Across Words: The Affective Politics of Learning Another(’s) Language

By Amanda González Izquierdo

 

On February 28th, 2019, Rutgers welcomed Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Global Distinguished Professor of English at NYU, for a talk titled “Across Words: The Affective Politics of Learning Another(’s) Language.” The event was sponsored by Rutgers Libraries and the departments of English and African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures.

Dr. Sunder Rajan engaged with the question of decentering global English and to do so, she considered three texts that explore the practices and rationales of learning a foreign language: Mark Sanders’ Learning Zulu: A Secret History of Language in South Africa, Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which was translated from Korean into English by Deborah Smith.

Dr. Sunder Rajan began with a discussion of colonialism and its politics of language. She noted that the educational policies instituted by colonizers onto colonized lands upheld a hierarchy of language whereby the language of the colonizer was to be spoken and native tongues were to be suppressed. In Learning Zulu: A Secret History of Language in South Africa, Mark Sanders explains that when settlers learned Zulu upon colonization, they actually created a pidgin, Fanagalo, in which the syntax was English and the vocabulary was supplied from Zulu and other African languages. The settlers created Fanagalo in order to issue orders. Sanders believes that by learning Zulu, he is “making reparations.” Dr. Sunder Rajan revealed that the book’s first line is in Zulu and translates to “I beg forgiveness.” This forgiveness is for “a whole history of sinning.” The learning of Zulu for no reason other than to make reparations, in a “non-instrumental way that makes it meaningful,” reveals that the process of learning another’s language has an affective quality.

Moving on from the colonial context to the context of immigration/diaspora, Dr. Sunder Rajan then began her discussion on Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri’s first book in Italian, translated into English as In Other Words, is written as an author’s autobiography and it includes two pieces of creative writing that are allegories of her learning Italian. At the time that Lahiri started learning the language, she was already an established Anglophone writer. The question that emerged was: Why relocate to Italian when she was already successful in English? Lahiri wanted to try out new ways of being in writing: “it’s a new possibility and reality that Lahiri wishes to exemplify.” For the author, writing in a new language is like being born again.

Finally, Dr. Sunder Rajan spoke about the translation by Deborah Smith of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Dr. Sunder Rajan noted that the translator is often a “disregarded appendage” even in successful works of translation. Perhaps it is this that made it so significant that when The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016, the award was, for the first time in history, shared equally between author and translator. Smith was a monolingual native English speaker until she was 22, when she decided to learn to speak Korean because she felt limited by her inability to speak other languages. In just a few years she was proficient and decided to undertake the translation of The Vegetarian. At the time, the British market for translation of foreign fictions had doubled and translated works were selling better than books that had been originally published in English. Smith has since established her own publishing house, Tilted Axis, in order to publish more experimental foreign fiction specifically from South and Southeast Asia.

Dr. Sundar Rajan concluded by saying that it was important to note that all three authors that she discussed were working from a place of privilege. All of them, as English speakers in a world where English is the hegemonic tongue, did not need to learn another language but rather had the choice to do so.

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