Translation and Translanguaging has lift-off

by Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese

On Friday July 18th 2014 the AHRC-funded research project, Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating Cultural and Linguistic Transformations in Superdiverse Wards in Four UK Cities was launched at University of Birmingham Business School. The interdisciplinary launch conference brought together speakers from the worlds of business, sport, cultural heritage, housing, migrants’ rights, legal advice, literature, and politics. A very busy programme became an immensely rich and stimulating day.

Speakers and audience were warmly welcomed by Pro-vice Chancellor for Cultural Engagement Professor Ian Grosvenor. The conference was then kicked off by Gautam Malkani reading from his novel, Londonstani. The novel is written in a kind of authentically inauthentic (or inauthentically authentic) London slang, a version of slang, says Gautam, that everyone may recognise but nobody ever really uses. The effect is to create a world in which the identities of young male Londoners are explored through machismo, consumerism, and, most of all, their linguistic repertoires. Gautam’s reading was spellbinding, and left us all thinking about the power of language in use.

Author and Financial Times journalist Gautam Malkani reads from his novel Londonstani
Author and Financial Times journalist Gautam Malkani reads from his novel Londonstani

We had the unenviable task of following Gautam. We did so, introducing some of the key concepts guiding the research project, and pointing out that the research questions posed by the team develop incrementally from research on multilingualism which we have conducted over two decades in complementary schools where Bengali, Cantonese, Gujarati, Mandarin, Panjabi, and Turkish are taught. We pointed out that in this project we are less interested in the question ‘which language is in use?’, and more concerned to investigate how language, and ‘translanguaging’, construct and constitute people’s social, historical, economic, and political trajectories.

Irene Yoong-Henery, Chief Executive Officer of Ian Henery Solicitors in Birmingham’s Chinatown, presented an entertaining and informative talk on The value of multilingualism in legal representation, moving from accounts of her family background growing up in Malaysia to comments about the importance (and recent decline) of translation and interpreting services in the provision of legal advice and representation in contemporary settings. Joanne Hanley of Lloyds Banking Group spoke about Multilingualism in global business, offering invaluable insights from her personal and professional experiences. Joanne spoke of her own language learning as she made professional moves to Belgium, The Netherlands, and the United States. For both speakers multilingualism was an important resource in their personal and professional lives.

Gisela Stuart M.P. also reflected on her personal and professional experiences as a ‘non-native’ speaker in the UK. She pointed out that one of the reasons she had arrived in London as a young woman was to learn English – and that after forty years she could say that she had almost achieved her goal! The M.P for Edgbaston spoke of multilingualism as a resource in educational settings, while acknowledging that where resources were stretched, or where policy did not meet need, there may be challenges for English language learners.

Gisela Stuart M.P. described multilingualism as a resource in educational settings
Gisela Stuart M.P. described multilingualism as a resource in educational settings

The packed programme of speakers meant that lunch was taken almost on the run, and more than a hundred people were back in their seats within 40 minutes to listen to talks from two invited academic speakers, Dr. Lian Malai Madsen of University of Copenhagen, and Professor Christina Schaeffner of Aston University. Lian gave an impressive account of her ethnographic research in a Taekwondo club in Copenhagen, where she explored language practices and identities in the context of sport. Lian’s research will be a highly valued resource as we develop our investigations into language in sporting settings in our project. Christina is a leading academic in Translation Studies, and she offered an informative and far-reaching summary of the field. Her account of the challenges and opportunities presented to Translation Studies by postmodern scholarship was insightful and thought-provoking. We will return to Christina for advice and support as we conduct observations and analysis over the next four years.

Steve Brittan, Managing Director of BSA Machine Tools, painted a picture of the engineering industry as one which has no choice but to engage with global markets if it is to survive. BSA Machine Tools has done so, reaching out across the world to find a toe-hold wherever it can, and most notably in China. Language learning, and a willingness to adapt, have been key features of this success. Venetia Porter of The British Museum spoke on Engaging with the cultures of Islam and the Middle East: Why language is important. Venetia is Assistant Keeper (Curator) of Islamic and contemporary Middle East, and her talk was permeated with examples of Islamic and Middle Eastern art in which the use of writing – quotations, words and even single letters – emerged as a common thread. She presented objects which were inscribed in or drew inspiration from Arabic, the main script of the region.

The second part of the afternoon was devoted to an invigorating panel discussion. Each of seven representatives of the project’s high-profile partner organisations were under instructions to speak for no more than five minutes about the importance of multilingualism, and research into multilingualism, for their organisations. The speakers were: Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, Head of Policy and Profile, Law Centres Network; Don Flynn, Director, Migrants’ Rights Network; Halima Khan, National Projects Manager, Sporting Equals; Jayne Magee, Director of Operations, Business in the Community; Izzy Mohammed, Audience Engagement Officer, The Library of Birmingham; Gail Walters, Head of Community Engagement, Midland Heart; Toby Watley, Director of Collections, Birmingham Museums Trust. The commitment, energy, and enthusiasm of the partner organisations was clearly evident in their statements, as they raised new questions and looked forward to working in partnership with the research team, and with each other, to generate new knowledge about language use in superdiverse cities. Dr Frances Rock and Professor Mike Baynham responded on behalf of the academic research team. This part of the day was perhaps the most inspiring. The contribution of the group of partners will be an essential dimension of the project as we progress. Our challenge is to ensure that we give them the best possible opportunity to contribute their expertise, and to inform policy through their existing networks.

(left to right) Gail Walters - Midland Heart, Nimrod Ben-Cnaan - Law Centres Network, Jayne Magee - Business in the Community, Toby Watley - Birmingham Museums Trust, Halima Khan - Sporting Equals, Dr. Frances Rock, Izzy Mohammed - Library of Birmingham, Prof. Mike Baynham and Don Flynn - Migrants' Rights Network
(left to right) Gail Walters – Midland Heart, Nimrod Ben-Cnaan – Law Centres Network, Jayne Magee – Business in the Community, Toby Watley – Birmingham Museums Trust, Halima Khan – Sporting Equals, Dr. Frances Rock, Izzy Mohammed – Library of Birmingham, Prof. Mike Baynham and Don Flynn – Migrants’ Rights Network

A closing summary was provided by Professor Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French, University of Liverpool, and AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow, ‘Translating Cultures’. He began with the ‘MANIFESTO FOR LANGUAGES’ launched this week by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which found that ‘speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English’, neatly summarizing the basis of our project. Charles also quoted the words of the translingual Japanese-German author Yoko Tawada: ‘Whoever speaks with a foreign tongue is both bird and ornithologist in one person’. We had not previously come across this saying, and it perfectly captures the process of conducting linguistic ethnographic research. In researching the ‘other’ we also look into ourselves. The text of Charles Forsdick’s stimulating comments can be found at: http://translating.hypotheses.org/508.

Many people stayed around to continue the discussion at the end of a long, hot Friday. There was much to talk about, and there will be much to say for the next four years and beyond. The Translation and Translanguaging project has been well and truly launched in time as well as into space. The immediate plan, though, involved a very cold drink in the evening sun.

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