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Literary Multilingualism

ISSUE 7, fall 2019
Issue Editors:
Vered K. Shemtov, Chen Bar-Itzhak

Multilingual writing challenges our perceptions of “national” languages in relation to cultural identity; it often challenges what Yasemin Yildiz defines as “the monolingual paradigm.” The modernist writer, editor, and translator Eugene Jolas consistently explored and sought to transcend the borders of languages and national identity in his translational and multilingual editorial and poetic practice. Jolas is well known as the cofounder of the modernist magazine transition, but his poetic work has been relatively neglected, partly because it combines and switches between languages in odd and unsettling ways. Focusing on his multilingual poetry as it appears in ­transition 23 (1935), this article argues that this work is important precisely because it is unsettling. Jolas’s poetry centers on interlingual and intercultural difference, involving the reader in processes of movement, migration, and transition between languages; it thus pushes us to explore and challenge our own linguistic “frontiers.”

In this essay I offer an analysis of accent and silence as hallmarks of “postarabic” Hebrew writing, while also arguing for a more universal theorization of accent and silence within the literary and cultural study of multilingualism. I begin by presenting postarabic as an aesthetic mode of Mizrahi writing that engages Arabic language beyond instrumental or semantic uses. After discussing theoretical approaches to accented literature and multilingualism, I turn to close readings of key literary texts. The essay places Joseph Conrad’s “Amy Foster” in dialogue with three postarabic texts (a poem, a short story, and a short film), analyzing accent and silence through the lenses of affect, temporality, and language politics. My readings demonstrate how accent and silence work together to mark the outer limits of language and identity. Through its aural commingling of past and present languages, the post-immigration accent subverts the teleological narrative of the nation.

The hotel is a translation site, a place of accelerated language trans­actions. The Hotel Bristol in Vienna beloved of Joseph Roth, Cees Nooteboom’s Ritz in Barcelona, and Wes Anderson’s fictional Grand Budapest Hotel speak the language of community. By contrast, the Tokyo Park Hyatt in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation is more like a “non-place” and aligns with weak, ineffective forms of translation, with apathy, and with cultural indifference.

This article explores translational modes of literary representation in two American Yiddish stories by Lamed Shapiro: “Nuyorkish” (New Yorkish, 1931) and “Oyfn yam” (At sea, 1909). Shapiro narrates in Yiddish events that take place in English, thus shifting much of the thematic “drama” of his works from the represented world to the very act of its linguistic mediation. I argue that for Shapiro, the intersection of translation and narration—translation in narration—becomes a means to critically complicate the modernist turn “inward,” by refusing the notion of a universalist consciousness that exists prior to and apart from social identity. In dramatizing the multilingual encounter between a Yiddish-inflected perception and the American locale, Shapiro carries forward the modernist project of destabilizing the national language, without giving up linguistic particularity. His distinct style insists on the capacity of translation to produce a new aesthetic language, one that could rearrange the fragmented social real by producing transient encounters between the languages of self and other.

This article explores the relationship between multilingualism, the attempted revival of Hebrew speech, and the sense of muteness that accompanied Hebrew literary production in the first decade of the twentieth century. It does so through a close reading of a Hebrew feuilleton, written by Simhah Ben Zion and published in 1907 in the first issue of the Palestine-based Hebrew journal Ha-’omer. At the center of the feuilleton is a living wonderment: an eight-year-old girl—the narrator’s daughter—who speaks no fewer than eight languages, one for each year of her life. Although the narrator and his wife, both ardent Zionists, struggle to maintain a Hebrew-speaking home, they soon learn that their sociolinguistic reality does not coincide with the monolingual fantasy of imposing Hebrew as an exclusive, isolated language. The article argues that in the midst of an endeavor to reterritorialize Hebrew creativity in Palestine and constitute the Hebrew-speaking native, Ben Zion’s ­feuilleton satirically narrates Hebrew revival as a chaotic Babel, revealing not only the failures of this project but also its latent anxieties.

This article examines the circulation and translation of Yiddish and Hebrew serialized novels such as Sabina, Tamara, and Aviva from the 1930s to the 1950s. Popular fiction, especially these romance-adventures, were excoriated by Hebrew critics of the time as foreign, worthless, and culturally dangerous. But these popular, mass-produced texts became a site of multilingualism in the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine and in the early years of the State of Israel. Romance-adventures capitalized on textual reproducibility and readership demand, creating a literary ­marketplace in Israel that eschewed the formal institutions of Hebrew culture.

Though it has an ancient pedigree, literary translingualism manifests itself differently in different cultures. But does the question of whether a text is written in L1, L2, L3, or L4 matter to the creation or consumption of literature? Most writers believe it does. To determine the difference it makes might require testing a translingual text against one by a rare author who is completely monolingual. Translingual texts are often metalingual, self-conscious about language itself. Though the circumstances under which L2, L3, or L4 was acquired matter, translingual authors tend to exhibit great cognitive flexibility and a greater awareness of the relativity of things.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University