What does it mean to perform language?
‘I don’t understand anything you’re saying when you say it, but even if you had no translator, I would follow you to a cult compound and never leave.’
Recently, the American late-night host Stephen Colbert interviewed Japanese organizing expert Marie Kondo, who answered questions on de-cluttering and folding fitted sheets through a translator. Yet while the (it must be said) exceptionally talented translator assisted with the nuances of meaning, it seemed that Kondo and Colbert were able to communicate perfectly well without her, as evidenced by Colbert’s quip above.
The hypothesis of humans’ ability to communicate beyond the everyday norms of common languages was also tested at Creative Multilingualism’s recent conference ‘Performing Languages’. Throughout the weekend, participants discussed poetry, played games and even debated Brexit in languages not shared by all: Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, Punjabi, to name just a few. Despite the inability to understand every single word – a common conception of ‘translation’ – it was strikingly easy to understand instructions and comments given in an unfamiliar language. Indeed, one exercise involving one participant telling another a story in an unfamiliar language resulted in most of the listener participants accurately guessing the plot of the story despite the language barrier.
The Performing Languages conference was unusual in that the organisers welcomed not only traditional academic papers, but invited performers to give examples of their art and their relationship to language. Actively striving for collaboration between academia and the performing arts in this case proved enormously fruitful, as evidenced by the warm reception given to rapper RTKal and spoken-word artist Ashlee E L Roberts, and the active participation throughout the weekend of deaf comedian and filmmaker Rinkoo Barpaga. Workshops given by Rinkoo and multilingual theatre practitioner Tim Supple provided not only fascinating glimpses into performance practice outside the traditional British milieu, but also ignited interest in expanding academic understandings of language and performance.
What does it mean to perform language? Not simply to perform in a language, but to create and practise identity through the use of language? Participants at the conference addressed this conception in talks ranging from performing Shakespeare in several languages without surtitles, helping immigrants learn and become comfortable expressing themselves in Icelandic as well as their native languages, translating poetry into dance, the language of grime and drill music, and the intricacies of expression in urban sign language. What became clear is that we are constantly performing language, not just in secondary languages but even within our mother tongues, continually adapting and shaping language to suit a particular situation or to manifest a particular aspect of identity.
A more lighthearted example of performing language arose at the conference dinner. After a lively discussion of instances of culture shock and failures in communication, the conversation turned, in that inexplicable way conversations can, to pop divas of the last few decades. Upon discovering this millennial American had never heard of Australian singer Kylie Minogue, the table turned to an immediate debate over the best Kylie single, smartphones whipped out to show Kylie videos and argue over what exactly to call that complicated dance routine. ‘I wonder what this would sound like in Russian,’ one participant wondered. ‘Do you think we can translate it and still keep the fun?’
Margaret Frainier is a Creative Multilingualism DPhil candidate researching the development of Russian opera libretti from the late eighteenth century. She is part of our 4th strand, Languages in the Creative Economy.