Bilingual Readers and Bilingual Publishing: Made for Each Other?

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

As a bilingual publisher, we face the constant challenge of finding and cultivating bilingual readers. Read on if you are interested in problems of the bilingual publications market, but don’t forget to check out Tiptop Street’s own fine bilingual books.


Definition of the Transactional Theory of Literature

Bilingual readers are the true mainstay of bilingual publishing. As a press specializing in bilingual editions of important Russian literature, Tiptop Street is keenly interested in the bilingual market for literary works. However, considering that contemporary research on the bilingual literary market has been scarce, it is near-impossible to discuss with any great certainty the controversial phenomenon of the bilingual audience. Nevertheless, some clarity can be achieved. In the field of education, experts predict a rise in demand for bilingual books as more parents want their children to be proficient in more than one language in what is an increasingly multilingual world. Indeed, linguistic diversity is a fact of contemporary classrooms, and bilingualism is encouraged and promoted. However, the field of bilingual literary studies is yet to witness a similar urgency. “The fundamental concern is education, though legal rights run in second place. Aesthetic and cultural stimulation have hardly mattered yet,” comments Doris Sommer, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.[1]


The fact that there are more bilinguals (and multilinguals) today has not necessarily translated into more bilingual readers of serious literature. Biliteracy is chiefly a utilitarian project with a set of socio-political aims. This includes linguistic human rights (the right to one’s mother tongue, the right to use one’s language in administrative and judicial functions), national diversity (which aims to counter the hegemony of the monolingual nation-state), and social mobility (which includes equal employment prospects and socio-economic benefits). In the socio-political context, biliteracy has obvious advantages. In the aesthetic context, however, biliteracy is yet to assume such importance.


So, is the bilingual reader a will-o’-the-wisp, and is the bilingual publishing of aesthetically robust, non-pulp literature ultimately a Sisyphean enterprise? And what does all this mean for a small, independent bilingual publisher like Tiptop Street?

Bilingual Writing vs. Bilingual Reading: Do They Work Together?


In our previous post, we explored the poetics and politics of literary self-translation. We saw that a writer’s choice to self-translate may be stirred by aesthetic and political motivations. In order to grasp the tricky phenomenon of bilingual readership, we need to understand how a bilingual reader responds to the bilingual writer in the political and aesthetic contexts. Understanding this may enlighten us about the nature of the bilingual audience and about the needs and prospects of bilingual publishing.


The field of Language and Literacy Studies – the study of various linguistic and literacy practices that are current in today’s increasingly diverse communication landscape – can help us shed light on the questions that we are asking here. The literary scholar Louise Rosenblatt (NYU), one of the founders of the so-called “reader response” school of literary criticism, has proposed a “transactional theory of the literary work,” which holds that literary meaning is neither wholly determined by the literary text, nor comes entirely from the reader, but that both the reader and the text jointly determine the resultant meaning by way of a continuous “transaction” between the reader and the text.[2]


Rosenblatt argues that we should distinguish between two fundamental types of reading: efferent and aesthetic. Efferent reading is when one reads to be informed. In the bilingual context, the efferent text becomes, among other things, a portal to different worldviews and histories for the bilingual reader. Efferent reading is utilitarian and mostly confined to classrooms where multilingual education is a necessity.


Few readers would bother to expand their cultural horizon on their own by mastering a second language and plunging into bilingual books. More often than not, a shiver of touristy enthusiasm suffices. It is far cozier to visit Moscow to take a peek at Russian culture than to assimilate the Russian language, open a bilingual volume by a Russian poet, and appreciate the peculiar intricacies of another tongue, another culture. Regardless, in the context of bilingual book publishing, it is efferent readership that accounts for the major part of the reading audience.

Coming to aesthetic reading response to a bilingual text, it is important to ask: how does the creative act of translation or self-translation affect the bilingual reader? It is sensible to keep in mind that aesthetic readers are few and far between. Responding to a text aesthetically requires patience, forbearance, and poetic sensibility. That being so, does it mean that a bilingual writer inescapably risks alienating a bilingual reader?


Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). According to Rita Safariants, Assistant Professor of Russian at the University of Rochester, “Ada is often considered Nabokov’s Finnegans Wake for its convoluted literary and linguistic allusions, incessant wordplay, and general inaccessibility… At times I wonder if we, as readers, feel this way simply because most of us consider ourselves a bit less than seamlessly polyglot.”[3] Safariants is a professional, expert reader. But how would the general bilingual reader, assuming there is such a thing, respond to Nabokov’s “linguistic allusions” and “incessant wordplay”? How does the bilingual reader grapple with a text where bilingualism is itself a literary device? To complicate things further, semantic ambiguity is an inevitable component of bilingual or multilingual literary inventiveness, and this affects language processing. Safariants discusses Nabokov’s “codeswitching”, the practice of alternating between two or more languages or dialects within the same discourse.


Ada, its title being the Russian feminine name pronounced Aah-dah, constitutes a perfect example of all this. It is an English-language novel, but it also uses a great deal of Russian and French. Its title is a bilingual pun involving the English word “ardor” in its non-rhotic pronunciation typical of the Old World, and the Russian word ad (hell). A more extreme example of Nabokov’s highly esoteric bilingual punmanship is the reference of a Russian song performed in a scene at “‘Ursus,’ the best Franco-Estonian restaurant in Manhattan Major. The song, described as “that obscurely corrupted soldier rot of singular genius,” is invoked by its opening lines: “Nadezhda, I shall then be back / When the true batch outboys the riot,” by which only the hyper-sophisticated (gasp!) bilingual reader may identify the popular romantic song by the Russian singer songwriter Bulat Okudzhava (1924–1997). The part that says ““Nadezhda, I shall then be back / When the…” is an accurate if deliberately awkward translation of the corresponding Russian, whereas the seemingly nearly meaningless “true batch outboys the riot” is in fact a homophonic rendition of the original’s trubach otboy sygrayet (“the trumpeter sounds the all-clear”). This is vintage Nabokov. Bilingual codeswitching imposes additional layers of meaning and irony upon the text where the monolingual reader is bound to miss them.


Nabokov did not himself translate Ada into Russian. Today’s Russian readers know the book in Sergei Ilyin’s well-regarded translation.[4] One could take the imagination one stretch further and visualize a bilingual edition of Ada, whose text, presented in the two languages in parallel, would permit the curious reader closely to follow and evaluate the translator’s decision, his handling of Nabokov’s humor, puns, and so on. Such an edition could be invaluable at the very least to the specialist. Apparently, it is too much to dream of, since even Lolita, Nabokov’s signature novel which he co-translated in collaboration with his son Dmitry Nabokov, does not have a bilingual edition. Not even his translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin or of the epic Song of Igor’s Campaign have been published bilingually. So far as we can tell, the only bilingual edition of Nabokov’s work is his Poems and Problems, a collection of verse and chess puzzles in which the 39 Russian poems included appear with parallel English translations (while the original English poems are left untranslated).[5]


The ideal bilingual reader of books is the literary bilingual seeking aesthetic pleasure.

For an aficionado of bilingual literary books, the thought of Nabokov’s works being published bilingually makes perfect intuitive sense, since he is the “paradigmatic” bilingual author. Some advanced language learners would doubtless find in such editions a way to explore some of the finest nuances of style and linguistic invention, the whole bilingual synaesthesia of Nabokov’s art. But the ideal recipient of such tomes would be the literary bilingual, the fork-tongued author, poet or literary translator who is drawn to the experience of aesthetic refinement and complexity. This audience is not large, but in an age of growing bilingualism and growing general literacy it too will grow. And what about the general and the partially bilingual reader? Although added complexity constitutes a challenge, it would be overhasty to conclude that the frustrated reader would inevitably snap the book shut and hop away. Ultimately, the bilingual work does aim at a new readership because authorial self-translation involves a good deal of creative re-doing in the second language, not least in the case of Nabokov.


The Bilingual Audience—Fact or Phantom?


Graph showing bilingualism rising in the US
The rise of bilingualism in the US (source: Grosjean)

In 1980, bilinguals made up roughly 10.68% of the US population; by 2018, their number rose to 20.55%, amounting to 63 million people. In other words, in the span of nearly 40 years, the number of bilinguals in the US has doubled.[6] While the percentage is low compared to historically multilingual countries (such as Switzerland), it is similar to that of countries (such as France) with a national language that is also a global language. Immigration, dual language programs at school etc. have contributed to the rise in bilingualism. Meanwhile, the proven cognitive advantages of biliteracy and a fascination with the capacities of the “bilingual brain” have spurred the growth of bilingual education.


As a consequence of these social and cultural factors, the bilingual audience of literary readers in the US is tangibly a reality. Of course, most of this bilinguaklism is Spanish-English, Spanish being used as the default language at home by 41 million Americans. Next in size is the Chinese linguistic community of 3.5 million speakers, followed by Tagalog and Vietnamese (1.7 and 1.5 million, respectively). Arabic, French, Korean, and Russian are each spoken at home roughly by a million Americans.[7] It should be borne in mind that not all these speakers are proper bilinguals, but also that there are many English learners among these linguistic groups, such as recent immigrants into the US, who also form an important part of the bilingual audience that sustains the bilingual books market and gives hope to bilingual publishing. Add to this the international market of English and other language learners


When it comes to high literature, profit-seeking publishing giants set little store by the tiny, unprofitable segment of bilingual readers. Luckily, this enables an adventurous small press like Tiptop Street to focus on making outstanding bilingual editions of signal literary works for this niche market. Importantly, unlike publishing conglomerates, small publishers have the luxury to both follow and inform the reading preferences of their target audience. Becoming competent, versatile readers of bilingual literature is one of the principal challenges facing bilingual learners. Boutique presses like ours can help teachers and students as well as the aesthetic consumers of bilingual literature to become at home with the linguistic, cultural, and imaginative nuances involved in reading literary masterpieces bilingually.

Endnotes / Works Cited:


[1] Doris Sommer, “Bilingual Aesthetics: An Invitation,” Profession, Modern Language Association of America, 2002 pp. 7-14.


[2] Louise Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.


[3] Rita Safariants, “Literary Bilingualism and Codeswitching in Vladimir Nabokov's Ada,” Ulbandus Review, Columbia University Slavic Department, 2007, Vol. 10, My Nabokov, pp. 191-211 (21 pages).


[4] Владимир Набоков, Ада, или радости страсти, перевод Сергея Ильина, Москва, Ди-Дик, 1996.


[5] Vladimir Nabokov, Poems and Problems, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1970.


[6] Francois Grosjean (Emeritus Professor of Psycholinguistics, Neuchâtel University, Switzerland), "The Amazing Rise of Bilingualism in the United States", Psychology Today (September 11, 2018).


[7] “Languages of the United States,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.


Phil Nix, Ph.D.

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