What Does it Take to Compose and Read a Translingual Text?


In some of the First Year Writing (FYW) classes I teach, I invite students to translanguage, that is, to write in multiple languages. Early in the semester, we read Gloria Azaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and 1-2 articles by Geneva Smitherman. As the semester progresses, I introduce Hip-hop texts from diverse parts of the world. In our reading of all these texts, I ask students to identify strategies used by the writers to compose in multiple languages. One way of helping students identify the strategies is to ask them to think about parts of the writing/text  that helps them understand what is being communicated. This activity helps prepare them to compose their translingual papers.

Inviting students to write in multiple languages brings a lot anxiety, which is understandable and expected. From a personal experience, I know that translanguaging in my academic writing has not been an easy process. In fact, it was not until I started inviting my FYW students to translanguage, that I started being comfortable doing it myself. In this blog post, I will share two factors that have helped my students and I learn how to write and/or read translingual texts:

  1. Thinking of a translingual text as having an “expanded spatial dimension”
  2. Recognizing the role of translation in translingual writing.

I will illustrate these ideas by sharing my students’ (as well as my own) interpretation of Bamboo’s remix of the song Mama Africa. Bamboo is a Kenyan Hip-hop rapper.

The song Mama Africa was written and sung by Peter Tosh, a Jamaican reggae artist. It has been remixed by Hakim Abdulsamad, a member of the American band, The Boys, and by Akon, a Senegalese/American Hip-hop and R&B artist. The song pays homage to the African continent, and counters the negative representations of Africa, particularly by the West. In remixing of the song, Bamboo moves between English and Swahili. When I first heard the song through a Kenyan radio station, I did not think much about its multilingual character. After all, most of the Kenyan rap music is written in multiple languages. It was not until I moved to the U.S and started trying out Hip-hop pedagogies in my first year writing classrooms that I started to wonder what strategies Hip-hop artists use to compose multilingual texts, especially those that are aimed at reaching global audiences.

Translingual texts have an “expanded spatial dimension”

Like any other Hip-hop text, my approach to using this song involves having students listen, read and watch the Video to the song:


After watching the Mama Africa video, I ask students to analyze what language and rhetorical strategies are used in the video to convey the message. I have come to realize that music videos help students decipher and identify diverse strategies and layers of meaning that cannot be revealed through listening and reading only. Alastair Pennycook in Transcultural Flows writes about how Hip-hop as a cultural form presents several layers of modality which can only be understood if one considers diverse Hip-hop elements. He goes further to argue that reading rap lyrics requires one to “appreciate the music” and to also read other aspects like the dress, the body, the performance, the attitude, the voice, the posture among others. All these aspects work towards giving “meaning to a Hip-hop event” (48).

In analyzing this text, I asked students to identify an image from the video and think about what message they felt it communicated and how it contributed to their overall understanding of the song. One student pointed to the black T-shirt Bamboo is wearing in the video, which has the letter  “I”, the map of Africa in red, and two letters “NY” printed on it. The student wondered whether this was a mistake; that is, if the t-shirt intended to say “I <3 NY” as is typical in the shirts sold in New York City. As a class, we concluded that the map stood in place of the heart shape which symbolizes love. The larger question became “why wear a shirt that says ‘I love New York’ when the song is about love for Africa? Why is the map of Africa juxtaposed next to New York? These are issues I had not thought about before. This led us to research more about Bamboo as an artist to see if we could get clues of the meaning behind the symbols in the shirt.

Through our Google research, we learned that Bamboo lives (or has lived) in New York city and was in fact raised in Los Angeles. Personally, I had assumed he was based in Kenya where I had heard and seen him collaborate with many other Kenyan artists. Understanding hi(s)tory made everything begin to make sense. After watching the video again, I noticed he was wearing a head cap with the letters LA which stands for Los Angeles. I am sharing these examples to argue that the design of the T-shirt and the cap are semiotic resources which are not randomly used in the video. Rather, they are linguistic signs that Bamboo’ uses to rhetorically index his identity as a transnational Hip-hop artist. These signs, among many others in the video, work together to actualize his Hip-hop composition. These semiotic resources are also a reminder that language as a product of social action cannot be understood separately from its speaker, as well as from the speaker’s history, culture(s), place/s (of dwelling), and ideologies (Pennycook, Language as a Local Practice).

Another student drew our attention to the use of still images of Akon’s and Peter Tosh’s albums Konvicted and Mama Africa respectively in Bamboo’s video. The  student interpreted this as a strategy if doing citation–acknowledging or giving credit to the owner of the song and other artists who have remixed it. I am using these examples to argue that it was only through the visual mode that these meaning-making aspects were revealed. Suresh Canagarajah argues that a translingual text has an “expanded spatial dimension” which means that readers are invited to be sensitive to its “visual” and other “aesthetic dimensions.” In other words, translingual texts are transmodal, which according to Pennycook, “implies not only that meaning occurs in multiple modes, or that language cannot be understood in isolation, but also that there is no such thing as language in isolation” (Transcultural Flows, 50). Thinking about a text as having a spatial dimension means that translingual composing involves not just using “distinct” languages, but also semiotic resources.

The role of translation in composing and reading a translingual text

The first two verses of Bamboo’s Remix are in English with a few Swahili words thrown in here and there. In verse three, he alternates between Swahili and English providing translations sentence after sentence:

kuna wasichana wazuri 
we got the beautiful women
tunaishi vizuri
check out the way we be livin
na tunakula vizuri
we always eating the best
poteza yako kwa nini
why should you settle for less
TV haiwezi kuambia
they never show on your screen
kwa hivyo mi ntawaambia
so you can see what I mean
Africa maridadi
Africa’s beautiful baby
nasi tunapenda raha
come see how we love to party

In my reading and analysis of this verse, I was intrigued by the agency he demonstrates in translating his song. As a Swahili speaker, I expected a literal translation of English to Swahili or the vice versa. Instead, Bamboo seems to add something “extra” in his translation. For example, the literal translation of “tunaishi vizuri” would be “we live very well.” Instead, he writes, “check out how we be livin.” Another example is “nasi tunapenda raha.” A literal translation would be, “we love to have fun.” Instead, Bamboo writes, “come see how we love to party.” Further, it is interesting to note that the translation “check how we be livin,” aforementioned, is not what many would call “standard English,” but has features of African American Language(AAL), that is, the habitual “be.” Another sentence in the verse is, “we always eating the best”. This sentence has a syntactical feature of AAL, an optional omission of the copular verb “is” or “are”. In this way, Bamboo draws on his AAL resources as an artist and translator (which we might speculate he acquired living in New York and LA, or as member of the Hip-hop Nation).

For me, this raised a bigger question: what language is being translated here?

Pennycook writes that translation is key to understanding communication, because all communication involves some form of translation. He observes that translation transgresses language ideologies that emphasize distinctions between languages. Further, he argues, translation happens when speakers share the same language, yet people tend to only notice it when speakers speak in distinct languages. Translation also reveals language differences and diversity of meanings in a language. This can be seen in Bamboo’s translation above, which demonstrates the diversity and richness of the English language.

At the same time, while proponents of translingualism have identified translation as an important tenet of translingualism and as a meaning-making process, they also encourage students to exercise agency in how they translate or don’t translate their translanguaged writing or items. In fact, some scholars have argued that untranslated items/writing promote careful and interpretive reading as readers learn to rely on contextual cues to discover meaning. In this way, translingual texts are also transmodal, as translation becomes unnecessary when one can rely on other modalities to make meaning. If you don’t believe me, check out the Bamboo’s Remix video above to see what I mean.

Works Cited

Canagarajah, A. Suresh. Translanguaging in the classroom: Emerging issues for research and pedagogy. In Wei, Li.  Applied Linguistics Review. Walter de Gruyter: 2011.1-23. Print.

Pennycook, Alastair. Language as a Local Practice. Milton Park, Abingdon; New York: Routledge. 2010. Print.

 ________, Alastair. Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. London: Routledge. 2007. Print.


  • Esther Milu

    I am PhD Student in Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University. I research about translingual literacy as practiced in schools and communities.

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