Multilingualism, Translation and Identity (by Mehdi Babaei)

In this post, I will address the question Lauren raised in her post last week: what makes you feel bi/multilingual? First, I will explain how I perceive multilingualism, and then I will present my experience with translation as an example of what makes me feel multilingual. While I find Lauren’s question intriguing, I even have some further questions: what does it mean by bilingualism/multilingualism? If multilingualism refers to someone being able to use or speak several languages, then what level of proficiency serves as an indicator for a person being bi/multilingual: limited, professional, full, or native (native-like)? How is proficiency defined? And more specifically, does the term multilingualism have the same sense in the eyes of those who belong to a language education community (like BILD members) and those who are outside the field?

More so, what matters the most when we talk about bi/multilingualism, is the view we hold on language–– whether we see language as a fixed entity, or hybrid in nature. I think the answer of these questions may pose some challenges, depending on how we look at language, language learning, or language use. Some recent scholars have questioned the term bi/multilingualism, and instead suggested heteroglossia––defined as a diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view in a literary work and especially a novel–– which covers the three concepts of diversity in speech, diversity in languageness, and diversity in voicedness. For example, Blommaert (2012) argues that:

A vocabulary including ‘multi-lingual’, ‘multi-cultural’, or ‘pluri-’, ‘inter-’, ‘cross-’, and ‘trans-’, notions all suggest an a priori existence of separable units (language, culture, identity), and they suggest that the encounter of such separable units produces peculiar new units: ‘multilingual’ repertoires, ‘mixed’ or ‘hybrid’ identities and so forth. (Blommaert 2012, p. 2)

Blackledge, Creese, and Takhi (2014) suggest that Bakhtin’s term heteroglossia is a better term for an understanding of multilingualism since previous sociolinguistic research referred to languages as fix boundaries, while heteroglossia does not refer to the languages “but to the heterogeneity of signs and forms in meaning making” (p. 193).

Also, Block (2014) argues that even monolinguals are to some extent multilingual because every person in this world knows at least some words from another language. Thus, everyone may feel or perceive themselves as multilingual in some ways. Even a pure monolingual’s communicative repertoire, if any, is equipped with multimodality–– gesture, prosody, facial expression and body movement––and embodiment which is linked to “a range of semiotic resources that people draw on to communicate and make their way in the world” (Block, 2014, p. 61). If I would even posit that multilingualism means having the knowledge of more than two languages (with varying degrees of proficiency from basic to native), I can say that I am multilingual. Yet, I would like to describe multilingualism as to what I can do or accomplish with different languages I know, how I use them, and what functions they have in my life.

The languages that build my multilingual repertoire are Persian, English, French, Arabic, and a number of dialects. Persian is my mother tongue, which is used mostly at home with my family and friends. English is the language that I almost use in similar way to my first language but more specifically, it is the language of my profession and academic activities. French was added to my repertoire quite recently and now forms a big part of my learning experiences. Also, I have very limited proficiency in Arabic, full proficiency in a dialect and limited proficiency in some other dialects. Now the question is what role does each of the main languages in my repertoire (Persian, English, and French) play in my life? Persian covers a broad range from basic conversations to the language of love, emotions, personal relationships, professional and social activities, to the language used for more complex phenomena such as artistic skills (writing short stories or translating). English takes up the similar position, but not to the same extent that I use Persian. French is used occasionally, for example, when I am in a café ordering a coffee, and for daily routines in my social contexts in Montreal. For me, each language has a meaningful purpose and function, yet they complement each other.

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In my language repertoire, the language with the lowest level of proficiency (French) is used for basic functions; a language with high level of proficiency (English) is used for higher-order thinking skills such as academic activities including publication and writing a blog post, or talking about political, economic, and cultural issues. While in my language repertoire my native language serves all these purposes, there are certain tasks I prefer to carry out in Persian, which might be beyond the higher-order-thinking skills. These are mostly associated with aesthetics, artistic, and spiritual experiences, and translation is a good example. Here is where my post enters the second part: translation and identity.

Everyone does some translation at some point in their life, whether written or oral, casual or professional, literally or free. Recently, I have resumed translating literature, mainly short stories and poems, from English into Persian. For me, translating literary texts is border-crossing, thus negotiating identities. I have already crossed some physical borders, and now that I am settled in, the border-crossing continues through translation. This requires that I think over certain identities: the author’s identity, reader’s identity, and my own identity as a translator. To me translation is a perfect example of how I feel multilingual, because translation is not only about having a high level of proficiency in both the source and target languages, it is also about having a wide knowledge of cultural differences, language structures, idiomatic expressions, missing-names, or sarcasm of both languages.

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Also, I see Bhabha’s (1994) Third Space in translation, where, in translating literary texts, the final product resembles neither the source nor the target language. The reason is that if, as a translator, I focus on the form and remain faithful to the source language, the final work may not be easy to understand in the target language. If I focus on the meaning and consider my readers, I may swerve from the source language, thereby the final product could be beautiful but unfaithful–– Les Belles Infidèles. So here I am likely to create a new language, a third language with all its multimodalities and dynamism. Thus, my multilingual repertoire can be manifested in translation, which leads to generating even a different type of language, a third language in the third space.

To sum up, going back to Lauren’s question, this is what makes me feel multilingual: the fact that languages in my repertoire have meaning, are dynamic, and are used according to different contexts with different and meaningful purposes, sometimes in isolation and sometimes when juxtaposed with other languages.


Bhabha, H .K. (1994). The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Blackledge, A., Creese, A. And Takhi, J.K. (2014). Beyond multilingualism: Heteroglossia in practice. In Stephen May (ed.) The Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual Education. London: Routledge.

Block, D. (2014). ‘Moving beyond ‘lingualism’: multilingual embodiment and multimodality in SLA’. In S. May (ed.) The Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual Education. London: Routledge, pp. 54-77.

Blommaert, J. (2013). Complexity, Accent, and Conviviality: Concluding Comments. Applied Linguistics, 34, 5, 613-622.

Madsen, L. M. (2014). Heteroglossia, voicing and social categorisation. In Heteroglossia as practice and pedagogy, pp. 41-58. Springer Netherlands.


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