Why write in different languages? This is a question I am frequently asked. My texts are mainly composed in English, German, and French. Even though I never actively try to write translingually, the pieces usually evolve in certain languages more than in others. It might seem as if pluricentric languages would fit the pieces better than Swedish, which has very personal associations for me.
In my documentary writing, the reason for using several languages becomes more apparent, as in Bluetide that deals with a disappearing fishing community in Portugal. The text is bilingual (Portuguese/English). Similarly, in The Roma Journeys—a book on the Roma of seven different countries—fragments of different languages are used either to give an immediate sense of the aural atmosphere or because it is essential to the information. During the course of documentary projects, I stayed and lived with communities in South Africa, India, and with different Roma communities in Europe. There are so many aspects to the use of language when it comes to vulnerable groups or entities, be it the language used to describe a people, the language politics, or simply the choice of language. It is a powerful tool that can change the way we think, and it is good to keep in mind that, being a common good, language is the outcome of logical and arbitrary processes that are sensitive to political agendas and destructive intentions, too. One should be cautious not to use language indifferently.
One should be cautious not to use language indifferently.
In the texts published in my books zaroum and notes for soloists, and displayed in exhibitions, there is no main language, although English appears most frequently. This is problematic: the augmented use of English, in writing on the border of art and literature, contributes to a new monolingualization that multilingual writing would be expected to oppose. The languages appear next to each other, switch into each other via sound or meaning. The choice of language is not a conscious one, rather, sense is intrinsic to the language used and, in many cases, the pieces would not make much sense monolingually. Similarly, they would simply not work in other languages and cannot be translated sensibly or translation is possible, but not necessarily meaningful. I have never thought of the possibility of alienating an audience. Of course, there are sequences that might not be easily intelligible when performed but while intelligibility is important, it is not the most crucial issue. Many pieces work aurally and that can be just fine, too.
In the following text, the English to is followed by the aurally close French tou that allows a shift from the weekdays to toujours:
to begin lundi
to continue mardi
to do mercredi
to sustain jeudi
to end vendredi
to enjoy samedi
to rest dimanche
Such translingual shifts can also take place within one single language, as happens in Henri Chopin’s fragment from Le homard cosmographique (1965), in which the shift from leur (their) to l’heure (time, hour) happens entirely in monolingual French. See this excerpt from le homard cosmographique by Henri Chopin.
Cou cou cou
leur leur leur
leur leur cou
cou cou leur
couleur qui leur cou
cou cou leur
leur cou cou
cou cou l’heure.
In a similar way, this is left takes advantage of double meanings of the English left:
this is left
A language tends to be accompanied by a set of historical and cultural references and it is said that each language reveals different aspects of the speaker’s personality. The artist duo Slavs and Tatars even holds that “speaking, breathing, reading, dreaming in different languages is a productive schizophrenia of sorts.” The productivity might be up for debate, but indeed, each language is connected to a certain set of connotations and cultural references that, to varying extents, form an underlying background for its speakers. Not adhering to merely one specific linguistic system could be understood as a political statement as opposed to the suggested homolinguistic construct that is negligent of the heterolinguistic reality. The simultaneity of languages might correspond better with the reality of several, coexisting lingual realms, each opening up different worlds, values, and reference systems.
Not adhering to merely one specific linguistic system could be understood as a political statement, as opposed to the suggested homolinguistic construct that is negligent of the heterolinguistic reality.
It is precisely this coexistence of different language realms that has triggered a deep mistrust, for me, in linguistic reliability. I am fascinated by the way in which language is taken for granted and used unquestioningly as if it were a perfect set of tools. In another language, the whole set of tools would be different and one would not necessarily be able to say or think exactly the same thing. So how can I be sure of thinking or believing what I say? Are my thoughts not just trapped in a pre-existing language; are we not “prisonnier(s) des mots d’autrui,” as Barthes says? This scepticism is deepened by philosophy where every term is subject to an ongoing process of definition and language is threatened by its own logical incongruences. Much of what lies behind the writing of my texts springs from this initial mise en question of language itself as attempts to look at words and language themselves. It is interesting to see what happens when language—as imperfect as it may be—is deprived of its habitual function and used beyond what is commonly accepted. Works or texts that operate on the border of the different systems—that may be other than lingual, too—require a different sort of reading and may also trigger reflection on reading itself. Similar to how Magritte’s La trahison des images reflects on the discrepancy of word and image, a short sentence is sufficient, for Tomas Schmit, to question word and world, and thus language itself: “das wort ozean ist ca. 20 quadratmillimeter groß. (the word ocean is about 20 square millimetres large).”
“Une loupe” 1980, from the series “siebenundsiebzig ‘bratkartoffeln’,” courtesy Sammlung Ricarda Fischer, Berlin
His works, Blätter, usually combinations of drawings and handwriting, reflect on perception, anticipation, and language in a clever, humouristic, yet unpretentious manner.
# 603 “a of b and b of a“ 2003, Courtesy Tomas Schmit archiv, Berlin
For me, there are usually three important aspects in composing and editing my pieces. First of all, they need to make some sense—that is, there may be nonsense pieces, too, but generally, I want most of the pieces to make some sense. Secondly, they should be visually interesting, although that, too, is not always the case, and finally, the aspect that has become more and more important is the sonorous quality of the texts. Each piece tends to develop its own rhythm and tonality, and the arrangement of the pieces in the entire reading/book is determined by all of these aspects, the context, visual dimension, and musicality. Still, operating on the border of several languages allows the texts to retain a certain abstract character. The languages I use are not necessarily related to any specific sphere or geographic area, and since two of them are not my mother tongues, they are free of connotations that are usually built-in for native speakers. Consequently, I do not use different languages when writing longer texts as radically as I do in the short pieces. Translingualism, in this case, is closely related to minimalist writing.
In my pieces, I play with the minimal variations that take place within or across languages, so it feels natural to use languages that are closely related—after all, the texts are only written in European languages. Although meaning may shift with sound, it never does so as radically as it does between Finnish and Japanese, for instance. Homophone translations that Tomomi Adachi and I worked on for the MAVOtek project on Japanese Dadaism sounded entirely plausible in Finnish, while meaning had completely changed. Maybe the European languages share more of an underlying rhizome and also a certain aural compatibility that is useful when shifting from a language to another via meaning or sound, a process described by Sebastián Zabronski as words opening doors that—as soon as several languages are involved—turn into revolving doors.
Cia Rinne is a poet and artist based in Berlin. She writes minimal, visual and acoustic poetry in different languages, and collaborates on performances and sound installations. Her publications include the books zaroum, notes for soloists (both published in France with Le clou dans le fer and as UBU Editions), as well as the sound piece sounds for soloists (with Sebastian Eskildsen) and should we blind ourselves and leave thebes. Works of hers are also shown at museums and art spaces, such as INCA Seattle, and most recently at Overgaden in Copenhagen and Lunds konsthall in Sweden. Her new book, including the recent series l’usage du mot, will be published by kookbooks (Berlin) in 2017.