chapter  1
20 Pages

Introduction: turning up the volume of translation in the city

No cities better illustrate these tensions, better exhibit their “corners”, than those I call “dual cities”. The special character of these cities lies in the presence of two historically rooted language communities who feel a sense of entitlement to the same territory. Each language is supported by institutions of similar authority – universities, writers’ associations, publishing houses, governmental recognition. Both communities are “insiders” – original or longstanding presences. One might want to call such cities bilingual, but the term is misleading on several counts. Languages that share the same terrain rarely participate in a peaceful and egalitarian conversation: their separate institutions are wary of one another, aggressive in their need for self-protection, continually laying claim to areas of culture they consider vulnerable. Even official bilingualism often provides a surface appearance of language equality which masks a more conflictual reality of competing and hierarchical languages. And additional languages often play a significant intermediate role in addition to the two main languages. These cities are not bilingual: they are translational. This term more adequately accounts for the range of relations which sustain the urban imagination – relations that include indifference and negation as well as engagement and creative interference. Movement across languages is marked by the special intensity that comes from a shared history, a common territory and the situation of contending rights. Successful negotiation across these commonalities and differences becomes the very condition of civic coexistence. But at the same time, translations are rarely neutral events in a placid field of encounter, rather they are events which sustain or transform social and literary interrelations. Linguistically divided or dual cities have their origins in conquest, when

a stronger language group comes to occupy or impinge upon a pre-existent language – which may itself have displaced another before it. Empires are especially effective creators of dual cities: administrative or settler colonies impose an imperial language which carries with it values of power and cultural prestige. Tensions might ebb for long centuries, only to surge under the influence of new political dynamics where the cultural memory of language is reactivated. Attention turns to these divided spaces most often when skirmishes between competing ideologies flare up, or, most dramatically, when, as in Nicosia, Jerusalem, Sarajevo, or Beirut, they become sites of human suffering through civil war or partition. But less attention has been given to duality when it is not in a state of crisis – and when the precarious balance between language communities might offer other kinds of lessons. Cultural interactions can well be at odds with political rivalries.