Representing Languages in Modernist Fiction



The emblematically modernist themes of exile, travel and intercultural encounter lead, inevitably, to the necessity of representing different languages. To represent a polylingual reality in fiction is to some extent an issue of translation or, to be more precise, what Meir Sternberg calls ‘translational mimesis’: even within modernist literature, few fictional texts are as polylingual as the fictional world they represent, and the languages of the fictional reality have been at least partially ‘translated’ into the dominant language of the text.1 This process is by no means straightforward, however, and indeed, the very act of representing a polylingual world might be seen to induce a perspective on language that can be related to modernism’s ‘linguistic turn’, because attempts to represent languages other than the primary language of the text inevitably draw attention to the problems of linguistic representation per se. As Sternberg explains, such representation produces a key ‘interlingual tension between language as represented object (within the original or reported speech-event) and language as representational means (within the reporting speech-event)’.2 In effect, there is a tension between the discourse that the writer wants to represent, and the language/s that s/he would use as a means of representing it. In view of the preoccupation with interlingual difference that we find in the period, that tension becomes particularly acute: if translation is a flawed — perhaps even impossible — activity, then how do you, say, represent French discourse within an Anglophone text?


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  1. 1.
    Meir Sternberg, ‘Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis’, Poetics Today, 2 (1981), 221–39. I am indebted to Lawrence Rosenwald’s excellent book, Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), for drawing my attention to this important article.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Booth, ‘Lawrence in Doubt: A Theory of the “Other” and Its Collapse’, for a useful overview of Lawrence’s changing theories of racial otherness. Whereas the encounters with European cultures in Lawrence’s work are primarily represented as interlingual encounters, the languages of non-European cultures (and racial ‘others’) are notably absent. We see this in Women in Love, for example, where European languages are very much present, but African culture is effectively silent, entering the book in the form of sculptures displayed in Halliday’s flat. Birkin’s appropriative modernist perception of such African ‘primitivism’ is so effectively and transformationally other because it is purely visual, non-verbal. Moreover, the discourse of Halliday’s Hindu servant Hasan, who appears in the same scene, is repeatedly undermined: his imperfect English is described in terms of non-verbal ‘grinning’ and ‘murmuring’, and his talking is described as a ‘confused sound’ (WL 73). As Michael North tells us, the representation of non-European languages in non-verbal terms — as noise — forms a tradition stretching back to the time of Herodotus. Conrad’s descriptions of non-European languages form part of this tradition — in the ‘murmur, rumor, mutter, or tumult’ used to evoke speech in the Indies, in the ‘uncouth babbling noise’ made by the Africans in ‘An Outpost of Progress’ or the ‘steady droning sound’ of those in Heart of Darkness. Such representation of speech ‘is one way of representing European incomprehension, but taken literally such words simply deny that a foreign language is a language at all’. Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 42. Dorothy Richardson, likewise, negates the linguistic presence of African or Indian languages in Pilgrimage, as we will see.Google Scholar
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    Attempting to teach French pronunciation to Mrs Bailey’s untalented daughter, Sissie, Miriam baulks at the idea that one day English should gain supremacy as a universal language, and that ‘the world would be ruled by the kind of English people who could never get the sound of a foreign word and who therefore had all sorts of appalling obliviousness’. Dorothy Miller Richardson, Pilgrimage 2: The Tunnel, Interim (London: J. M. Dent, 1967), p. 343. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation P2.Google Scholar
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    Cited in G. M. Hyde, D. H. Lawrence and the Art of Translation (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1981), p. 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    When, for example, Miriam sees Shatov as having ‘the chubby upright determination of a baby’ and sees in his eyes a melancholy that ‘was like the melancholy of a puppy’, his declaration that ‘It is one of my heartmost dreams of England to find myself in midst of all these leeter-aytchoors’ appears, at best, as a comic childlike naivety. During this early encounter with Shatov, Miriam herself finds him funny: she has to stifle her own laughter when he declares that he is ‘very intelligent’, a statement that is implicitly undermined by the inadequacies of his English represented within the text. (His claim is, however, ratified by his demonstrable intelligence in later episodes [Dorothy Miller Richardson, Pilgrimage 3: Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap (London: J. M. Dent, 1967), pp. 25, 28]. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation P3.)Google Scholar
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    The assumption that the accented speech must be that of an Irishman is in itself revealing of the colonial dimension of such prejudice. As Cronin writes, ‘[t]he notion that foreigners speaking one’s language are irresistibly funny is, of course, common to many languages. However, in the Irish case, differences in language and expression became equated not only with the comic but with the inept. If Irish people after the conquest of the country were to become English speakers, then the same standards would be applied to them as to other English speakers. If they expressed themselves in strange or unusual ways or used different modes of intentionality, then they were classed with children and the insane as quaint but dim. Paddy the Irishman is above all the archetype of mistranslation.’ Michael Cronin, Translating Ireland: Translation, Languages, Cultures (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996), p. 144. I would argue that ineptness is a feature of the ‘funny foreigner’ in general, but that it is more marked in the colonial context. Certainly, Miriam’s comic representation of the Hindu man follows the same pattern as Cronin’s definition of Irish linguistic stereotyping. In her story, the man’s drunkenness makes him hopelessly inept, and his strange English is a feature of his helplessness: when he falls over, his calls for help are apparently ignored (this is, implicitly, because his English is so ‘funny’ that nobody takes his cries seriously) (P2 294–5).Google Scholar
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    Jane Garrity demonstrates that in Richardson’s review of the first all-black sound film Hearts in Dixie, she undermines her own argument for racial inclusivity. By expressing her preference for moments in the film where the performers are ‘acting, moving, walking, singing, dancing, living’ but arguing that ‘the certainty of intermittent dialogue ruined the whole’, Richardson is effectively ‘dismissing black speech and […] celebrating the black body only when it is in motion’. Jane Garrity, Step-Daughters of England: British Women Modernists and the National Imaginary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 98.Google Scholar
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    Shatov shows Miriam a French translation of the book, and the implication is that she will work from the French, and that he will work from knowledge of the original Russian text. The text itself is described but not named within Pilgrimage, but George Thomson provides information about both the original and the French translation that they read in Notes on Pilgrimage: Dorothy Richardson Annotated (Greensboro: ELT Press, 1999), p. 155.Google Scholar
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    Boehmer uses Homi Bhabha’s concept of ‘difference within’ to examine Mansfield’s colonial modernism. ‘Mansfield as Colonial Modernist: Difference Within’, in Celebrating Katherine Mansfield: A Centenary Volume of Essays, ed. Gerri Kimber and Janet Wilson (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 57–71.Google Scholar
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    Cited in Claire Drewery, Modernist Short Fiction by Women: The Liminal in Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair and Virginia Woolf (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 25.Google Scholar
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    Mansfield was sent by her mother to Bad Wörishofen, Bavaria in 1909 following her pregnancy by an affair with Garnet Trowell and short-lived marriage to George Bowden. She miscarried while in Germany. See Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), pp. 68–71.Google Scholar
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    Her responses to the German characters are often non-verbal: a smile, a shrug of the shoulders, a ‘bright’ look, or an expression of humility. See, for example, Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Stories (London: Penguin, 2007), pp. 619, 712, 688. (Subsequent references to the stories from In a German Pension will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation CS.) And when, on the odd occasion, she actually voices the kind of satirical comment that otherwise peppers her narrative, that comment remains unheard (e.g. CS 759). Overall the impression is of the protagonist’s own silence, and of her being talked at — an impression that is heightened by a narrative avoidance of presenting her speech directly even when she does speak. In ‘Frau Fischer’, for example, some of her responses to Frau Fischer are represented through formulations such as ‘I replied with the utmost conviction’ (CS 701) or ‘I admit the fact’ (CS 702).Google Scholar
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    Petra Rau, English Modernism, National Identity and the Germans, 1890–1950 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p. 123.Google Scholar
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    Of course, there will be similarities between a foreignising translation from German to English and the way a German person might speak English: in both, elements of the German language enter into — and distort — the English language. In practice, however, the methods of stylisation used by writers to represent each of these different processes are significant: the more the author wants to undermine the foreign character, the more they are likely to make their character’s English conform to stereotypes of ‘bad’ English. It does not necessarily follow, however, that foreignised English always looks like a foreigner’s ‘bad’ English. Compare, for example, Mansfield’s German characters’ dialogue (‘bad’ English) to Lawrence’s translational mimesis of the French character Madame Rochard’s speech in The Lost Girl: “Ah!” she cried suddenly in French, “the ungrateful, the animal! He shall suffer. See if he shall not suffer. The low canaille, without faith or feeling. My Max, thou wert right. Ah, such canaille should be beaten, as dogs are beaten, till they follow at heel. Will no one beat him for me, no one? — Yes. Go back. Tell him before he leaves England he shall feel the hand of Kishwégin, and it shall be heavier than the Black Hand. Tell him that, the coward, that causes a woman’s word to be broken against her will. Ah, canaille, canaille! Neither faith nor feeling, neither faith nor feeling. Trust them not, dogs of the south.” D. H. Lawrence, The Lost Girl, ed. John Worthen, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 157. This is stilted, unidiomatic language that is lexically and grammatically marked by its fictional French ‘origins’: we have the incursion of insults in French (‘canaille’), literal translations (‘dogs of the south’, which also retains French word-order), the use of ‘ungrateful’ as a noun rather than an adjective (a literal translation of the French ‘l’ingrat’), and so on. This, however, does not sound like a French person speaking Gallicised English, not least because some of the Gallicisms are simply not the kind of errors a French person would make when speaking English. The most marked example here would be the use of ‘thou’ to indicate the French informal mode of address (‘tu’): this, in English, although archaic, would indicate not error but a superior historically informed knowledge of the language. As in his translations of Verga, Lawrence here is using translational processes in order to emphasise the differences between French and English, and to retain elements of that difference within English. There is no trace here of the ‘funny foreigner’ and this is very clearly meant to be recognised as ‘translational’ discourse (even down to the explicit attribution of ‘she cried suddenly in French’).Google Scholar
  35. 63.
    In citing these two stories, I refer to Katherine Mansfield, Selected Stories, ed. Angela Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) which is based on the text of Antony Alpers’s scholarly edition and commentary of Mansfield’s stories (now out of print). In particular, this edition presents ‘Je ne parle pas français’ in its original, unbowdlerised form (Mansfield was made to make changes to the story for its publication in the Constable volume of Mansfield stories edited by John Middleton Murry in 1945, and on which the Penguin edition of Mansfield’s Collected Stories is based). Subsequent references to the Selected Stories will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation SS.Google Scholar
  36. 64.
    See, for example: Angela Smith, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two (New York: Clarendon Press, 1999); Drewery, Modernist Short Fiction by Women; and William Atkinson, ‘Mrs. Sheridan’s Masterstroke: Liminality in Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”’, English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature, 87 (2006), 53–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 67.
    ‘Viser’ has been turned into the past participle through the addition of the English suffix ‘-ed’ (the French past participle is ‘visé’). We find the word in one of Mansfield’s letters: ‘At 1.30 I went to get my baggage registered, waited for one hour in a queue for my ticket and then was told I could not have one until my passport was vise’d.’ Katherine Mansfield, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield Volume I, ed. John Middleton Murry (London: Constable, 1928), p. 94. Indeed, this is a recurrent feature of Mansfield’s own use of French in her letters and journals. In a letter of 1915, for example, we see an example of her use of code-mixing for comic potential that is very similar to that of the narrator of ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ when she writes of her ‘despair’ at a French book: ‘I nearly sautéd from the fenêtre with rage.’ Mansfield, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield Volume I, p. 38.Google Scholar
  38. 69.
    Gerri Kimber notes the biographical resonances in the story: that Mansfield admitted that Carco was a subject for Duquette, and that Carco was ‘constantly on hand’ during Mansfield and Murry’s ‘disastrous attempt at living in Paris’. Gerri Kimber, Katherine Mansfield: The View from France (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008), pp. 72, 65.Google Scholar
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© Juliette Taylor-Batty 2013

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