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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Switching Languages

edited by
Steven G. Kellman

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To purchase Switching Languages

Title: Switching Languages
Authors: various
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2003)
Length: 334 pages
Availability: Switching Languages - US
Switching Languages - UK
Switching Languages - Canada
  • Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft
  • Edited and with a Preface by Steven Kellman
  • With contributions by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Ha Jin, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, Raja Rao, Salman Rushdie, Arthur Koestler, Elias Canetti, Assia Djebar, and others.

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Our Assessment:

B : good overview of translingual writing and writers

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Steven Kellman defines translingual authors as: "those who write in more than one language or in a language other than in their primary one". Native English-speakers -- notoriously mono-lingual in both the US and the UK -- seem particularly awed by this phenomenon, but it is, in fact, not all that rare.
       There are numerous prominent authors who switched languages in mid-career -- Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera are among the best-known -- while others even switch between one and another (notably Samuel Beckett). In a time where many people move from one country to another, and where there are still many countries where more than one language is widely spoken (from Belgium and Switzerland to much of the so-called developing world) bi- or even multi-lingualism is not uncommon. Kellman's anthology collects a variety of short pieces (and excerpts from longer ones) in which translingual authors discuss their experiences and the implications of their working-language-choices. (Contrary to what the subtitle suggests, they do not merely reflect on "their craft", but also on the larger issues surrounding the choice (or necessity) of using a language different than one's mother tongue.) Each piece is also prefaced by a very short introduction to the author, including a description of the particular translingual issues they face.
       The authors are a varied lot, though all are modern -- none of the pieces is more than a century old (Kellman maintaining that "sustained discussion of the phenomenon is relatively recent"). Kellman manages to cover much of the globe, too: writers from India, Africa, the Far East, the Americas, and Europe all are well-represented. Unusual linguistic backgrounds can be found: Ilan Stavans growing up in Jewish isolation in Mexico (sent to a Yiddish day-school), Hein Willemse considering the case of black South African writers writing in Afrikaans, or Elias Canetti, whose parents spoke German to one another, "which I was not allowed to understand" (Canetti of course went on to fame as a German-language writer -- despite then living most his life in England).
       The pieces include poems, introductions to books, essays, biographical pieces, an Esperanto manifesto, and interviews conducted by Kellman. They range from broader explorations of the translingual phenomenon, such as Ian Buruma's piece on The Road to Babel, to numerous very personal considerations. All varieties of linguistic confusion are described: Esmeralda Santiago finding herself speaking "Spanish while my fingers typed out the same phrase in English", or Luc Sante finding: "In order to speak of my childhood I have to translate."
       An interesting subject is considered from many angles in this volume, making for an interesting anthology.

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Switching Languages: Reviews: Steven Kellman: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Editor:

       Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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© 2003-2008 the complete review

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