shot eyes’). Here we can see translation, not jumping from one language to another as though they were separate boxes, but moving through the continuum of language difference, following pathways in which Italian and French are joined.

Just occasionally, however, when the French was puzzling, the anonymous Italian translator turned to the English for help. When Jane hears Rochester’s voice telepathically calling across the moors, Charlotte Bronte wrote: ‘’O God! what is it?’ I gasped.’ Lesbazeilles-Souvestres takes this in a surprising direction: ‘J’aspirai l’air avec force’ (‘I breathed in forcefully / took a deep breath’). This must have struck the Italian translator as peculiar; the English must have been checked; and a simpler equivalent was found: ‘mormorai’ (‘I murmured’ – ‘gasped’, in its sense here, is a tricky word to match). Usually in translation – or at least in people’s ideas of translation – the translator works from the original and occasionally looks at other versions for help. But here we have the opposite: the French becomes the source text and the English serves as a guide to its interpretation.

One of the researchers, Caterina Cappelli, is someone I first met when she translated my novel The World Was All Before Them for her Masters thesis some years ago. Now, she has done an extraordinary piece of research, tracking the word ‘plain’ (also ‘plainly’ and ‘plainness’) through all its 49 appearances in the novel, in 13 different translations. That is, 637 occurrences of the word. As its frequency suggests, ‘plain’ is a crucial term for Brontë. Jane is plain (not beautiful), she speaks plainly (frankly), and she likes plain (simple) things; in the story, things are heard plainly (clearly) and become plain (are understood); and the novel itself is described as ‘a plain tale’ (a realist novel, that shows the world as it is).

One of Brontë’s ambitions in her writing was to re-assess this word, creating a woman character who can be admired for her mind and principles rather than her looks, and writing a story that can be valued for its truth-telling as much or more than for its excitements. For Brontë, ‘plain’ is what the literary critic William Empson called a ‘complex word’: a bundle of culturally-charged different meanings that need a whole play or novel to open up their synergies and contradictions.

In the Italian translations, the explosion of meanings hidden in the word becomes, well, plain. This one English word is translated in – wait for it – sixty-eight quite different ways, in terms that correspond to: simple, ugly, clear, insignificant, sincere, well, open, modest, frank, easy, distinct, dull, common, smooth, white, and so on, and on. Here is a table constructed by Caterina:

And here is a visualisation:

For more on Prismatic Translation, see their pages here.