Workshop: On Living in Translation in Community and Language Practice

The fact that I

am writing to you

in English

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you.

My subject:

how to explain to you that I

don’t belong to English

though I belong nowhere else.

— Gustavo Pérez Firmat


What does it mean to “live in translation”?  The concept itself seems difficult to explain except in lines of broken poetry, expounding a paradox of falsified facts, incomplete expressions, transitions in time and space that end up belonging nowhere.

alley architecture building city
How do we theorize living “nowhere else”?  Photo by Pixabay on

The initiative on Global Language Justice hosted a public humanities event at Barnard University on October 18, 2017, on the topic of “Living in Translation.” While the GLJ initiative asks what hangs in the balance when we talk about language justice, this particular event honed in on language practice. All participants were provided with a packet of passages – from poetry, language memoirs, works of translation theory, modern philosophy – stimulating them to consider their own experiences living between languages. Do we have names for these kinds of in-between spaces, or names for the actions that we do to negotiate them? Or is it just a coincidence that multilingualism/bilingualism are nouns, with no verbal counterparts? What is at stake in seeking an answer to these kinds of questions? The hope was for us to translate theory into practice as we considered personal experience.


In my third year in school, I started learning Kiswahili and English. To understand the languages, I kept on referencing back to my mother tongue, a process that Marx described as characteristic of all those who learn a new language. According to him, people know that they have mastered a new language when they no longer feel it necessary to first translate the new into the old to understand it. But while my relationship to Kiswahili followed that Marxian observation in a peaceful way, I soon came to realize that my relationship to English was based on a coercive system of rewards and terror. I was rewarded with praise and distinction when I did well in English, spoken and written, but punished and humiliated when I was caught speaking Gıkuyu in the school compound.

— Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “My Life in Between Languages” (2009)

woman wearing blue jacket carrying a little boy
Not all forms of bi- or multilingualism are equal.  In colonial situations like the one that Ngugi attests, language practice becomes imbricated with cultivated values and power dynamics.  Photo by Peace Alberto Iteriteka on


To “translate” may be the best verb we have right now, but can we do better? At this event, the main questions involved not just how one lives in translation, but also how one makes translation alive. As Ngugi’s quote above illustrates, language-living can often be a subtle way to make tangible – and resist – layers of social power and policing. In his situation, language death would have been neither natural or neutral; and even if his language had died, what would have happened to the life of its speakers? It seems possible that a better understanding of language practice could refine the ways we talk about justice.  How do we as humans live together, constantly translating, and how does that determine the life we live?  Could the term “diversity” – as the measure of the life and health of a bio-system – become more than just a trendy ideal, functioning instead as a way to reconceptualize the personal and the political?

abstract art blur bokeh
What does a way forward in discussing life in translation look like?  Photo by Karol D on


I surveyed the railway schedule and became aware that I was one wrong ticket from Vienna, Milan, or some Alpine village that no one I knew had ever heard of… The realization of being far gone, the fear, the unknowable possibilities, all of it – the horror, the wonder, the joy – fused into an erotic thrill.  The thrill was not wholly alien… It was kin to the narcotic shot I’d gotten watching the people with their wineglasses spill out onto West Broadway.  It was all that I’d felt looking at those Parisian doors.  And at that moment I realized that those changes, with all their agony, awkwardness, and confusion, were the defining fact of my life, and for the first time I knew not only that I really was alive, that I really was studying and observing, but that I had long been alive – even back in Baltimore.  I had always been alive.  I was always translating.

–Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

high st brooklyn bridge signage mounted on blue steel post
The intermediary space left void by a moving train, both empty with lingering sound and promises of another arrival: an apt metaphor, perhaps for translation and its effects. Photo by Fancycrave on


One thing translation does make clear: our lives are intertwined, woven and constructed by the language that we define and that defines for us what it means to be alive.  What do you think about living in translation? Not just life, but living: the verb-in-action of a constant activity?  What are the places of instability and change that plague your everyday because you switch so quickly between languages, modes, and worlds?  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


By L. Maria Bo, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice, Ph.D. Candidate in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University.  The “Living in Translation” event was hosted on October 18th, 2017, with generous funding and support by the Center for Translation Studies at Barnard University and NY Humanities. 


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