Talking cultural diversities: considerations of cultural exchange and multilingual literature

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This paper consists of two parts. In the first, I’ll speak about multilingualism in literature, including the concepts of multilingual poetries and translingual poetics. In part two, I’ll present a number of speculations on the phenomenon of translingualism and the role of translation in intercultural dialogue. Academic approaches and institutional structures continue to be shaped around a focus on the literary outputs of single language areas. I believe that we must begin to question our predominantly monolingual literary research paradigms. Our conversations about literature and literary cultures should pay far more attention to the reality of multilingualism and multiculturalism. Comparative literature and cultural studies are becoming increasingly important, including in literary historiography. In a multilingual world, where cultural dialogue and language mixing are regular occurrences, it seems obvious to expand our gaze beyond the literature of one language area, such as Afrikaans, Dutch or English. In its place, I believe that we should embrace a research approach that takes into account multilingual and transnational literature, as well as linguistically or culturally hybrid forms of production.

Part 1: Multilingualism and translingualism in a multicultural environment

Recently, Louise Viljoen published a discussion of Klara du Plessis and Kess Mohammadi’s poetry collection, G (2023), on the site of Netwerk24 and in the newspaper Die Burger (“’n Herinnering aan unieke klank-masjinerie”, 15 January 2024). Both the collection itself and Viljoen’s analysis of it invite reflection on ideas of transnational and comparative literature. Specifically, the concept of “translingual poetics” – introduced some years ago by Canadian literary scholar Sarah Dowling – compels further consideration and refinement. Dowling’s translingual poetics serves as a blanket term for comparative literature from an international perspective. But it is important to strive towards more accurate terminology for diverse aspects of transnational discourse. I think here not only about the distinction between vertical and lateral transnational relationships – as discussed by Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih in Minor transnationalism (2005) – but also about the difference between multilingualism and translingualism.

  1. Translingual poetics

G, like Klara du Plessis’s debut collection, Ekke (2018), does not belong to a monolingual or monocultural context. The same is true for her 2020 collection, Hell light flesh, in which the poet, as Viljoen describes in her review of G, reflects on language, violence and physicality. G demonstrates an inventive interplay between Afrikaans, Persian and English. English is the lingua franca between the two authors, who live in Montreal and Toronto respectively. In Ekke, Du Plessis conducts a similar linguistic experiment. She plays with homonyms in Afrikaans and English – words that sound the same but mean different things in their respective signifying systems. The poet’s bilingual background was the basis for this project’s focus on the mixing of languages and cultures. Du Plessis’s debut demonstrates the confusion that could arise from the confrontation between homophonous words in Afrikaans and English. The mother tongue is, of course, more than a mere tool for communication. But the question is, in a multilingual world where many persons come from a polycultural and international context, whether we can still speak simply about someone’s mother tongue, or their first (or even only) language. Is there such as thing as one home language in a world where languages and cultures mix on a daily basis?

A person who leaves their familiar linguistic sphere – let us call it their first language – moves out of their comfort zone. In the new linguistic context, they become more linguistically aware or sensitive than with the first language. Moreover, language is the embodiment of the psyche. In an interview, Du Plessis refers to Sarah Dowling’s Translingual poetics: Writing personhood under settler colonialism (2018). Dowling is a Canadian poet and scholar of comparative and postcolonial literature. Her research is especially concerned with language mixing and expressive forms shaped by transculturalism in North America. Dowling speaks about “translingual poetics”, rather than “multilingual poetics”. She adds this term to concepts such as “transnational poetics”, coined by Jahan Ramazani in 2009 to refer to the international movement of poetry, and “translational poetics”, as used by scholars in translation studies. Dowling’s translingual poetics refers to the fact that (cultural) identity is shaped and expressed not in only one language or one cultural discourse, but in a continuous, often messy and whimsical movement between languages. In what is referred to as multilingual poetics, on the other hand, the focus is still on a juxtaposition of languages, which exist in particular power relations towards one another. This, in turn, assumes positions of dominance and subordination in social environments.

A discussion published on the site of University of Iowa Press describes the concept of translingual poetics as follows: “While modernist poets offered multilingual displays of literary refinement, contemporary translingual poetries speak to and are informed by feminist, anti-racist, immigrant rights, and indigenous sovereignty movements. Although some translingual poems have entered … Asian American and indigenous literary canons, translingual poetry has not yet been studied as a cohesive body of writing.” To this I might add that feminist frames, the intersectional positionalities of speakers, and migratory frameworks also resonate linguistically.

  1. The limits of monolingual literary study

Nowadays, individuals exist within linguistic and cultural interplays, in a globalised world that has long since ceased to be a play between monocultures. Indeed, the distinctions between cultural discourses were never as clear as we sometimes like to imagine. The idea of a monoculture, or a strictly defined and one-dimensional cultural identity, is no more than a construct shaped by political or nationalist agendas. Klara du Plessis calls monoculture “a narrative of unification”.

For instance, what is actually “Dutch literature”? “Up to what point can you still call a collection a Dutch-language collection? A sentence with one English word is still a Dutch sentence, I guess? A poem with one English line, too. But what if you have an English poem with three Dutch lines, and you include that in a collection published by a Dutch publisher?” (de Volkskrant, 7 July 2022). These questions were posed by Maxime Garcia Diaz, a poet of Dutch-Uruguayan heritage, in an interview with a Dutch newspaper. At issue is the question of to which national literary tradition or linguistic community a multilingual text might be considered to belong. In her debut collection, Het is warm in de hivemind (2021), Diaz mixes languages: apart from Dutch, she especially uses English and also a few shreds of French. This is emblematic of multilingual poetics. Diaz received the C Buddingh’ Prize for the best debut in the Dutch language. Despite, or perhaps because of, this honour, critics questioned to what extent, and on which grounds, it is still possible to speak about Dutch-language literature.

In the same interview I mentioned earlier, Garcia Diaz recalls the publishing process of her debut as follows: “When I was looking for a publisher and finalising the manuscript, I thought, ‘There can’t be anything in English. Perhaps a line here and there, but certainly not a whole poem.’ [The publisher], De Bezige Bij, raised no concerns. … So then I thought, how much English can I incorporate into the collection before it no longer qualifies to win a prize for the best Dutch poetry debut? But I do also remain loyal to Dutch, and I do want to defend the language against anglicisation – that’s why I now write Dutch poems that contain a lot of English, rather than English poems, as I did before.” In this anecdote, the poet touches upon a fundamental question: to what extent can linguistic mixing and development in literary production be reconciled with the (all too strict) demarcation of cultures and languages? Alfred Schaffer remarks in a review for De Groene Amsterdammer (8 September 2021) that Garcia Diaz also uses multilingualism in her work as performance poet. He writes, “In a poem Garcia Diaz wrote for the International Literature Festival Utrecht, Spanish plays an important part. In her debut, the main roles belong ‘only’ to Dutch, French and English.” One can follow Maxime Garcia Diaz in asking what percentage of texts must be in the Dutch language for a poetry collection to qualify as “Dutch literature”. In short, the connection between literature and language is increasingly coming under pressure.

One suggestion, as made by Geert Buelens (University Utrecht), is to start using the term, neerlandophone literature. The significance of such a shift does not translate particularly well to English. In English, the language of the Netherlands is called Dutch, and its literature is called Dutch literature. But in Dutch itself, the name of the country – Nederland – and the name of its language – Nederlands – are the same. Nederlandse literatuur hence refers not only to literature written in the language of the Netherlands, but also to literature that belongs to the geographic sphere of the Netherlands. As a result, one specific community of Dutch writers – those located in the Netherlands – appears to gain more recognition than Dutch-writing communities located in other parts of the world. By using the term neerlandophone, rather than Netherlandic, literature, it becomes possible to frame literature in the Dutch language more inclusively. The term, neerlandophone literature, does not award dominance to writers from one country. Rather, it recognises that a diverse international community uses the language to create several different, but equal, Dutch literatures.

(Source: “Nadenken over een topicale en neerlandofone literatuurgeschiedenis”, Neerlandistiek:, 4 July 2023).

  1. Language mixing and the ambiguity of monolingualism

In Afrikaans literature, too, we find more and more texts that must be read in the context of translingual poetics. Even just the interactions between standard Afrikaans and other variants of the language serve as examples of linguistic mixing. Different cultural narratives and frames work together in these instances, rather than the single perspective assumed by culturally hegemonic approaches. In the conclusion of her review of G, Viljoen sounds a call for more such linguistic interplays within the South African context. This is a multilingual and multicultural country. Languages come into contact with each other; they interact. Literature can further activate and codify these linguistic contacts and their accompanying forms of trans- and interculturalism. Thus, beyond the translation of texts from different literary languages within South Africa, translingual literature can facilitate rapprochement between ethno-cultural groupings. It would, in my view, be interesting also to look at texts that combine not only Afrikaans and English, but also other South African languages. An example is Jolyn Phillips in Radbraak of 2017. Regarding this debut collection in Tydskrif vir Letterkunde (55:1, 2018, 207-10), Alfred Schaffer observes that it is written in a mixture of “mainly standard Afrikaans”, but also “Kaaps, English and Xhosa, as well as disintegrating languages” (207). In both Afrikaans and Dutch literature, attention to such translingual poetics may shed global light on the fact that every language always functions in contact with other languages, cultures and narratives.

Part 2: Translingualism and the “interconnectedness” of cultures

In part two, I develop a few prompts for the discussion forum of this seminar series, titled “Talking cultural diversities”. I would especially like to emphasise language mixing and translation.

Translation is a crucial buffer against language loss. It protects indigenous languages from extinction. It also facilitates dialogue between cultures and persons, and promotes interlinguistic communication. As Antjie Krog recently observed at the Festival for Afrikaans in The Hague, translation creates community.

  1. Krog and the “interconnectedness” of languages

Many of us are familiar with Krog’s collections, Met woorde soos met kerse (2002) and Die sterre sê “tsau” (2004), in which poems from different African languages appear in Afrikaans translation. These publications offer multilingual poetics; they present the text in both the source and target languages. Thus, Krog contributes actively to cultural and textual transmission from Xhosa, Zulu and Northern Sotho (or Sepedi) into Afrikaans. Several languages of the Khoe and San groupings also appear in these collections. In a linguistically and culturally diverse country such as South Africa, where barriers between social groupings often seem impassable, such a gesture of linguistic exchange may be considered an act of resistance. It represents an attempt at community formation. Krog uses both these concepts – resistance and community – to describe the act of translation.

  1. Multilingual poetics and translingual poetics

Besides in the two titles I have just mentioned, Krog also included texts from indigenous languages in her 2014 collection, Mede-wete. And, for an international English public, she initiated and collaborated on the Africa pulse series, published by Oxford University Press. Thus, she helps to build bridges between linguistic communities and to introduce their cultures and literature to one another. In these instances, we can speak of multilingual poetics. Linguistic combinations, or the intermingling of texts from different languages, contribute to a culturally transgressive form of communication. Stories from languages other than the Western-orientated languages of Afrikaans and English enter the frame. In multilingual poetics, languages remain quasi-autonomous signifying systems. They have their own histories, and they narrate socially and culturally specific stories, which are not interchangeable. Studying these languages through a multilingual frame breaks them open. Through translation, we contribute to reconciliation in a multicultural and multilingual society.

As I mentioned in part one of this paper, in addition to multilingual poetics, one can speak of translingual poetics. The prefix trans- refers to the multidirectionality of the cultural traffic between language systems. Transculturalism refers to a non-hierarchical interaction between languages, where no system may be considered dominant or superior to another. In short, this is not about the relationship between an African language and an international lingua franca, such as English. In Anja van de Pol-Tegge’s assessment, “The terms ‘interculturality’ and ‘transculturality’ are often used in very similar ways” (Translation in Society 2:2, 2023, 146-66). However, she prefers the term transculturality “because it emphasises the multidirectional interconnection of cultures” (148). She writes: “Given that alterity has always been integrated into cultures, the concept of ‘transculturality’ emphasises that cultures penetrate each other and so are not autonomous. Transculturality does not fundamentally question the existence of independent cultures but underlines the foreign cultural elements that are interwoven with one’s own culture and thus contribute to its construction” (ibid).

  1. Against cultural and linguistic dominance

No one culture or language is superior to another. In the citation I have just mentioned, Van de Pol-Tegge speaks about the interpenetration between cultures. An approach that assumes the dominance of some languages – specifically the so-called “global languages” – over others, is rarely productive. Indeed, a view that regards some cultures and languages as more important than others betrays a kind of neocolonial ideological leaning. That’s why we speak in the globalised world of interlinguistic, translinguistic and multicultural literary discourses. Such approaches open possibilities for literature, especially in a multilingual and pluri-cultural milieu such as South Africa. Languages do not isolate themselves within communities. Cultures are not essentialist, monolithic or one-dimensional. As Van de Pol-Tegge states, we are better off thinking of cultures as “hybrid formations in a transcultural sense” (ibid). Transculturalism does not refer to one-directional movement from a source culture to a recipient or target culture. It is about cross-fertilisation, dialogue and interconnectedness – a term explicitly used by Antjie Krog in Mede-wete.

In the rest of this seminar series, we may wish to think further about the validity of a theoretical distinction between the terms “interculturalism” and “transculturalism”. The series title, “Talking cultural diversities”, draws attention to multilingual and translingual poetries. It highlights linguistic combinations and the interactions between languages in recent South African literature. Here, we no longer speak (only) about “Afrikaans literature” – with emphasis on texts’ use of the Afrikaans language – but rather about the exchange and interaction between languages such as English and Zulu, Afrikaans and Khoe, et cetera. The question then becomes whether one may still speak about labels such as “Afrikaans” literature, which refers to a language (Afrikaans) and a place (South Africa), or even “African” literature, which itself carries a distinct geographical signification. In a similar manner, the term transnational literature may be subject to debate. Transnationalism itself infers a connection between language and place or nation state. Language is, after all, not tied to place. Rather, it is tied to persons.

Conclusion: Linguistic interpenetration in hybrid cultures

Languages and their speakers are mobile. They also exist in contact with each other. They penetrate and cross-fertilise one another. These contacts gradually give rise to mixing and interweaving between languages. Languages and cultures are in a continuous process of transition. In literature, too, the hybridity of our linguistic environment is increasingly apparent. These transitions are fascinating, especially when analysed within a global and globalised linguistic environment. In the coming weeks, we’ll dive deeper into processes of transculturalism and multilingualism. Not only speakers of Afrikaans and English, but also researchers and speakers of other South African languages, will participate in these discussions.

The programme of the seminar “Talking cultural diversities” already promises a wealth of productive discussion:


This article is based on the academic keynote paper I presented on 7 March 2024 for the digital discussion platform Iincoko (Xhosa) / Same(n)spraak (Afrikaans-Nederlands) / Conversations (English). Many thanks to Juliana M Pistorius (UCL and University of the Witwatersrand), Alwyn Roux (Unisa) and Unathi Ndlelantle Ngada (Unisa). Many thanks to the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

See also:

artwords – Text as sound: A zigzag of theory and practice

"Om te behoort" door veelvuldiger taalcontact

Transtaligheid en de "interconnectedness" van culturen

Afrikaans as liminale transnasionale literêre sisteem: ’n paar gedagtes oor ontlaering uit QwaQwa

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