The Lure of Translanguaging

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Translingual activism for a language always in translation such as English presents many challenges but also many possibilities for the English language teacher. –Alastair Pennycook

The lure of what Pennycook calls “translingual activism,” and I will here call translanguaging-as-pedagogical-philosophy  (reserving the right to change my mind later) began, for me, with Min Zhan Lu’s call for “responsible and responsive” teachers of English and has since been fed by work in our own field and in applied linguistics/sociolinguistics fields (Horner, Lu, Matsuda, Canagarajah, Jordan, Tardy, Lorimer, Pennycook, Cenoz and Gortimer). My glossed summary of the conversation goes something like this: let’s lose the deficit model; let’s lose the understanding of language as contained in discrete, static systems; let’s recognize that students who speak multiple languages have communicative competencies that have been off the screen in our monolingual classrooms; let’s pay attention to the ways those competencies encompass rich multi-modal communicative practices.

But as Horner, Lockridge, and Selfe challenge, in this blogspace, we cannot continue to think of modality and language as discrete systems either;  multimodal/multilingual competencies themselves are not stable. From my own readings, I see connections in this blog-conversation to Alastair Pennycook’s argument (also titled) “English as a Language Always in Translation.” Here, Pennycook argues that current English language pedagogies and English-as-lingua-franca politics depend on the existence of a static or “core English.” What, then, is curtailed are pedagogical choices that explore “the breadth of meanings available within a language” (43).

In my own work and teaching practice, I began exploring connections between multilingual and multimodal communication practices a few years ago, but I have really only begun to dig even deeper into the questions of what translanguaging-as-pedagogical-philosophy should look like in my classroom. In this post for the Blog Carnival, I want to share an experience I had while conducting research that offers me a connection to the compelling assertions of the scholars I mention above.

Sijia Li is a student who came from China to study in the US. Now in her junior year, we met in 2012 when she consented to be interviewed about her literacy narrative. We have since become collaborators on projects for her work with international students and my own research on multilingual students, for which she offers me a lot of advice.

Sijia wrote a literacy narrative for her first-year-composition class about learning how to read much more quickly in English, after her host mother encouraged her to stop using a dictionary and to start using context clues. When Sijia and I sat down to talk about her narrative, I happened to be reading Patrick Sullivan, Yufeng Zhang, and Fenglan Zheng’s article comparing cases of a Chinese and an American students’ essays. Important in their piece is a discussion amongst the authors about the different rhetorical traditions they felt informed the assignments and the students writing. The Chinese students’ work was far more lyrical and descriptive than the US students’ expository prose, for example.

I asked Sijia what her English would look like if she were writing it for a Chinese instructor. Sijia began to demonstrate for me what a passage from her English literacy narrative would literally look like, if written in Mandarin.

Here are the English and Mandarin versions of a section of her work.

One day, my host mother was reading her book, and she told me she was going to read three hundred pages in an hour, and she said that I needed to read thirty pages in the same time. After she finished her three hundred pages, she found out that I only read five pages. She started reading my book with me to see how I read and why I read so slowly. She found out that every time I face a new word, I looked it up from the dictionary. It took more time to look up words than to read the book, and sometimes, although I knew what the words mean, I did not understand what was happening in the book. My host mother explained to me that I do not need to know every word to understand the book.

 有一天,我的寄宿家庭妈妈突然告诉我她在一个小时之内可以读三百页文章,然后她让我在一个小时内读三十页。但当她读完三百页的时候,看到我只读了五页。她很好奇我是怎么读书的,而且为什么会读的这么慢, 于是她就陪我一起读书。当她陪我读书的时候发现,每次我遇到部认识的单词,我都会停下来,然后拿出字典,查出那个单词是什么意思。这占据了我大部分时间。她终于明白,原来我大部分时间都花在查单词上面,而且有时候我即使查出了单词什么意思,也还是不明白文章讲了什么。她找出了我读书的问题之后,就开始教我到底怎样读书会又快,又容

During our conversation about the two texts, Sijia offered an interesting (to me) opinion about their differences. She exclaimed, when looking at the Mandarin version, “this looks like elementary school essay.” When I asked her why, given that it was a successful essay from her composition instructor’s position, she said “I’m happy with it if it’s in English. I know it’s okay when it’s in English like that, but if you read it in Chinese, it’s not very good.”

I asked Sijia, if she could write it well in a “good” for Chinese way, and she volunteered to try. What Sijia did next, of her own accord, was send her narrative to a friend in China (which is a whole other interesting part of our interaction), because she was worried she could not do her own narrative Chinese-justice. She showed me the new Mandarin version of her work, and began to translate it for me, to help me understand the differences between her English narrative and her narrative-in-the-style-it-should-be-written-for-a-professor-in-China. Sijia was troubled by her translating abilities; she did not think she was finding the right words in English. So we had the Mandarin version translated twice, once by Sijia and a second time by another Chinese student, Chenbin, who then came up with a different translation.

Sijia and I spent time talking about her translation of the Sijia/friend version of her literacy narrative  and Chenbin’s version. Some of the differences are shown below.

Sijia Chenbin
Confucius. He said, this is a term in Chinese, is a phrase, which means if you read a billion books, you will feel that you have walked a billion miles to see what’s going on. There was a very famous Chinese educator called Confucius. He said, “读万卷书行万里路”, which means if you have been reading a lot, you will be gaining experiences just like you have been traveling a lot.
Especially my language part is really poor.So while I read books, many new words will come out to disrupt me, but like every time I’ll get my dictionary.However although I have my dictionary and I understand them, but they still disrupt me successfully. Not only because they ought not to only influence my speeding of the reading, but also influenced the meaning of the reading.So, if you can try to think about if you’re reading a very excited paragraph, but suddenly you have a word that you don’t understand what’s that feeling like. English had become my biggest shortcoming.When I was reading, some vocabulary will jump out and make troubles for me. But I had my “secret weapon”, my dictionary, to deal with them.Even though I solved these problems, they still successfully disturbed me. They not only slowed down my reading speed, but also affected me from understanding the artistic conception in the text.You can think about it, when you are reading a passionate text, suddenly you are disturbed by unknown vocabulary. How does that feel like?
But, I have a very hot heart host mom. However, I had a very enthusiastic host family mom.


My understanding of the potential for teaching of this exchange, like many pedagogical-revelations, is not revelatory. As Pennycook argues, “English always needs to be seen in the context of other languages, or [. . .] as a language always in translation” (34). I have been to my colleague, Julia Kiernan’s presentations about her translation assignments, which ask, in part, students to analyze what is and is not translatable between home and other languages.  And, in Lu’s text (cited in my introduction) she is ultimately asking for us to ask students to interrogate all of the “englishes” as much as she is discussing helping English-learners.

But, what Sijia and I, minimally, decided was that there certainly are many ways to describe her experience and that productive Mandarin and English versions of the same narrative were quite interestingly different. For us, the translation work was not in an attempt to get the English right, but to represent culturally significant versions of the same story. What we, finally, ended up working through a translation process that demonstrates what Rebbecca Zantjer’s examples show, so productively; words that remain “problematically” translatable between any two languages demonstrate the rich complexity of language, and offer rich potential for classroom use.

Works Cited

Kiernan, Julia “Translation Narratives: Engaging Second Language Learners in Translingual Writing Practices.” Academic Biliteracies: Translanguaging and Multilingual Repertoires in Higher Education Settings. Eds. David M. Palfreyman and Christa van der Walt. Publisher TBA. 2015.

Lu, MinZhan. “An Essay on the Work of Composition: Composing English against the Order of Fast Capitalism. CCC. 56:1 (2004): 16-50. Print.

Pennycook, Alastair. “English as a Language Always in Translation.” European Journal of English Studies. 12.1 (2008): 33-47. Print.

Sullivan, Patrick., Yufeng Zhang, and Fenglan Zheng. “College Writing in China and America: A Modest and Humble Conversation, with Writing Samples.” CCC. 64.2 (2012): 306-331. Print.

About Author(s)

Alanna Frost teaches at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

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