No Mother Tongue? Translingual Poetry In and After Dada

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When Voltaire wrote ‘Il n’y a point de langue mère’ (Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764), he was reflecting on the gap between the complexity of human experience and the relative incapacity of languages to express it. Yet he hints that this inadequacy can nevertheless form the basis of creativity. His thinking finds an echo in the work of more recent poets, themselves shaped by migration and cultural plurality, who have in different ways sought to express the materiality of words, the opacity that Giorgio Agamben defines as the ‘pure exteriority’ of language (1993: 67).
The present article explores some ways in which modern poets working in more than one language have uncovered language’s inherent strangeness, the alterity that, as Jacques Derrida reminds us, resides within the iterable (1990: 27). The key points of focus are the multilingual and glossolalic poems of the historical avant-garde and Dada, the post-war experimentation of Lettrisme and Concrete Poetry, and the work of contemporary multilingual translingual poets. Far from seeing the inadequacy of language as a cause for despair, the poets in question relish it and seek to expose its gaps and interstices, just as they undermine any stable, singular notion of what might constitute poetry.
The poets under scrutiny are multilingual to radically varying degrees, and they explore the borders of language(s) in highly disparate ways too. But some common ground emerges, and this enables us to draw some necessarily tentative conclusions. The co-presence of more than one language in a poem does not enable a greater understanding, but instead draws attention to the sheer difficulty of making sense in any idiom. It also exposes language as a fluid, complex and necessarily multiple phenomenon, and suggests that this plurality could offer us a means to better understand what makes us human.
Original languageEnglish
Article number10
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalModern Languages Open
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2019


  • French poetry - 20th Century
  • Contemporary French poetry
  • German poetry - 20th century
  • Dada
  • Lettrism
  • Concrete poetry
  • Bilingualism
  • Multilingualism
  • Multilingual poetry
  • Translation
  • Translation theory

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