Multilingualism and Literature

Recently, I read the article ‘Lost in Translation: On fostering a conversation between languages’ by Kylie Maslen. Being from Australia, a monolingual and quite isolated country, it covered a topic I had never really been faced with – the decision on whether to write, publish or speak in a particular language. Reading this article, I was surprised that something seemingly so obvious had not been on my radar, and I really enjoyed the thought process that the article then invoked in me.


Maslen takes the city of Berlin as her example, where German is the ‘mother tongue’, and many people speak more than one language, with 86% of Germans speaking English (the author lists Turkish, Russian and Polish as the highest non-German speaking languages also, where English acts as a ‘bridge’ for communication). In a city like this, reading is not as simple as grabbing any available book from a store or library. Which language would you like to, or be able to, read it in? Where is that available? And if you are to write something, which language do you choose to publish in? Do you remain true to your cultural heritage, or do you perhaps broaden your audience by choosing another language?

While many English language books are translated into other languages, it seems the reverse isn’t as true. Far less books written in German, French, Spanish, Mandarin and so on are translated into English and widely read in places such as Australia (the Man Booker Prize states that “only 3% of the titles published each year in the UK and America are translations from a foreign tongue”). This makes me think that I am missing out on some spectacular reading because of my inability to understand any other language than English! This is quite a depressing realisation, that such beauty and knowledge from other cultures contained in these works cannot be imparted more broadly, and that those writers are not getting fair representation. As a person who loves to travel and learn about other cultures, I do not wish to close off so many channels of communication. When a foreign film interests me, it is easy enough to find English subtitles. However, there seems to be no quick and easy translation service for literature.

One initiative Maslen discusses is Readux – “a small press working to translate work by contemporary German authors into English” in an attempt to bring some more equality to available literature and its influence on writers. Having read mostly books written in English, I am not sure however how much of a particular novel may be ‘lost in translation’, in that nuances in language and culture may not be so easy to transfer. In any case, hopefully more publishers like Readux can boost the conversation of literature across cultures. And I now feel even more inspired to download the Duolingo app and try to broaden my own horizons outside of my restrictive English-only world.

  • Are you multilingual? If so, do you have a preferred language for reading in?
  • Do you feel you have enough opportunity to read books translated from languages foreign to you?

Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.

Posted in Uncategorised.


  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. But isn’t Australia quite multilingual? Back in the 1980s I visited Melbourne and noticed that there were entire ethnic neighbourhoods where everything was in Chinese and Greek respectively; probably there were other neighbourhoods where other languages dominate. Maybe these groups have all been absorbed into the mix by now. But Australia has welcomed — OK, recently the welcome has not been so warm, but in the past Australia generously welcomed — many refugees from Indochina, and I imagine there must be sizeable minorities speaking languages such as Hmong.

    It helps to grow up in a multilingual environment. I grew up speaking three languages (Dutch, English and Afrikaans) so I picked all those up without any effort. Later I learned French (at university and subsequently while studying in France) and German (mainly informally, from my German-speaking wife). That’s another way to learn a new language, from a partner or spouse.

    The more languages you have, I think, the easier it is to learn another. With my school Latin and my French, I’ve been able to gain a fair reading knowledge of Italian and I can read professional literature in Spanish (with a bit of effort!). It is actually much easier to read professional literature in foreign languages than it is to read novels or poetry. The reason is that the content and context are more familiar, and many professional terms are similar or recognisable. Newspapers are a way into a language too, and many are online, such as le Figaro (France), Corriere della Sera (Italian), and the Frankfurter Algemeine (Germany). But they are more difficult to read than professional books, because they contain many neologisms and acronyms (many not in your dictionary) and often refer to domestic political issues which we foreigners find difficult to wade through. Foreign online newspapers do offer opportunities to find reading matter relating to your interests, such as sports, fashion, health or cuisine. Novels tend to require a wide vocabulary, including idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms. Poetry is the most difficult.

    Having just one additional language opens up a whole new literature, plus literature in translations from other languages. Through French I have been able to read Albanian and Moroccan authors, and I like to read Nordic literature (mainly detective novel while on long flights) in German translations.

    If you do learn a foreign language, you must use it, or it will fade away.

    Travelling through most of Europe I’m able to ask the way and understand newspaper headlines, but in August I hope to attend the IFLA Congress in Wroclaw, Poland. That will be a new experience for me, since I speak no Slavic language.

    Thank you for indulging me — I’m fascinated by languages!

    • Thank you for your detailed comment Peter.
      I suppose when I say Australia is monolingual, I mean that there is only one official language, and thus while there may be communities of minority groups speaking other languages, these are not particularly wide spread or integrated in most people’s daily lives, as it may be in countries in Europe etc. So if I was to go to a bookstore, or try to purchase a newspaper, I would only find English options. Opportunities to be immersed in another language are lacking, locally and through it being hard to travel outside Australia.

      That said, you are probably right that if I went specifically into an area with a population mainly speaking another language, they may offer literature in these other languages. To be honest, as I only understand English, I’ve never sought this out. I feel that in Australia, multilingualism is not highly valued. Our school’s don’t teach foreign languages consistently and it’s not a compulsory requirement in education after a certain year (depending on the state) (for more info on this read: ; ; so I feel Australia is really behind the rest of the world in this regard. Of course, this is based on my personal experiences and opinion.

      It’s fantastic that you have had the opportunity to learn so many languages, and thanks for the tips on what you’ve found helpful to read! How wonderful it must be to have such a wide understanding and ability to communicate. Good luck with attending IFLA, and experiencing another new language. I’m glad you found the post interesting 🙂

    • I think it’s fair to say yes, Australia is a pretty multicultural country but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as our inhabitants using more than one language on a regular basis. The native-English speaking population by and large don’t learn another language after about 3rd year in high school and it is left up to our many migrants to lead the way in being multi-lingual. The 2011 figures are that of the 21.5+ million people in Australia, over 16.5 million spoke only English at home. (

      We’re terribly, terribly monolingual 🙁 and that’s not to even touch on the loss of the indigenous languages.

  2. Good morning. Australia has actually been a multilingual country for much longer than people might assume – before European settlement, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people between them spoke possibly 250 distinct languages and up to 700 dialects. Many of these have become extinct since European settlement but for many Aboriginal people, particularly in more remote parts of Australia, English may be their third or fourth language, with all the benefits in worldview and intellectual capacity that that confers. Additionally, a dialect called Aboriginal English has developed; Diana Eades writes fascinatingly on this, Like Chris I find language SO intriguing. Living in Alice Springs for awhile I was able to gain a sense of the complexity of Central Australian languages and the intense world view they convey. In other parts of the country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are working determinedly to revive their languages and if the day ever comes that these languages are taught properly in Australian schools then the relationship we Anglos and others can have with our country, and the sense of belonging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can experience in their own country, will be significantly different.

  3. I find this postcard interesting but in librarianship and information management, there is what we call “Translation Services” Therefore linguists are there for this kind of activity spearheaded by IFLA

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