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Composition Forum 44, Summer 2020

Critical Translation and Paratextuality: Translingual and Anti-Racist Pedagogical Possibilities for Multilingual Writers

Nancy Bou Ayash

Abstract: This article affords insights into the interdependence between writing and critical translation to inform implementations of antiracist and translingual writing pedagogies. Promoting linguistic and social justice for multilingual writers, it presents a writing assignment design that focuses on critical translation across asymmetrical power relations between languages, texts, writers, and readers. Critical translations by an international student and a resident multilingual student receive particular attention in this article in that they strategically utilize paratexts as discursive spaces for interrogating, resisting, and reconstituting academic English writing standards and conventions. Foregrounding such paratextual interventions in critical translations as forms of translingual and anti-racist practice can bring about social justice and change in multilingual writing and its teaching.


U.S. writing teachers are striving to refine their grasp and enactment of the political project of translingualism, which recognizes linguistic heterogeneity as a global norm and contests dominant demands for writing that conforms to a single identified set of fixed language standards. Translingual writing pedagogies contribute to debunking myths about the nonnegotiable, universal nature of language standards. They challenge the language hierarchies that sustain such myths and exclude languages and language practices other than “standard” English in social and educational landscapes (Canagarajah; Horner and Tetreault, Crossing).

Antiracist work in writing assessment confronts the ideological underpinnings of hegemonic English standards and norms, i.e. as “having particular class, racial, economic, and historical origins, as well as being idiosyncratic in readers” (Inoue 133). In a similar vein, anti-racist approaches to the teaching of English as a second language view Standard English as contributing “unwittingly to inequitable relations of power” among second language users and learners and “play[ing] an important role in the persistence of a particular international racial status quo” (Motha 110). Though proponents of translingualism do not directly make visible the deep connections between standard English ideology, race, and racism, translingualism intersects with such anti-racist agendas in teach and assessing language and writing. In fact, building on the 1974 CCCC Resolution on Students’ Right to their Own Language, translingual writing pedagogies treat the broad and diverse repertoire of languages, dialects, Englishes, and creoles in multilingual writers’ possession as crucial resources for creating and revising knowledge and not linguistic deficits that allegedly hinder their academic abilities in U.S. colleges and universities. In addition to changing multilingual writers’ perceptions about the rich language resources at their disposal, translingual writing pedagogies promote critical and conscious awareness of how and why “language is being used as a proxy” to include some individuals and communities and exclude others in written communication “on the basis of race, citizenship status, and ethnicity” (Horner et al. 309).

As a translingual framework and its practical application continue to be debated and adapted among U.S. writing teacher-scholars, translation is emerging as a useful pedagogical tool (see Bou Ayash; Horner and Tetreault). For instance, Horner and Tetreault present translation as central to translingual writing pedagogies, designed to help students address the complex “negotiation of difference in and through language” (Translation 26) in diverse writing situations. They specifically argue that “engagement in multiple and multidirectional translation between languages reveals the fluidity and internal change and diversity within what monolingual ideology posits as [an] ostensibly discrete, stable, and internally uniform” entity called Standard English (26).

Translation is indeed, as the MLA Ad Hoc Committee in Foreign Languages asserts, “an ideal context for developing translingual and transcultural competence” (242), placing value on multilingual writers’ ability to operate between languages and language practices and across “differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview” (238). After all, translation is a necessary and inherent aspect of multilingual writers’ lived experiences, fluid identities, and meaning-making processes. Yet, the crucial question remains: How can introducing translation into writing curricula best prepare multilingual students for claiming voice and agency over their language practices in writing amid historically embedded power imbalances, which sustain the supremacy and valorization of Standard English? In an effort to address this question, the current article helps materialize translingualism’s subtle promise for linguistic justice and social change amid the forcefulness of monolingualism and its ensuing standard language ideology. More specifically, I report on the possibilities of a pedagogical initiative I implemented in required first-year writing (FYW) courses. Both translingual and explicitly anti-racist in orientation, this pedagogy creates spaces for multilingual writers to recognize, interrogate, and disrupt a dominant standard language ideology.

In developing this writing pedagogy, I borrowed the notion of “paratexts” from translation studies research as strategic discursive spaces where authorial presence and intervention can become more manifest. As a form of resistance to the grand, reductive narratives of their invisibility and limited control in the literary world, translators adopt paratextual commentary—among the numerous textual practices available to them—for carefully “repositioning themselves, their readers, and other participants in time and space,” as translation scholar Mona Baker writes (Translation 133). In fact, multilingual writers also actively use paratexts to position themselves and others ideologically and in turn “consciously participate in the [re-]construction of reality” (Baker, Translation 106). For instance, drawing her readers’ attention to the complex politics of language, Gloria Anzaldúa in the final paragraph of her preface to Borderlands/La Frontera explicitly discusses her strategic code-switching, which patterns her entire book:

The switching of codes in this book from English to Castilian Spanish to the North Mexican dialect to Tex-Mex to a sprinkling of Nahuatl to a mixture of all of these, reflects my language, a new language—the language of the Borderlands.... Presently this infant language, Chicano Spanish, is not approved by any society. But we Chicanos no longer feel the need to beg entrance, that we need always to make the first overture—to translate to Anglos, Mexicans and Latinos, apology blurting out of our mouths with every step. Today we ask to be met half way. This book is our invitation to you—from the new mestizas. (n.p.)

This “new language” of Chicano/as that Anzaldúa invokes moves beyond transgressive crossings of the borders separating Spanish and English languages, dialects, and registers to involve contestations of the hegemonic linguistic and sociocultural norms on the global academic stage. Anzaldúa’s essay How to Tame a Wild Tongue is widely anthologized in FYW readers and textbooks, but it is rarely discussed alongside her active resistance in this paratext. Engaging with Anzaldúa’s essay without fully considering the mediative strategies displayed in the above paratext obscures the significant interventions that accompany the acts of linguistic and cultural translation involved in the text’s production and reception.

From a similar perspective, Arjuna Parakrama in his foreword to the edited collection Unequal Englishes addresses, in a footnote, his potential readers’ lack of familiarity with the botanical Sinhalese name of thuththiri in reference to overgrown weeds as part of the topography of his Sri Lankan homeland (xii-xiii):

At last a book that grasps the thuththiri{1} of our unequally globalized Englishes problem without being defensive or apologizing for itself!...

In this so-called marginal space for scholarly practice and labor, Parakrama unapologetically forces his readership to operate within an alternative web of inequalities by challenging them to “look it up, check it out, research it, spend time discovering what it is” (xiii) and experience the same kind of annoyance and abashment when navigating moments of ambiguity in non-dominant Englishes that they would willingly endure upon encountering comparable moments in high prestige English varieties.

It is exactly this mediatory aspect of paratexts which makes them ideal for pushing multilingual writers’ agency, authorial intention, and self-reflexivity to the fore in teaching writing while simultaneously promoting writer-reader dialogue and negotiation. Mobilizing these affordances of paratextuality, the critical translation activity I present below foregrounds multilingual writing students’ control over Standard English, not by blindly conforming to or sidestepping its writing conventions and rules at their own risk, but rather by rhetorically negotiating them in accordance with their own expressed goals, values, and identities. Countering the effects of the treatment of language standards and norms as unquestionable and unchangeable, the writing pedagogy I am advancing focuses on critical translation paratexts as discursive sites for multilingual writers to situate themselves relative to the demands of a dominant standard language and signal their sociocultural and ideological position(s). Operating from the analytical framework of critical translation, I argue that such paratextual scaffolding is imbued with active choices, risks, and rewards for the increasingly multilingual writing population in U.S. universities and colleges.

Before delving deeper into the role of critical translation and paratexts in teaching writing, in what follows, I clarify the critical strands of translation studies I am working from and the specific terminology I am adopting. After elaborating my subjective positioning with respect to translation, I briefly outline some of the key features of my translation-centered pedagogy and then describe in more detail the specific assignment design that best exemplifies this pedagogy. In the rest of the article, I capture international and resident multilingual students’ complex negotiations of linguistic and rhetorical differences through analyzing their critical translations. I specifically explore how two multilingual students—Mateo, a gay Venezuelan-American male, and, Zahra, a cis gender Saudi Arabian female—reconstitute language standards while carefully weighing the risks and rewards of performing the hybridity of their identities and linguistic and cultural repertoires in collaboration with invested readers. As I further illustrate, centering critical translations and paratexts in the writing classroom as forms of translingual writing practice gives voice and visibility to the diversities of meanings, identifications, and experiences that matter the most to multilingual writers, and so works against racist perceptions of multilingual students’ abilities.

Unthinking and Rethinking Language and Translation

Western-based translation theories, which posit translation practice as the neutral, linear transfer of meaning from one discrete nameable language to another, are critiqued for unwittingly resting on structuralist assumptions about languages as stable, insular, and clearly defined entities. Lewis argues that the lack of “sharp boundaries typical of standardized languages” makes it impossible for translators to actually “enter into the symmetrical language relationships” (23) and produce the degrees of equivalence in meaning that characterize conventional understandings and practices of translation. Challenging a predominantly Western bias in translation studies, the emergence of what is commonly referred to as the “cultural turn” paved the way for more flexible and deeper conceptualizations of translation and engagements with its operation as a central human activity in the rest of the world.

This significant ideological move in translation studies brought with it a greater emphasis on the sociocultural and political dimensions of translation. This alternative position, which I am referring to here as “critical translation,” brought to light the difficulty of maintaining hackneyed old distinctions between author/translator, original/translation, source/target text or language, and writing/translating. Rather than being reduced to a mere transparent reproduction of an effect, purpose, or message, translation is viewed as “a social political, cultural, and ethical act, which, in the process of reconstituting its origin(al)s, leaves them other than what they were” (St-Pierre and Kar xiv). Under this critical reconsideration, translation both within and between languages becomes a form of writing, which brings with it growth, transformation and action—a new reading, a new writing in an entirely new context (Bassnett and Bush). According to Venuti, this critical stance urges that “translations be written, read, and evaluated with greater respect for linguistic and cultural differences” (6).

Based on new, expanded definitions of language as hybridized and always emergent, critical translation is closely connected to a translingual framework in composition studies whereby agentive practices of fashioning and refashioning dominant norms, values, and expectations are part and parcel of translingual writing. Translingual composition scholarship has argued at length for rethinking the nature of language(s) and the rules of language use in writing as imbued with historicity, locality, and movement while simultaneously recognizing the agency of the writers responsible for repeatedly producing the apparent regularities of language and its use in the first place (Canagarajah; Horner et al.).

Aligning with such transdisciplinary perspectives on language and translation, I adopt the construct of critical translation for its usefulness in signaling how translingual writing can disrupt a complex web of competing ideologies and asymmetrical power relationships among texts, contexts, conventions, writers, and readers. From this perspective, successfully securing uptake for translingual writing can be achieved through strategically “setting up structures of anticipation that guide others’ interpretation...., usually as a direct challenge to dominant interpretations” (Baker, Reframing 156; emphasis in original), discourses, and belief systems. Relatedly, I use the notion of paratexts to refer to the range of such “structures of anticipation”—prefaces, forewords, introductions, epilogues, footnotes, endnotes, glossaries, etc.—available for positioning and repositioning oneself, others, and the world.{2} I present paratexts not as peripheral textual products, merely supplementing a core text, but rather as legitimate, versatile spaces of authorial, linguistic and sociocultural negotiations, overtly contributing meaning and rhetorical effect (Batchelor). As I illustrate in the next section, bringing critical translation and paratextual practices into sharper focus as forms of translingual writing affords a fuller understanding of multilingual writers’ local linguistic negotiations and complex decision-making.

Critical Translation in Translingual and Anti-Racist Writing Pedagogy: An Extended Example

My investment in critical translation grew out of lived experiences. My background as an international graduate student who moved to the United States from Lebanon afforded me useful insights into the complexity of crossing real or imagined borders of language, nation, and culture. Like Mateo, Zahra, and the rest of my multilingual FYW students, I’ve had to strategically negotiate—to varying degrees of success and failure—the demands of Standard English on writing practice while shuttling across diverse language resources and their norms for communication, namely colloquial Lebanese Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and French. Given the dominance of a standard language ideology in global academic knowledge production and reception, a significant part of my current labor as a multilingual US-based teacher-scholar, writer, and translator still involves weighing the risks and rewards of the micro-level choices I deliberately make in my own writing and research practices, including those involved in producing the article you are now reading. The fact that unequal language and literate exchanges continue to have tangible effects on the concrete labor and negotiations of multilingual writers from all walks of life is a powerful reminder that the politics of translation across language practices, texts, ideologies, and spaces deserve more of our attention in teaching writing along translingual and equity-oriented lines.

Mateo and Zahra were enrolled in separate mainstream FYW course sections during Fall 2016 and Summer 2019 respectively.{3} The section offered in Fall 2016 consisted of twenty-three students: fourteen identified as belonging to the sociocultural mainstream and reported having varying degrees of competence in a “foreign” language, mainly French or Spanish; and nine were generation 1.5 students from various native-language backgrounds, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Mandarin Chinese. In the Summer 2019 section, international and resident multilingual students constituted the overwhelming majority and represented a range of linguistic and cultural groups. Of the seventeen students enrolled, only four were from American-born White families. One was of Indian descent, one of Russian descent, another of Japanese descent, three of Korean descent, and one identified as a Chinese immigrant. Aside from Zahraa, there were five international students from China.

The pedagogy I adopted in these courses explicitly operated from the key principles of translingualism: promoting linguistic pluralism, acknowledging the negotiability of dominant norms of language and rhetoric, and fully recognizing the agency of student writers over standardized forms and meanings in their writing. In aid of these principles, I divided up course work into two interrelated themes, “Writing across Difference” and “An Investigation of Translation”. Due to space constraints, I limit myself here to a description of how the design of the second theme scaffolded the particular critical translation assignment sequence I directly draw on in this article. I offered elsewhere a more elaborate description of how this pedagogical initiative emerged, how students perceived its effectiveness, the specific curriculum I developed (readings, discussion topics, individual and group writing projects and activities, etc.), and some of the challenges that I and my students faced while implementing it (147-152).

To help realize the critical conception of translation underpinning the second theme, the first half of the class was aimed at sensitizing students to the heterogeneity of written English conventions and the value of situationally negotiating such heterogeneity for their learning and development as writers. We discussed various texts which openly declared their difference in the form of paratextual commentary, some of which I used in this article’s introduction and conclusion. For example, Anzaldúa’s essay and the entire preface to her book (excerpts of which I included earlier) formed the centerpieces of discussions on how such paratextual mediations demonstrate that hybridized texts are not created equally. This also fostered conversations about how such unconventional texts should be understood as indelibly tied to the complex positionings of their writers in relation to the concrete sociopolitical realities they choose to either succumb to or actively resist and reconstruct. Our discussions of similar texts and the positions and functions of their paratextual framings in the first unit were the real points of entry into the strategic negotiation of readers’ uptake of written texts. These deliberations allowed students to start envisioning their and others’ practices with language and writing as mobilizing readers’ uptake, rather than bounded by the inarguable conventions of academic English discourse.

Most of our conversations in the second unit revolved around the normality and ubiquity of translation within students’ local sociolinguistic realities, particularly the indigenous languages inscribed on the walls of their library and an adjacent Starbucks coffee shop, the codemeshing on public signage and restaurant menus in their campus neighborhood, and the multilingualism in textual artifacts placed in the hallways of their dorms or department buildings. In these discussions, we explored the difficult yet necessary labor of producing and interpreting translations within and across English and other languages. For their first group translation project, I asked students to revisit Anzaldúa’s text from their first unit and write another version of select passages in which they deliberately excluded one of its discursive features (e.g. research and argument-based writing, poetry, reportorial prose, autobiographical narratives, community speech practices and anecdotes, etc.). In a short essay, they compared the effects of their rewrites to the class’s interpretation of Anzaldúa’s work while considering what differences in content, style, form, and purpose seemed to result from excluding one of these discursive practices.

As part of a second project, students transitioned into the labor of negotiating language and cultural difference. This project offered first-hand experiences of translating select Spanish/Spanglish sections into Standard English while remaining mindful of Anzaldúa’s complex arguments about ethnolinguistic identity, gender/sexuality, and power relations in the migrating cultures of the mestiza/o diaspora. Students worked in small groups with at least one member having some degree of familiarity with or competence in Spanish. For their Spanish-English translations, students were encouraged to consult both bilingual and English dictionaries, tap into available language brokers inside and/or outside class (high school or college Spanish teachers, Spanish-speaking relatives, Spanglish speakers, etc.), and, when necessary, utilize Spanish language textbooks they possessed or borrowed from their campus/neighborhood library. Engaging students in critical explorations of the potential uses and limitations of particular language choices and practices, I asked them to reflect on what their collaborative labor of translation suggested about the specific meanings and relations from a borderlands perspective, which get excluded through the process of translating out of marginalized languages and varieties into a hegemonic language like Standard English. Brief oral presentations of each group’s work led to invigorating conversations on the effects of linguistic racism on experiences of bi-/multi-lingualism in academic written discourse. These two interconnected translation projects allowed students the opportunity to begin to see translation as “re-writing” and gain a deeper awareness of how, under what conditions, to what ends, and toward what effects academic writers choose to adopt specific language and writing practices and not others. After being acquainted to a range of linguistic and discursive options they can experiment with in their writing, students were ready to attempt critical translations of their own work through the assignment sequence I discuss below.

For the first assignment in this sequence, I asked students to re-read and annotate existing texts they had written early in the course while identifying particular moments where they adopted inauthentic writerly personae or felt the suppression of their linguistic and cultural identities by dominant conventions of English usage. Here, an important source of reading became students’ own writing. In a follow-up assignment, I invited students to craft their critical translations, demonstrating alternative ways of rewriting the instances they identified in the previous assignment while preserving the linguistic and cultural identities and resources they felt mattered to them. For the final assignment, students wrote a reflection statement in which they explored: i) reasons for rewriting specific textual materials while deliberately leaving out others; ii) the parts of their critical translations they chose to elaborate on for the sake of negotiation and mutual intelligibility; iii) the parts, if any, they expected readers to grapple with and why; iv) the specific nature of the ideological, political, and sociocultural (re)positionings informing all these rhetorical decisions; v) and finally, the discursive spaces they chose to carve out to signal these desired (re)positionings to potential readers, especially those with conventional dispositions toward language and its proper use in writing. Table 1 offers a summary of the steps involved in this assignment sequence:

Table 1. Critical translation assignment sequence.


Identifying textual material for translation (single or multiple words, phrases, sentences, or sections); Setting translation goals


Crafting critical translations; Making necessary translation choices in alignment with set goals


Specifying micro-level decisions and their implications; Reflecting on specific (ideological, material, linguistic, and/or sociocultural) conditions for producing and interpreting the translation; Reconnecting translation to reader expectations through paratexts

This critical translation sequence served several interrelated goals. First, it allowed students to revisit previous writings in which they did not sound like themselves and explore alternative ways of translating those in more critical ways to better foreground their authorial presence and intentionality. Second, it provided students a way of reflecting on their particular micro-level negotiations and ensuing decisions as having a range of effects on diverse readers who do not necessarily share their own language practices or the same academic writing expectations. Third, it uniquely placed students in positions of agency and meaningful control through introducing paratexts as useful sites for interrogating and negotiating dominant standards of language correctness and appropriateness.

In the sections below, I present the critical translations of Mateo and Zahraa in response to this assignment sequence. When taking my course, Mateo was majoring in linguistics. His complex ethnolinguistic identity ignited an interest in exploring South America’s remarkable linguistic and ethnocultural diversity. After moving from Venezuela to the U.S. at the age of 4, Matoe lived in various parts of the country before settling in the Pacific Northwest region. Zahraa had just moved to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia and was studying civil engineering and minoring in mathematics. In my analysis of Mateo and Zahraa’s work, I mainly draw from the insights into critical points of decision-making they shared and elaborated on in their final reflection statement.

Mateo’s Translation: In Praise of Difference

Taking pride in his sociocultural identity, Mateo reminded me and his peers that he was “a gay man of color in this class” by constantly weaving that expression into his writings, oral presentations, and class discussions. In response to the second part of this assignment sequence, Mateo chose to rewrite the English-only introductory paragraph of a language autoethnography he composed for the first course theme and produced a critical translation that was densely packed with code-meshing:

Critical Translation
Nací en Caracas, Venezuela, y todas mis memorias más tempranas existen exclusivamente en español. Viviendo en los Estados Unidos, todavía hablaba español en la casa, pero el mundo exterior me estaba forzando a hablar English. This new language was overwhelming and everywhere—despite the fact that home was familiar, everything else was foreign, and oddly enough I absolutely loved it. I dove into learning English as fully as possible, y desafortunadamente me olvide de continuar a enfocar me en el español. En la escuela siempre tenía que tomar una clase de español, simplemente porque no quería perder mi lengua maternal mientras que aprendía otras—cuando minha familia se mudo a Brasil eu tuve o mesmo desafio. Amei o Portugués, e atentei de aprender lo con tudo meu coracao, mais no podía dechar que esta nova lingua borraria meu español. So many languages in so many new places—it was a challenge to keep everything aligned in my head, and over time I lost a lot of my lexicon in Portuguese because of disuse, but I refused to let Spanish slip away. Nunca dejaré que se desaparezca el español de mi mente.

As he described in his reflection statement, Mateo deliberately introduced code-meshing practices into his critical translation to capture his lived experiences with language pluralism. After considering various ways of translating his work, Mateo composed in all the language resources in his repertoire—i.e., English as the second language he struggled to learn after moving to the U.S.; his home language Spanish, which connected him to his cultural roots and hometown of Caracas, Venezuela; and the smattering of Portuguese he picked up during his brief sojourn in São Paolo, Brazil.

Mateo’s opening two sentences in his translation established a back and forth movement between Spanish and English as a way to emphasize the continuity of grappling with language difference, which set the stage for the piece’s central motif of colliding language affiliations and orientations. In the fourth sentence (“I dove... español”), the use of Spanish text, though not translated, assisted the English text surrounding it in making his point about the pressures of striking a balance between a preoccupation with access to English academic literacies and an ongoing desire to preserve and mobilize Spanish. The subsequent Spanish and Portuguese text in the fifth and sixth sentences along with the English text in the seventh sentence summoned memories of long and painstaking processes of language learning as Mateo traveled across various moments, stages, and geographical realities in his literate life. This progression set up the translated paragraph for the concluding statement, which circled back to references about the imposition of English in public and educational landscapes of American society he made in the opening statement, and asserted Mateo’s resistance to the subtractive effects of linguistic and racial hierarchies. The final Spanish statement allowed Mateo to shift the tone of the entire section from personal reflection and narration to a more confrontational claim-based language usage in which he firmly declared his insistence on marshaling his Spanish-language abilities and literacies. Taken in its entirety, Mateo’s translation treated his Portuguese, Spanish, and English as intertwined and interstitched.

Requiring a labor-intensive reading, Mateo’s critical translation did not stand alone. In fact, Mateo provided a short introduction to supplement his critical translation and prepare a less tolerant readership for the misunderstanding and difficulty that awaited:

This is the story of me, [Mateo]. I intend with it to put my life into words, and a great deal of the words I use are in languages other than English. I am not a native English speaker, and recreating my tale exclusively in a foreign tongue would be an injustice both to myself and to anyone who truly wishes to understand me. Spanish and Portuguese are major parts of my identity, and if you do not comprehend them, a significant amount of the story will be lost, so I encourage anyone interested to make an effort. I understand not everyone will be willing to make that effort. I have never been brave enough to ask anything of my readers, but to accomplish what I hope to with my writing, demanding compromise will be necessary. Who I am is not going to be easily understood by everyone, but that does not mean I should change who I am. If you wish to see me as I am, this is your chance. There are plenty of ways to translate the text into something more tenable for you . . . but ideally a reader would consume the words exactly as I wrote them. Otherwise, something will inevitably be lost in the shift. If there is a gap between you and I, then this is your opportunity to cross it; I am inviting you to do so if understanding is truly your intent . . . I will set up a landing platform for you, but the bridge-building is your responsibility. Getting to the island of my identity was not an easy struggle, and I will not give up ground.

Operating from a language and social justice perspective, Mateo composed a translation which required a serious engagement from readers and forced them to step back and focus on the diverse voices and experiences within and around his written text. He directly and forcefully addressed his readers through using the second-person singular/plural pronoun (“If you wish... this is your chance;” “...this is your opportunity to cross...;” “I am inviting you...if understanding is truly your intent;” “...the bridge-building is your responsibility”). Rather than relieving his readers from the responsibility they had to shoulder, Mateo deliberately chose not to provide translations of his non-English usages even at the risk of incomprehensibility.

As Mateo made clear in his paratextual intervention, a sense of inequality characterized the very fabric of his translation, thereby paralleling his lived experiences of Latino marginalization and queer invisibility. This decision signaled for some privileged readers that they too needed to experience the struggle of crossing socially-imposed boundaries, an experience that is a normal part of the everyday literate life and labor of queered multilingual individuals of color like himself. In this sense, Mateo’s translation emerges from the real material contexts and effects of the raciolinguistic ideologies and heteronormative injustices he continues to be subjected to in school and society at large as a gay Latino American male. Following this line of thinking, how valid or even possible readers’ understandings and interpretations of Mateo’s translation might be is beside the point. In fact, Mateo intended for this threshold through which readers could enter his translation—i.e. the paratext to his translation—to influence not what they got out of it but rather how they engaged with it, i.e. with an expectation for difference, uncertainty, and confusion, or what one might characterize as translingual-oriented dispositions and habits of mind.

Zahraa’s Translation: Broadening Rhetorical Conventions

Zahraa repeatedly expressed in one-on-one exchanges her mixed emotions of pride and disappointment that she was the only female among the growing Saudi Arabian international student population on campus. Zahraa’s language autoethnography served as a space for making visible some of the complexities of her female subjectivity and experiences. She elaborately described her deep passion for reading and creativity and her future plans to attend law school. In doing so, she pinpointed the artificiality of a performed self in the STEM field and lamented how her true desire to pursue creative writing or international humanitarian law would be met with emphatic parental and social disapproval. Zahraa emphasized the prominent role that male language and literacy brokers—like her grandfather, “the most influential man in [her] life”, and her father—played in introducing her to “different forms of media, art, and literature.” She recalled sitting “on her granpa’s lap” in his vast library, discussing “the works of some of the most notable poets in Arab and Islamic history.” Sinking into his big leather chair, as Zahraa vividly described in her language autoethnography, her grandfather constantly recited the poetry of medieval and pre-Islamic Arab poets like Ibn al-Rumi and Imru’ al-Qays to her with great eloquence and pride. Her father, on the other hand, “planted a love for the theater” in her through frequently taking her to musicals and playing their songs in the car. Their utmost favorite was Les Misérables.

For her critical translation assignment, Zahraa chose to revisit the language autoethnography assignment she wrote at the beginning of course. A language autoethnography was an unfamiliar genre and unlike any of the writing Zahraa had done throughout her education in Saudi Arabia, writing which primarily adhered to a fixed structure. As she stated in her writing, she had never before been encouraged to “share [her] story boundlessly” and get “completely immersed into the power of language and culture and self identity.” For the first draft of her autoethnography, she had received written comments from me and a peer review partner, pushing her to unpack the complexity behind her choice of the unconventional third-person voice when tracing her own language learning processes.

The language autoethnography Zahraa had composed was a series of disassociated episodes situated in past eras. With the use of the third-personal pronouns “she” and “her” throughout her work, Zahraa’s authorial presence took on a new identity, that of a distanced narrator. It was as if she wanted readers to enter her personal essay the way she had done as a frequent viewer of Victor Hugo’s theatricals. Zahraa repeated the following two lines throughout her autoethnography: “She danced with Degas” (alluding to the French impressionist Edgar Degas) and “She fought alongside 24601 in the Paris Uprising” (in reference to Hugo’s protagonist Jean Valjean (prisoner 24601)). This was her way of indicating that she was one of the leading characters in her personal writing who was “constantly traveling to” the worlds of art, music, and literature that the influential men in her life had exposed her to. Aside from Jo March of Alcott’s Little Women and Celia from Morgenstern’s Le Cirque des Rêve, all of Zahraa’s references were to male figures who captivated her in some way. As my progressive feminist perspective came in contact with Zahraa’s evolving sense of femininity, I pointed out in written feedback and conferencing sessions how I sensed that male gazing shaped her narrative in the way the representations of female bodies and identities by the several male protagonists, artists, and poets she repeatedly cited and idolized were left unquestioned.

Unlike Mateo who wrote an entirely new translation while openly traversing clearly demarcated language boundaries, Zahraa decided not to craft a critical translation and maintained the original choices she had made in her language autoethnography. However, she provided a separate prologue, in which she interacted with skeptical readers like myself and one of her classmates. She actively defended a writing style and language usage which uniquely enabled her to construct new social relations she felt were unsanctioned by her native Saudi Arabian culture:

I am a Middle Eastern girl from Saudi Arabia studying engineering all the way across the world in a predominantly white country. I grew up hearing different ideas on how a woman should behave. Those with a more progressive mindset believed that a women [sic] were capable of achieving greatness independently, others lived in the past and believed that a woman’s education should be limited to home economics, then of course, there were the in-betweeners who encouraged women’s strength but not too much. Growing up in such a mixed society made self-identification a conflicting task. I questioned my interests, my hobbies, my thoughts. I didn’t trust my own personality. Through all this uncertainty, the arts were my escape, the one thing that gave me clarity on who I am.

In a world of dual languages, each completely different with its own set of rules and structures, I found beauty in the in between. The arts didn’t belong to a certain language, no matter what tongue you spoke, you could never miss the beauty of a theatrical musical or a good novel. I found comfort in a world that accepted everyone, every nationality, religion and gender. To me, language isn’t about grammar and structure, it’s about communicating with people through a means that admires creativity and inclusion.

For this essay, I chose to use the third person narrative for that exact reason: inclusion. Although reading about someone’s experience can be beautiful and insightful, it often feels distant. Yes, this essay is about me; however, it could be any Middle Eastern woman. I wanted these women to be able to apply their own experiences to my writing and feel as though they could connect to it directly without a barrier coming in between.

Zahraa’s mediative paratextual presence served to reassure her readers that she was aware that her unusual pronoun usage might hinder their reading experience and meaning-making. As she explained in the third paragraph of her prologue, she intended to problematize the conventional relationship between reader, writer, and personal writing genres. Her primary goal was to include and represent the voices of young educated Saudi women and other Middle Eastern women who continue to negotiate their independence and mobility with an ethic of social, and especially familial, responsibility. With third person narration, according to Zahraa, there was leeway in her autoethnography for her female readers to bring their own experiences into the text, an option the standardized usage of first-person pronouns did not make possible. Her seemingly unnatural choice of third-person accounts in a personal essay allowed her to cast her potential readers as co-creators of her writing and make them think of their own histories and experiences, especially those of emotional, intellectual, physical or spiritual confinement and restraint. In fact, her personal narrative was not to be viewed as fixed, for it revealed something new with each female reader and each critical feminist reading. While adopting the first-person voice would have been the more correct option, Zahraa’s choice of third-person singular pronouns foregrounded the interconnectedness between reading, writing, and text.

Re-viewing her previous writing more reflexively, Zahraa paid close attention in her reflective statement to how gender politics operated in her original writing and to why readers like myself and her classmate were probing her to examine how her femininity was not only repressed in her writing but also projected onto the many writers, artists, and characters she cited from the novels she read or the musicals she attended. Interestingly, despite obvious geographic, temporal, and racial disparities, Zahraa compared her writerly self in her reflection statement to the daring character of Jo March in Little Women, thereby representing the modern Saudi woman “whose mind was progressing faster than her society would allow her to.” Given her determination and willingness to put Saudi Arabian social norms and her own family socialization practices on display, Zahraa managed to subtly change the balance of power to her own advantage. As she described in her reflection, the practice of carefully weighing the rhetorical effectiveness and impact of her stylistic and linguistic choices brought out in her, “the person’s who[’d] been hiding in the dark this entire time.” As she explained, though she had set her autoethnography in a historical and sociocultural context which suppressed Arabic women’s voices, her paratextual contribution offered a discursive space for re-asserting her own identity as a young Saudi Arabian woman who challenged female subservience and conformity. By passing these stories through the matrix of her own linguistic and cultural repertoire, she created a language autoethnography with a content and writing style which were shaped by the heterogeneity of her experience of Saudi Arabia and the world. As she put it, negotiating the politics of sociocultural and linguistic difference in this critical translation assignment sequence “transformed [her] version of reality” and helped her become more critical of patriarchal societies in the Arab world and their implications for young women like her.

As seen in this section, a focus on the critical translation choices that multilingual writers like Mateo and Zahraa made and the complex negotiations with readers they displayed in paratexts encouraged them to start seeing and seeking connections between their own academic work and lived realities. Similar critical translation activities can offer multilingual students the space to further operationalize their evolving linguistic, racial, ethnic, classed, gendered, and sexual identities and voices. Multilingual students need pedagogical spaces to recognize the translational nature of their own texts. They further need to claim agency in commenting on them and the modes of their production and reception through paratextual spaces—not as mere complementary additions to actual texts, but rather as autonomous translations in their own right. In this way, multilingual students can become more cognizant of how their language and word choices, sentence structures, and rhetorical patterns may be conditioned by diverse and sometimes competing ideologies and discourses from several directions, namely past or current academic learning experiences, external repositories of knowledge (e.g. dictionaries, lexicons, search engines, machine translation), and various informal language and literacy brokers (e.g. peers, friends, family members, local community). Through keeping power imbalances in negotiations of language and sociocultural difference constantly in check rather than in place, translingual writing pedagogies built around critical translations and paratextuality can offer possibilities for meaningful and healthy engagements with anti-hegemonic ways of knowing, doing, and being in the writing classroom.

Found in Critical Translation

I haven’t read any other book which begins in this way. It is your first impression of me as a writer, so it is important. The reason I have dared to use such an unconventional opening is that all these questions about my identity as a writer, about you as readers and about the impression you will form of me are the topic of this book: I can justify this introduction on the grounds that I am trying to introduce you to my topic in a vivid way. But I would go further than that: I am doing explicitly here what is usually left implicit or, at best, relegated to the edges of the book itself.
(Ivanič 2)
I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my own townsmen concerning my mode of like, which some would call impertinent, but considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent.... I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I undertake to answer some of these questions in this book. In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience....
(Thoreau 1-2)

My goal in this article is to bring critical translation and the dynamic role accorded paratextuality within it to the attention of U.S. writing teacher-scholars in their ongoing understandings and implementations of translingualism. In fact, an intensified and sustained focus on critical translation and its paratexts can afford much-needed opportunities for stronger connections between translingualism and anti-racist work in order to best enact the kind of social justice-oriented change in U.S. composition that this special issue advances. As we continue reworking our analysis and critique of the workings of language and identity within local-global networks of power, Keith Gilyard cautions against a general tendency toward a totalizing “sameness-of-difference model” (286). As Gilyard asserts, writers and language users “don’t all the same way” (286) and are not analogous in their performances of translingual orientations. We, therefore, need a deeper understanding of the burdensome labor of critical translation in academic writing in which our multilingual students continue to invest, knowingly or not, their linguistically and ethnically imprinted, raced, classed, gendered, and sexualized selves and desires.

This brings me to the two writers depicted in the epigraph to this section. Entering into a give-and-take dynamic with readers, British new literacy studies scholar Roz Ivanič negotiates the acceptability of the unconventional opening to her widely cited book Writing and Identity, which blends autoethnographic writing into rigorous ethnographic research and analysis. Classic American writer Henry David Thoreau makes deals about his deliberate use of the first-person singular pronoun ‘I’ in his masterpiece Walden, thereby parting ways with the conventions and practices of nineteenth-century written discourse. I present here the paratexts from these mainstream works in order to pinpoint that the same issues of critical translation I’ve been discussing so far in the writings of linguistically, ethnically, and racially minoritized writers cannot be completely eliminated even when no translation or difference is assumed to be involved, at least not openly. This is not to suggest that white writers like Ivanič and Thoreau—whose language practices in writing inevitably reflect difference and variation—have experienced, if at all, the serious material consequences of negotiating such difference on their bodies, identities, and linguistic expressions in the same way and to the same degree non-white writers have. Nor is this to say that their paratextual interventions work toward dismantling the dominance of whiteness and ensuing native English-speaker norms in academic discourse the way we’ve seen with snippets from Anzaldúa’s and Parakrama’s work. However, as a corrective to the potential leveling and erasure of difference in translingual writing pedagogies that Gilyard astutely brings to our attention, as writing teachers dedicated to projects of social justice and change, we need to encourage students to critically investigate exactly this disparate impact of difference on the literate lives and labor of white writers and writers of color. We can start by exploring along with multilingual students the individualistic and racially-informed practices and experiences of writers from diverse subject positions and the types of observable and tacit engagements with difference and critical translation we can find in their texts.

The normalcy and productivity of critical translation—whether within or across English—as I have suggested elsewhere, is not usually held at the forefront of multilingual students’ consciousness nor brought to their direct attention in the academic English writing classroom. Paratexts as “consciously crafted threshold[s]” (Batchelor 142) stamped with individual and collective histories and identities can, therefore, serve the purpose of introducing multilingual students to the possibility of strategically negotiating better receptions for texts largely produced in and through difference and initiating “a new kind of reading” (Trimbur 220), a translingual-oriented reading in which the distinctions between critical (re)reading, (re)writing, and (re)translating necessarily collapse. Of course, sometimes the absence of any translatorial paratext is also quite telling and worth examining in collaboration with students, particularly in relation to questions of power, agency, voice, genre, and uptake. This would be a worthwhile and illuminating endeavor to pursue in the translingual writing classroom in order to help multilingual students, as I illustrated, develop a critical stance toward the dominant ideologies, discourses, and practices circulating around and among them in diverse writing spaces. From this perspective, our multilingual students’ ultimate task—not so different from that of professional translators, interpreters, editors, and writers—would be to make deliberate, accountable choices in their academic work that will enable them to enter, intercept, and even disrupt the global traffic of meanings, worldviews, and belief systems, and as such, elaborate and make way for the more equitable, peaceful, and localized subtraffics of their social futures.

In this article, I demonstrated some of the usefulness of paratexts in the making of translations as critical sites for interrogating and intervening with the dominant monolingual discourses and norms that dictate the production and reception of academic written work. I invite my readers to join me in extending this work to digital contexts and in systematically exploring the multiple modalities and functions of translingual interventions in working across and through difference both within and beyond the bounds of the academy.


  1. If you as a reader are unfamiliar with this term and this worries you, please look it up, check it out, research it, spend time discovering what it is, feeling just a little annoyed (and I hope abashed too), just as you would when looking up an obscure Old English word or an unfamiliar White-English expression. When we are able to treat all such words as equal, irrespective of their origin, then we have begun travelling the impossible road to addressing linguistic inequality. (Return to text.)

  2. The range of devices available for signaling and effecting such (re)configuration of positionalities is open-ended (Baker, Translation). In fact, such (re)positioning can also be realized within written texts, but this article solely focuses on paratextual commentary. (Return to text.)

  3. The student names are pseudonyms. (Return to text.)

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Baker, Mona. Reframing Conflict in Translation. Social Semiotics, vol. 17, no. 2, 2007, pp. 151-69.

---. Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account. Routledge, 2006.

Bassnett, Susan, and Peter Bush, editors. The Translator as Writer. Continuum, 2007.

Batchelor, Kathryn. Translation and Paratexts. Routledge, 2018.

Bou Ayash, Nancy. Toward Translingual Realities in Composition: (Re)working Local Language Representations and Practices. Utah State UP, 2019.

Canagarajah, Suresh. Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. Routledge, 2013.

Conference on College Composition and Communication. Students’ Right to their Own Language. NCTE, 1974, Accessed 23 April 2020.

Gilyard, Keith. The Rhetoric of Translingualism. College English, vol. 78, no. 3, 2016, pp. 284-289.

Horner, Bruce, and Laura Tetreault, editors. Crossing Divides: Exploring Translingual Writing Pedagogies and Programs. Utah State UP, 2017.

---. Translation as (Global) Writing. Composition Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, 2016, pp. 13-30.

Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Royster, and John Trimbur. Language Difference: Toward a Translingual Approach. College English, vol. 73, no. 3, 2011, pp. 299-317.

Inoue, Asao. Writing Assessment as the Condition for Translingual Approaches. Horner and Tetreault, pp. 119-34.

Ivanič, Roz. Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. John Benjamins, 1998.

Lewis, Anthony. Language and Translation: Contesting Conventions. St-Pierre and Kar, pp. 15-24.

MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. Profession, vol. 12, 2007, pp. 234-45.

Motha, Suhanthie. Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching: Creating Responsible and Ethical Anti-Racist Practice. Teachers College Press, 2014.

Parakrama, Arjuna. Foreword. Unequal Englishes: The Politics of Englishes Today, edited by Ruanni Tupas, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

St-Pierre, Paul, and Prafulla Kar, editors. Translation: Reflections, Refractions, Transformations. John Benjamins, 2005

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, or Life in the Woods. Thomas Y. Crowell and Co., 1910.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. Routledge, 1998.

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