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  • Writer's pictureEmily Bandeira

Merve Emre on a future multilingualist literature

"There is a wonderful moment in Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2000) when its narrator, Sibylla, offers what I like to think of as a prophecy for literature: “I kept hearing in my mind snatches of books which might exist in three or four hundred years. There was one with the characters Hakkinen, Hintikka and Yu, set provisionally in Helsinki—against a background of snow with a mass of black firs, a black sky & brilliant stars a narrative or perhaps dialogue with nominative genitive partitive essive inessive adessive illative ablative allative & translative, people would come on saying Hyvää päivää for good day there might be a traffic accident so that the word tieliikenneonnettomuus could make an appearance, and then in the mind of Yu Chinese characters, as it might be Black Fir White Snow, this was absolutely ravishing.” I am fascinated by the proposition that the language in which a novel is written could be changeable, determined not by the accident of one’s nationality, but by the demands internal to the narrative. What if certain scenes, certain characters, certain modes of speaking and thinking, found their ideal expression in different languages? What new dimensions of criticism might open to us? Any novel that tried to answer this question seriously would require readers who had engaged in comparative-language study from a very young age. This is the approach to early education pursued in many countries—my country of birth, Turkey, comes to mind—although certainly not in the United States or the United Kingdom. The novel DeWitt imagines would require changing how we approach the study of language at every level of the educational system—a utopian prospect, a project that probably can’t be realized now, but one to work toward over the next three or four hundred years." —MERVE EMRE


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