I grew up in the European Capital, Strasbourg, a French city located right across the German border. My favorite local food as a kid, when my parents took me to a ‘winstub’, was ‘bibeleskäs’, cottage cheese with herbs and sautéed potatoes. I was also very fond of ‘flammeküche’, a sort of creamy pizza, and ‘krumberkichle’, grated potato pancake with egg.
The local dialect in Strasbourg is a form of German – but none of my family were local to the region, and I grew up among Alsatian voices speaking only French at home, with a sprinkling of Italian and Provençal thrown in when I visited grand-parents.
This multilingual and multicultural environment sparked my interest in the foreign languages, an interest that would later become a vocation. I decided to specialise in ‘foreignness’, and later majored in English.
Meanwhile, on a personal level, I deliberately surrounded myself with friends of diverse backgrounds: Greeks, Italians, Germans, Belgians – even Australians. Some were international students, some had settled in Paris, and some were just passing through. The magic of EU policy, cheap air travel, and student exchange programs around Europe, meant I had no shortage of smart internationals around me.
When I migrated to Australia, I wanted to re-create a similar environment. Multi-lingualism had become crucial to my mental balance. On my first visit to Melbourne, I was looking forward to mingling with Antipodean Greeks and Italians, but soon realized that people my age were more comfortable in English than in their family language.
However, there was something I didn’t anticipate: the presence of Asia, Mandarin speakers on the tram, Japanese and Korean writing in shop windows, Malaysian restaurants, or stories of trips to Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Bangkok, or Bangladesh.
I realized that, when I moved to Melbourne, any linguistically diverse environment would include Asian languages. And as a first step, I decided to learn Mandarin.
This desire to live surrounded by multiple languages and cultures follows the European intellectual traditions. In Paris, most of my educated friends could read at least a couple of foreign languages – and those who couldn’t read large numbers of books in translation.
But this enlightened cosmopolitanism did not extend beyond the Euro-zone. At university, Spanish, English or German studies are respectable members of the Humanities, but Mandarin and Arabic are taught alongside Turkish, Iranian or Khmer, in exotic ‘Oriental studies’ centres. Intellectual Europe, indeed, stops at the Ural.
As Asia rises on the world stage, integrating the European and Asian tradition in a joint ‘Republic of Letters’ may be one the most exciting challenges ahead of us. When I first visited Australia, it became very clear to me that this country could lead the way. And as a specialist in foreignness, this became the work I wanted to do.
Four years later, when I started translating short essays and cultural analysis from the Chinese internet, I noted with surprise that I shared many references with the authors: Bourdieu, Tocqueville, Adam Smith, Hannah Arendt. One scene from my time in Jiangus last year cristallises this feeling of eery familiarity: at the Avant-Garde Bookstore, Nanjing’s largest independent bookstore, I saw a seventeen year-old girl in a school uniform absorbed in a Mandarin translation of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.
So on the Chinese side, intellectual integration with the west is already happening, however for us it is yet to take hold. I haven’t yet seen anyone at a Melbourne bookstore engrossed in a book of 19th century Chinese philosophy. I’m not actually sure I could find a book of 19th century Chinese philosophy if I was looking for one – even on kindle or through the Book Depository.
Why read foreign works, you may say, when there’s already more quality books in English than anybody could possibly read? And if there’s nobody to read them, why bother publishing them? Or maybe the argument goes the other way. If time and attention are scarce, and many voices compete for it, then we should ask ourselves all the more, as readers and thinkers what is our ethical responsibility?
If, indeed, bringing together the Asian and European traditions is a crucial challenge, and if indeed, Australia could lead the world in this endeavor – then it is our responsibility to do what we can so that we can make it happen. But for that, not only do we need to train ourselves in understanding the diverse aesthetic and ethical traditions of our neighbours.
More importantly, maybe we should all learn at least one Asian language – and possibly more. Because if publishers are not translating the works of Asian writers, then we must access them in the original.
This may take time time. The European tradition was centuries in the making, and recent mass-multilingualism on the Continent is a result of large-scale investment in education – all this among languages that share similar grammatical structures and large proportions of their vocabulary.
So meanwhile, as we support future generations to learn – maybe we can do this: what about inviting more thinkers and speakers from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, or Indonesia, to teach at our schools, write in our magazines, or speak on our public forums. Many of them have been courteous enough to learn English, and make our lives easier – this deserves, at the very least, to reward them with our attention. So when they come, let’s make sure we listen to them carefully.
And maybe not in our times, but in our children or grand-children’s time, people will come from all over the world in order to take part in Eurasian conversations happening in Australia – because a monolingual environment is dull and sterile.
The Marco Polo Festival will bring together readers, writers and translators from Australia and China through a series of interactive online and offline events. The Marco Polo Festival will take place in Melbourne from August 23 to August 30. Highlights include an evening session on ‘Writing online and shaping culture’ at the Pozible office in Collingwood on Monday 25, an afternoon session about ’The creative in translation’ – including a panel with Peril editors Nikki Lam and Lian Low – on Tuesday 26, and a collaborative translation race on Saturday 30th. Full details and program are available at marcopolodiglitfest.org.