Reflections on Migration and Displacement

A short talk given at the University of Glasgow Migration seminar, May 2019 by Professor Susan Bassnett.

What do we understand by the word ‘migration’?

In the last few years we have witnessed a terminological shift: where once we talked about ‘emigration’, meaning the act of leaving one’s country and ‘immigration’, meaning the act of arriving in a new country, now ‘migration’ is the term in general use.  The meaning of the word ‘migrant’ has also shifted, becoming more highly charged with emotion, used both as a term to elicit sympathy, (eg often used as a synonym for refugee) or as a term of abuse. Such changes in terminology are never innocent, they are never purely linguistic, for there is always an ideological dimension that lies beneath the language.  We need only think of the shift when the adjective ‘economic’ is added to the word ‘migrant’ to recognise that this is not an innocent term.  I don’t recall hearing about ‘economic emigrants/immigrants’, since the economic dimension was always a given and not perceived as anything negative. Emigrants were people who set off in search of a better life, people who became immigrants when they landed in another country and began to forge that new life for themselves.

In southern Sweden there is the Utvandrarnas Hus, the Emigration Museum at Vaxjo which tells the story of the millions of Swedes who emigrated to avoid starvation between 1846 and 1930. The Swedish writer, Wilhelm Moberg’s sequence of four novels, The Emigrants (1949-59) tells the story of people struggling to escape from the poverty at home by heading out across the Atlantic, while the Norwegian Johan Bojer also wrote a novel entitled The Emigrants (1925), following on from The Great Hunger (1916). Both these novelists wrote about the appalling, grinding poverty that drove these Nordic peoples to emigrate in hopes of a better future. Today, in the twenty-twenty-first century, we need reminding that these two wealthy Northern European countries with their highly developed social service networks were two of the poorest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the little museum in Karlskrona, near where I used to spend holidays with my family we saw an exhibition about nineteenth century Swedish stone cutters: the streets of Europe’s capital cities were paved with stone hewn by hand from Swedish and Norwegian rocks by men working on the brink of starvation.

In the summer of 2019 my daughter was married in Northern Ireland. The reception was in a lovely hotel by the sea on the Antrim coast- on what came to be known as the Hunger Road, since it was a project devised by Anne Vane, Marchioness of Londonderry to provide work to men with starving families during the potato famine. At Carncough there is the (in)famous famine stone, with an inscription commemorating this. A sentence that has been defaced once read ‘An imperishable memorial of Ireland’s affliction and England’s generosity in the year 1846-47.’ That such ‘generosity’ was highly questionable is the reason why the stone has been defaced.

And across the Atlantic there is another memorial, this one on Cape Cod to commemorate the 99 Irish men, women and children who died in 1849 when the little boat, the St John, carrying them from Galway to Boston went down so close to the shore that would-be rescuers had to stand by and watch them drown. Henry David Thoreau, who found himself on the Cape just after the tragedy was deeply moved and his story, ‘The Shipwreck’ is based on that event: to have escaped the famine and to die just off the beaches of the promised land touched him profoundly.

There is a new emigration museum in Dublin that opened in 2016 and emigration museums are opening across Europe (e.g., the Gdynia museum in Poland) because the history of Europe is a history of emigration, and this is reflected in our literature. In the US, Canada and Australia, the literature also reflects the history of immigration- I think of Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather, Michael Ondaatje, Christos Tsiolkus, my mother’s favourite book, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and more recently the wave of Chinese-American novels, of which probably Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1975) is the most famous. As Salman Rushdie put it, American literature is immigrant literature, and we could say the same of much of the literature of Australia too.

In 2011 the Irish writer Column McCann won the IMPAC Dublin prize for his book, Let the Great World Spin which also deals with the theme of migration. (I was one of the judges and will never forget the great roar from the Dublin audience when the announcement that a local man, albeit one resident in the United States, was made). In 2016 the son of immigrants from former Yugoslavia, Alec Patric won the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award for Black Rock White City.

But in so much of what we read in the media today the history of all that movement is missing: for some journalists and politicians it is as though migration were a twenty-first century phenomenon, something threatening the stability of world order as we have come to know it. This is absurd; indeed, the history of Europe, of Asia, of the Americas is a history of thousands of years of migration.  We need to adjust our minds to remember that history. The opening of museums and exhibitions dedicated to the history of migration feels like a step in a positive direction.

Homi Bhabha and in-betweenness

Homi K. Bhabha Wikimedia

The history of translation is also a story of migration, for when people move they take with them their languages, cultural practices, belief systems. Encounters with others inevitably involve translation. Over a quarter of century ago, in his essay ‘How Newness enters the World’ in The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha posited a theory of  ‘in-betweenness’ that involves ‘a new international space of discontinuous historical realities’ (1994: 217). Bhabha suggested that in-betweenness was a migrant or nomadic space of immense change and transformation, a place where identities have to be recreated in a climate of change and uncertainty, but which nevertheless can be a highly creative space.

What I welcome in Bhabha’s essay is that he makes the connection between migration and translation, and starts his essay quoting Walter Benjamin who said that ’translation passes through a continua of transformation, not abstract ideas of identity and similarity’. Translation involves transformation, and since no two languages are identical, it follows that no translation can be identical to the original from which it derives. Translation involves movement and change, and as the process of decoding a text and rephrasing it in another language takes place, so in that new linguistic context a text becomes something different, something new. Bhabha’s essay focusses on the idea of translation as transformation, but also points out the ambivalence of translation, which takes place in a space that he defines as a migrant, in-between space. The contradiction at the heart of translation is that although the translator may set out to bring a text constructed in one context into another as effectively as he or she can manage, nevertheless the very act of translating forces that translator to confront those aspects of a text that actively resist being translated. The task of the translator is therefore, in one sense, to engage with the problem of the untranslatable. For as Edward Sapir, the American linguist, has argued, no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached (1956: 79). Difference, then, is at the heart of translation, because sentences constructed in one language cannot be transposed in exactly the same way into another language, for what can be said in one language cannot simply be straitjacketed into another. Equivalence between languages is thus always a matter of negotiating the in-between.

A family migrating to western US in 1886. Marion Doss/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Bhabha deploys the terminology of translation to write about the phenomenon of ‘migrant culture’ which he sees as a translational phenomenon––a state in which meaning is constantly remade through encounters with other cultures. It is the opposite of historical colonialism, which involved reproducing an original culture somewhere else and mapping its political, social, ethical and aesthetic frameworks onto other cultures. Seeking a language with which to describe migrant culture, Bhabha uses in-between terms like ‘hybridity’, ‘liminality’ and ‘diversity’. The newness he highlights is a newness of a migrant or minority discourse brought about by what he calls ‘cultural translation’. The newness that enters the world comes about through encountering, challenging, interpreting, absorbing, juxtaposing, transposing, reformulating, forgetting, inventing, imagining––it comes about, in short, through the variegated, often conflicting activities and processes of translation. Through Bhabha’s ideas, by the mid-1990s, the term ‘translation had come to acquire a broad-based metaphoric significance in postcolonial writing as a term indicating movement, encounters between cultures and the hybridity of identity.

In an important essay entitled ‘Migration as Translation’, Doris Bachmann-Medick takes issue with Bhabha’s emphasis on in-betweenness and hybridity as a creative space and argues for a more empirically grounded and less metaphorical understanding of translation in migration contexts. She extends the discussion of migration as a form of translation, and draws attention to the asymmetrical relationships that exist in all forms of translation:

But dealing with differences via translation often means dealing with asymmetries, as the unequal conditions of global knowledge circulation reveal. In fact, in the global sphere we are facing a collision or convergence of different, asymmetrical, and hierarchical knowledge orders, which tend to marginalize “foreign” migrant knowledge and expertise (Bachmann-Medick, 2018:278).

Bachmann-Medick is right to point to the ambiguities and inequalities that characterise the global movement of texts and people. In the two decades that have passed since Bhabha wrote his essay, the world has changed radically and today attitudes towards migrants are far harsher than they were in the early 1990s. This point is developed in Siri Nergaard’s forthcoming book, Living in Translation. An Ambivalent Condition, in which she looks at the interconnections between translation and migration through the lens of someone who has existed between cultures for most of her adult life. Translation, as she sees it, is a condition that shapes the lives of millions of people who live in a state of cultural uncertainty.  Translation can indeed be a process through which cultures change and transform and which invites innovation, but it is also the locus of domination and assimilation. Nergaard sees migration as one of the most significant translation spaces in the world today and the figure of the migrant (who she refers to in the feminine throughout) is someone who lives in a condition of translation – she is translated and she translates herself, across geographical, linguistic, as well as cultural and mental borders, interacting with differences, negotiating between the known and the unknown, creating connections as well as separations. The migrant experiences hostility as well as hospitality, rejection as well as assimilation, loss as well as gain, and engages in variegated processes of negotiation and interaction with the most various outcomes: interpenetration, uncertainty, misunderstanding, hybridization, and incommensurability (Nergaard,2020:3).

A story of migration

Margo Glantz in Graz 1999 by Erna Pfeiffer, Wikimedia

Some years ago I was asked to translate a memoir by the Mexican writer Margo Glantz. The original title was Las genealogias, which I rendered as The Family Tree. It was a  very enjoyable task, and when I finished the translation, Margo ( who at that time was Mexican consul in London) came to stay for a weekend and insisted that I read the whole manuscript aloud to her, because she wanted to see if I had managed to capture its oral dimension. It is the story of her parents, who she interviewed over a period of many months and whose voices are those telling their stories. Her mother came from a middle-class Jewish family in Odessa, her father from a village in what is now Ukraine. After the Russian revolution they decide to emigrate, to join family already in Philadelphia. They travelled to Rotterdam  where they could take a ship to the New World, and Margo explains how they ended up in Mexico instead of New York or Buenos Aires, where their relatives had settled and where they were hoping to go:

I have a lovely period photo, sepia coloured, with all the characters in a row, and their gentle, trusting faces, photograph faces that nobody ever looks at now. They are the shif brider, the ship brothers, because besides blood brothers you can have all sorts of other kinds of brother and these are ship brothers. The photo was taken in Amsterdam, they’re all on their way to America, all Jews, some from Poland and some from Russia, and there’s a goy, a non-Jew, who is also a Pole but who looks exactly like all the others, his expression is the same as all the rest of them.

The Dutch ship Spaardam- boarded in Rotterdam- is virtually a ghetto. Some of the companions are going to the United States, others will get off at Cuba, still others will travel on to Mexico. One will be lost in the countryside, another will go back to Russia, one will go on to Israel, another will end up in Australia (Glantz, 1981:58-59).

When the ship reaches Cuba, the emigrants wait for permits to enter the United States- but find that the regulations have changed and they are no longer welcome there. Now they have to take whatever they can get, and although they know nothing about Mexico, they decide that landing there is probably the best option:

Spaarndam, Steamboat, 1890, Wikimedia

They were allowed to disembark at Veracruz with no visas and with nothing apart from some money lent them by the Dutch ship’s purser. The ship was carrying one hundred and fifty immigrants. The chief officer lent them 200 dollars go through customs, dollars that had to be returned immediately so that he could lend them to other passengers who had no money either. My parents landed at Veracruz on 14 May, 1925. Next day they went by train to Mexico City.

And that rather lengthy story explains how I come to be a citizen of Mexico. (Glantz,1981:60).

Margo’s parents’ story is typical of the randomness of migrant experience; choosing – or forced- to leave their homes, driven on by dreams of escaping to a new life somewhere else, migrants often find themselves carried by circumstance in different directions. We have seen so many images on our television screens in the last few years of migrants trying to reach ‘Europe’, making perilous journeys over land and sea to get to a place that has an almost mythical significance. Yet what they find when they arrive is that Europe is not a homogeneous entity but a collection of very different nation states, with different languages, cultures and very different ways of dealing with new arrivals. Some offer hospitality, but others erect borders, both physical and psychological. Nergaard sums up the inherent tensions in the contemporary world and its attitude towards migrants:

The territorial, political, juridical, and economic exclusion of migrants – of the other – is a phenomenon we find in many societies throughout history, but the vision of the migrant as a “failed citizen” from a modern nation–state perspective based on social stasis is probably what has most influenced and determined the present situation. The migrant appears to be ahistorical from the perspective of the state, a being that can legitimately be socially excluded and physically expelled. The nation–state is built on ideals of homogeneity and uniformity inside clearly determined and fixed borders (Nergaard, 2020).

Postscript

When I was putting together notes for this presentation, my son came round, and we talked about why the topic of migrations is becoming so important. He is an archaeologist, and when I said that the history of Europe is a history of migration he corrected me, and said no Mum, the history of everywhere is a history of migration. To prove his point, he showed me some new research into Neolithic burials near Stonehenge, which DNA analysis traces to origins somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thousands of years ago, societies were changing as tribes migrated, peoples about whom we know almost nothing except that they moved in some cases across great geographical spaces; the history of civilisation is effectively, a history of migration.

Somewhere in all our pasts there are migrants- maybe from centuries ago, or maybe just one generation away. We would all do well to reflect on this today.

Late Neolithic, 2400–2100 BC. This burial was found by in 1978 when excavating the ditch at Stonehenge by the northeast entrance. Photographed at the Salisbury Museum.

References

Bachmann-Medick, Doris  (20180 Migration as Translation, in Doris Bachmann-Medick and Jens Kugel eds. (2018)Migration. Changing Concepts, Critical Approaches Berlin and Boston:De Gruyter pp.273-293.

Bahbha, Homi (1994) The Location of Culture, London and New York:Routledge.

Glantz, Margo  (1981) The Family Tree transl. Susan Bassnett London:Serpent’s Tail.

Nergaard, Siri (2020, forthcoming) Living in Translation. An Ambivalent Condition London and New York:Routledge.

Sapir, Edward (1956) Culture, Language and Personality Berkeley:University of California Press.