To Write in Languages. An Introduction

François Rastier, "Une introduction", dans Ecrire en langues. Littératures et plurilinguisme, O. Anokhina et F. Rastier (dir.), Paris, Editions des archives contemporaines, 2015, p.iii-x.

Translated by Philip Gerard, March 2021.

An Introduction

François Rastier (CNRS)


- There is no longer a language, now there are only languages. -

Jean-Luc Godard, Adieu au langage



Two thirds of humanity speaks more than one language each day, but in literature multilingualism still appears as a curiosity or even an oddity1. It is neglected, effaced: for example, the database Frantext, a major reference for the study of French language and literature, does not transcribe the words, expressions, or passages in foreign languages present in its collection, such that even baron Nucingen's Alsatian accent finds itself expunged from Balzac's text.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, European nationalisms have indeed privileged the idea of a pure, homogenous language, exception made for certain phenomena of calquing or lexical borrowing, and have constituted national literatures, which, linguistically "pure," are capable of serving as canons for identitarian construction. In his celebrated Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, Hans Robert Jauss still affirmed that literary history should "represent in the history of literary works the idea of national individuality on its way to itself2."

The validity of the notion of national literature is all the more questionable for the fact that the languages of culture are transnational. They attract writers of every nationality, who rightfully compete to enrich their literary corpus. Furthermore, by means of their knowledge of languages and their translations and self-translations, writers access the space of world literature that they help to expand. On a side note, such facts, self-evident as they are, underline the narrowness of the notion of French literature as well as the ambiguities of the label francophone.

In a complementary manner, one must question the figure of the reader: even more than bilingual translations, the multilingual work assumes a reader drawn from the most cultivated. It may therefore seem elitist and justify the timidity of ordinary publishers.

But this fear does not exhaust the question: for example, in his stage adaptation of Se questo è un uomo, Primo Levi made each of his characters speak in their language, from Yiddish to Polish to Russian, and more languages besides, so that the spectators might imagine or even experience the anxiety of detainees who found themselves immersed in what he called "the stormy sea of not-understanding [mare tempestoso del non-capire]."3 In this way, he sketched a hermeneutics of non-understanding.

Whatever the case me be, an avowed multilingualism happily endangers the models of communication applied to the literary work: even when complicated by a pragmatics of indirect acts, such models remain simplifications and their irenicism does not permit one to account for the critical function of literature. This destabilization seizes the image of creation just as much as the image of interpretation and notably repudiates the identitarian aesthetics of reception: the multilingual work does not correspond to any horizon of expectation that could be defined by a national community. A work's true nation is its readership, the republic of its interpreters.




Openly multilingual works ultimately provoke a reflection on the secret multilingualism of all literature. Despite the fact that La Fontaine is traditionally taken as an identitarian paragon of France's national education, lets reread his virtuoso ballad in five stanzas that has for a refrain I take pleasure in books of love [Je me plais aux livres d'amour], which appeared in the Tales and Novellas of 1665: the narrator successively confronts The Golden Legend (by Jacobus de Varagine [Jacopo da Varazze]) with "sir Honoré" (for the author of L'Astrée), "master Louis" (the reader should understand that he means Ariosto); mentions Oriana (the heroine of Amadís de Gaula), her "little doll" (Espandían), Clitophon (for The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophone by Achilles Tatius of Alexandria), Ariana (the heroine of Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin), Polexandre (the hero of Gomberville), Cleopatra and Cassandra (an allusion to the novels of La Calprenède), Cyrus (the hero of Artamène, or Cyrus the Great, by Georges and Madeline de Scudéry), Perceval the Gaul, to conclude "Cervantes thrills me", without forgetting to mention Boccaccio in the envoi. Jacobus de Varagine, Ariosto, Boccaccio, Achilles Tatius, Cervantes: La Fontaine hereby restores in a playful spirit the cosmopolitan space of the classics, revealing the corpus from which he elaborates his ballad and which he justifiably assumes is familiar to his readers. This multilingual space belongs to every language of culture, in contrast to the exclusively vehicular languages, like today's international English, which lacks a history and a corpus of texts.

Even monolingual works may conceal a multilingualism that escapes the cursory glance and superficial reading. One can argue that Kafka's German is agitated by Czech, but equally haunted by Yiddish. The corpus out of which a work is elaborated is most often multilingual, as one would expect to see in the manuscripts of polyglott authors like Nabokov, but also in the drafts and pre-texts [les dossiers génétiques] of full-blooded French authors like Flaubert: passages in foreign languages are rewritten, with no trace appearing in the final versions. When in the beginning of Herodias Flaubert describes the fortress of Machaerus on a pinnacle of basalt "ayant la forme d'un cone," he takes up his handwritten translation of Tristram describing "a conical hill." A seemingly monolingual work may very well conceal a cento of implicit and recast translations.




In terms of their variety, the aesthetic resources that multilingualism provides are considerable. The elaboration of a new, unheard of pairing of expression and content allows a text to impose itself as a work: one may no longer modify it without upsetting its (dis)equilibrations, and it upholds before its readers its own objective lawfulness.

Let's take the simple example of the multilingual syllepsis, in which one word can be read in one language or in another. It used to be banal in European literature; until recently, European writers had been trained in ancient languages, and latinisms abound in Paul Valéry just as in Claude Simon, hellenisms in Saint John Perse, etc. It is not a question of allusions in the etymological sense. When in a war poem Apollinaire describes the smoke of his cigar "les nœuds de couleuvres en se dénouant écrivent aussi le nom émouvant Madeleine, dont chaque lettre se love en belle anglaise" [the knots of snakes uncoiling also write the thrilling name whose every letter twines in fine English],4 he invites us with an almost British sense of humor to read "love" in two languages.5 These levelings can even become a compositional procedure; for example, in a more polemical tone, Khatibi's entire œuvre is threaded with French's haunting of Arabic. Khatibi neither plays French against Arabic nor the other way around but thinks their duality and their contradiction. "Signifiers of interface," which seem to belong to one sign in one language and to another in its neighbor, not only create a critical ambiguity but also occasion a doubling of intertexts.

With this come the tonalities and imaginaries that differ from language to language. Latin was religious but also erotic, not only because pagan authors lacked decency6, but because, beginning in the Renaissance, erotic works in the vernacular like the Ragionamenti of Aretino gave licentious passages in Latin to exclude them from comprehension by women. This eroticization remained until Claude Simon's Histoire.

One recalls the Charles V's saying: "I speak Spanish with God, Italian with women, French with men, and German with my horse." Italian was the language of romantic liaisons, French of gallantry and worldliness, German of philosophy and chemistry, just as American English remains the language of computer science and business. The alternation of languages within a work can of course mobilize such stereotypes, but — even better — such alternation can challenge these preconceived images and make languages perform at cross-purposes, as in James Joyce and Emilio Gadda.




Answering the multiplicity of languages is the multiplicity of sources. At the "roots" of each work that gives concrete form to the intellectual life of the writer, one finds the texts from which it draws its substance. To these roots correspond the imaginary lineage into which the creator wants to inscribe him or herself. Thus, in the collection In Search of Roots, Primo Levi composed a personal anthology of the works that shaped him, from the Book of Job to Rabelais, from a chemistry textbook to a scientific article on black holes. On this point he notes, "While writing in the first person is for me, at least in intention, the work of day and conscious lucidity, I am aware that the choice of one's roots is more nocturnal work, visceral and for the most part unconscious7."

To the corpus of multilingual creation corresponds an equally multilingual corpus of interpretation. Even in the work of an author as classical and reserved as Levi, the poem "Il superstite" begins with an explicit quotation and ends with a hidden quotation: the first refers to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge, l. 583 ("Since then, at an uncertain hour"); the second to Dante's Inferno, canto XXIII, l. 141. In literary reading, it is often the case that to go from one word to another, one must pass through other texts and other languages. Indeed, this feature may disclose what is most characteristic of such reading.




Language [le langage] is a philosophical concept, uniting a general faculty of humanity and a hypothesis about the universal properties of languages [langues]. Literature mirrors the language [le langage] at the heart of languages [langues] and thus reflects a contradiction that is also its strength: it is an art of language [langage], not of French, Chinese, or Tagalog; and yet it expresses itself in one or more of these idioms [langues], so that it may produce works with an international vocation.

Thus the completed work concretizes in one idiom [langue] or in several a reflection on language [langage]. Doubtless this is why it seems to fashion its own idiom [langue], a language of art [langue d'art]. In the linkages of an exemplary work, the language of art [langue d'art] unites dialects and other linguistic varieties, just as Homeric language [langue homérique] established classical Greek or the language of Dante [langue de Dante] established modern Italian. It creates rather than follows a norm: one could say it is logothetic, meaning that while it is written in a given language [langue], it is no less true that that language [langue] is written in it, providing that the work constitues a major event and inaugurates a lineage capable of engendering a genre.




The question of the language of art thus emerges all the more acutely for the fact that every grammar is normative, even or perhaps especially when it admits exceptions. The internal diversity of languages remains largely underestimated by the grammatical tradition, which claims to formulate rules that are valid for every discourse. Contrary to the wishes of the grammarians, especially the Jacobins among them, no language [langue] is homogenous. Beyond the differences in a language's place, time and level, one must account for the presence of a multiplicity of norms regulating discourse, genre, and style. These features are not external to the language, they determine its polysystemic8 character. For this reason, every language is divided into discourses of unequal value (religious, legal, literary, political), each of which declares itself by means of genres adapted to its practices.

Literary discourse is not the sophisticated form of an unlocatable ordinary language [langage], in relation to which it would constitute a deviation.9 It pertains to a language [langue] of art, reflected, criticized, and remade by each author. In the traditions we know of, literary language [langue] seems particularly valorized. It may be that literature inherited prestigious, formulaic constructions from its sacred origins that are more than just memotechical aids; however, it is certain that literature takes on a critical function and permits one to glimpse other orders of the world and of society.

In addition, literary language [langue] has the special power to reflect within itself and variously re-elaborate all discourses and linguistic varieties (think of the notarial jargon in Balzac, of the conversations in Proust and Sarraute). This is the inextinguishable source of a thousand games, such as those between Sanskrit and the Prakrits in classical Indian literature.

In such play one can recognize a form of internal plurilingualism, and with good reason. Khatibi often maintained: "The French language is not the French language: it is more or less all the languages [langues], internal and external, that both make French and unmake it10." Likewise in literature, where the internal plurality of languages and avowed multilingualism put to work the same movements of transformations and transpositions.




For linguists, the notion of a pure language [langue pure] remains or should remain a phantasm, since instances of borrowing, of calquing, of diffusion reach far beyond the lexicon. A language is not a closed system, as one cannot ignore the considerable variations between epochs, places, and social practices. Moreover, languages evolve through contact with one another: the instances of diffusion brought to light by areal linguistics are fascinating; and Saussure rightfully emphasized the absence of a clear and distinct border between languages. To these general principles the languages of culture [langues de culture] add an explicit, reflective dimension. Since each language [langue] increases its wealth through loans and through translations, the great languages of culture [langues de culture] have been able to acquire a kind of internal multilingualism that confers a critical function on them. Let us remember as a final point this singular characteristic of Europe: with the duality of languages of culture that were Greek and Latin, the establishment of common values has since antiquity always proceeded by way of multilingualism.

Language itself [la langue même] is a collective work in which fixed expressions are not solely a function of frequency; repetition itself depends on the value attached to expressions judged worthy, to the point of becoming formulaic or even performative. Moreover, when literature takes hold of it, a language enriches its corpus with translations and texts in other languages, through citations, allusions, and rewritings.




One finds in all arts the duality of the art's universal project and the particular modalities of its modes of expression. Thus, music is an art of sound but expresses itself in different scales or tonal systems, in rhythmic and melodic profiles belonging to different cultural domains [aires culturelles].

The great artistic movements are at least regional; for example, Caravaggism influenced all of western painting. But this question has not been reflected on enough in relation to literatures, since language [la langue] remains a pillar of identitarian nationalism — as one can observe, alas, more or less everywhere. There is nonetheless the example of the picturesque novel, born in Spain, which is also German (Simplicius simplicissimus) or English (Tom Jones); Kundera was able to say that the novel made Europe: much earlier, and perhaps better.

In short, the comparative perspective that characterizes cultural sciences leads one to define identity only as specificity [spécificité]. Between specificities, there is no contradiction, only differences. Between them one can introduce an equal, critical distance, whereas identities tend to affirm themselves as narcissistic tautologies. Those who use several languages thus inhabit, potentially, several countries. Humanity is a diaspora, but the resemblances between its members owe more to a shared history than to a predefined nature.


A literature may be appreciated in its dominant language but cannot be truly understood or described save in the corpus of other literatures from which it paradoxically derives its specificity. Even if it finds itself all too often relegated to scholarly peripheries and to transit camps for academic refugees, comparative literature thus remains at the intellectual and scientific center of literary study.


In a certain sense, multilingual literature at once interiorizes and manifests the critical reflection on the comparison of languages and cultures. It hereby participates in the creation of world literature, not by applying the recipes of globalized bestsellers — products that may be consumed anywhere — but rather by promoting an irreducible diversity.

Yoko Tawada — a writer living in Hamburg and, significantly, a translator of Celan into Japanese [...] —, argues that a poem is not finished until it has been translated into all languages. Taking my inspiration from her, I'd like to say that literature addresses itself to all of humanity and thereby participates in is ethical and aesthetic constitution. It is not just that humanity finds its homeland in the cosmopolitan universe of literary works, it is that, in its own way, multilingualism proves that humanity exists — not only through genetic cross-breeding but also through semiotic transmission.

For this reason, the very notions of literature, of literary language, and even of language in general [langue tout court] could see themselves reevaluated with reference to multilingualism. That, at least, is our hope. Nonetheless, it would be difficult and hazardous to attempt a generalization: every multilingual work depends on a particular aesthetic choice adapted to different genres, from Rabelais to George Herbert, from macaronic stuffing to mystical meditation peopled with the Scriptures.

The diversity of the multilingual material does not prevent the unity of the formal project. On the contrary, to the degree that internal multilingualism is a factor in the specificity of the text and the singularity of the work, it occasionally becomes the condition for such unity. Doubtless this is why the authors of this volume have chosen with good reason to privilege the monographic approach.




Earlier we distinguished plurilingualism (an ability to master several languages) from multilingualism (a coexistence of several languages in a social space), but the multilingual work relativizes and even exceeds such a provisional distinction. This is because, if the languages are juxtaposed within the empirical text, within the work they speak both to one another and, differently, to the reader by making common cause, the manifest surface heterogeneity notwithstanding.

Although confronting and reconciling the diversity of languages, the multilingual work does not revert to the illusory universal language prior to Babel. But it nonetheless exceeds the incoherent diversity that we call the confusion of languages. The supposed curse is lifted, even reversed into a secret benediction when the work overcomes the differences between languages in a unified aesthetic project and thereby offers a glimpse of a promising, multicolored universality.


1- For our purposes, we will distinguish plurilingualism, understood as the mastery of several languages, from multilingualism, understood as the coexistence of several languages: a text can be multilingual, an author plurilngual. One could imagine a multilingual society where everyone would be bound to their mother language; but one will of course prefer a plurilingual society, where everyone would more-or-less master several languages. In fact, every culture is potentially plurilingual: anthropologists count three hundred cultures while there are roughly six thousand languages.

2- Hans Robert Jauss, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) 3, my italics. One is surprised that this claim has not attracted more attention. It is of little importance here that Jauss, after enlisting voluntarily, rose to the rank of captain in the SS and commanded the killers of the Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (LVF) within the division Charlemagne: his theory remains haunted by nationalism.

3- Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage, 1988) 96.

4- Guillaume Apollinaire, "The English Inscription," in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), trans. Anne Hyde Greet (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980) 233.

5- With a certain application of understatement: "And the soldier doesn't dare finish the bilingual pun that is evoked by this springtime handwriting in the woods" (Letter to Madeleine, May 28, 1915).

6- Translator's note: François Rastier alludes here to Nicolas Boileau's L'Art poétique, canto II.

7- Primo Levi, The Search for Roots, trans. Peter Forbes (New York: Ivan R. Dee, 2003) 6.

8- F. Rastier, Sémantique interprétative (Paris, PUF, 1987) ch.3.

9- On the norm and the deviation, see O. Anokhina, F. Davaille, H. Sanson (des), Bien écrire/male écrire: écrire en "périphérie" de la norme (écrivains plurilingues, écrivains "francophones"), in Continents no. 2, 2014.

10- A. Khatibi, "Bilinguisme et littérature", in Maghreb pluriel, Paris, Denoël, 1983, p.188.



  • Anokhina, Olga, Davaille, Florence, Sanson, Hervé (dir.), Bien  écrire/mal écrire: écrire en "périphérie" de la norme (écrivains plurilingues, écrivains "francophones"), in Continents, n°2, 2014.
  • Apollinaire, Guillaume, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), trans. Anne Hyde Greet, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.
  • Jauss, Hans-Robert, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
  • Khatibi, Abdelkébir, "Bilinguisme et littérature", in Maghreb pluriel, Paris, Denoël, 1983.
  • Levi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, New York: Vintage, 1988.
  • Levi, Primo, The Search for the Roots, trans. Peter Forbes, New York: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.
  • Rastier, François, Sémantique interprétative, Paris, PUF, 1987.