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C’est La Vie: the importance of multilingual representations in art and literature

Emily Rosindell discusses the employment of several languages with a single piece of music or literature, and the necessity for the world of art to represent the multicultural nature of our contemporary society.

Some hidden gems of the artistic world lay in works that employ multiple languages in a purposeful manner. Algerian singer-songwriter Khaled intertwines both Arabic and French into his hit song, ‘C’est la vie’. The song begins with a French intro, leading us through a journey of subsequent Arabic verses and back to a French chorus. He brings energy, excitement, and pure joy to this 2012 pop-dance anthem. 

The title, translating into English as “this is life”, perfectly demonstrates what Khaled is attempting to create. His art is a direct reflection of his worldview: multilingual in nature. The song exists in both French-speaking and Arabic-speaking spaces, as does its author. Art that holds a cross-cultural value, such as Khaled’s, is becoming increasingly pertinent in our rapidly evolving world, where inter-continental exchange is an essential part of daily life for many. The vast majority of the world operates in a multitude of spaces; over half of humans proficiently speak at least two languages. 

Inspired by Khaled, up and coming singer-songwriter Bahjat performs in Arabic, English, and Swedish. Born in Libya but now based in Sweden for music school, Bahjat adapts his writing to reside within his multiple identities. His song ‘Istanbul’ in particular uses both English and Arabic to convey the overall message that no matter where he is geographically located, his heart remains in the same position. 

What is special about these artists is not their ability to utilise multiple languages, but their boldness to employ them in the same piece of art. Both ‘C’est la vie’ and ‘Istanbul’ integrate the seemingly separate worlds into one in a way that allows for an expression of multilingualism as a facet of everyday life. A person who speaks multiple languages does not exist in multiple worlds, they exist in one; art and literature deserve to exist in this same multifaceted world as well. 

Some artworks have been modified after their initial release to become multilingual. João Gilberto’s ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – or ‘Garota de Ipanema’ in Portuguese – was originally written in Gilberto’s native Portuguese by Vinícius de Moraes in 1964. The English version was written later by Norman Gimbel, an American whose love of Portuguese drew him to Brazilian bossa nova composers. Artists like Gimbel utilise language in a way that is perhaps different to artists who sing in their native tongues, as he fell in love with Portuguese later in life. It was not his mother tongue, but he was able to appreciate its beauty anyways. Art and literature are often a point of access for linguistic and cultural appreciation for foreign language learners.

‘Girl from Ipanema’ also makes an important point in its use as a trope for background or ‘elevator’ music in the world of cinema. This highlights the relegation of multilingual music to the background of the artistic world. While arguably a more creative use of language, multilingual music is very rarely given the forefront. 

An important facet of multilingual approach is the ‘macaronic verse’ – a primarily poetic device that utilises multilingual puns or sayings that work in multiple languages. Hybrid words are commonly used, and single sentences can switch between two or more languages – a common facet of decolonised communities that use their native language and the language of an ex-colonising power. The lack of support multilingual art receives speaks to the Western-centric nature of much of the artistic world, as English-speaking countries – mainly the United Kingdom and the United States – have a significantly lower percent of the population that consider themselves multilingual. 

Early examples of the macaronic verse within the scholar and clergy incorporate both Latin, the conventional language of the learned, and newly arising vernacular languages, such as in the Gospel book of Munsterbilzen, which mixes Latin and Old Dutch. Rumi, a widely known 13th century Persian poet and Islamic theologian, utilises Arabic and Persian blends as well as occasional Greek and Turkish languages to represent the varying experiences in his view of the world through the lenses of these different languages. A more modern example of macaronic verse is employed in the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ from their Rubber Soul album. The song employs both French and English, inspired by a French teacher that McCartney knew well; he was fascinated by her deliberate use of French phrases that she felt did not translate well into English. The macaronic verse holds power in the journey to understand that languages do not exist in separate spheres for the majority of the world; some expressions don’t have the ability to be translated from a mother tongue to the same effect. 

Children’s books rarely use a multilingual approach to provide authenticity to the storylines set in the non-English speaking world. A prominent example of this approach includes the Chalet Girls series, set partially in Austria and Switzerland, which utilises German throughout the series. Encouraging children to see and read about people switching between various languages as a facet of everyday life allows for their development as learners, ready to partake in a world where linguistic ability is increasingly valued and necessary.

An estimated 60% of the world’s population speaks two or more languages – so why does the majority of the art world feel the need to comply with one language instead of representing their own multilingual view of the world? The platform for creating art and literature in several languages needs to grow; the majority of the world operates in multiple languages, and so too should the creative world. 

Image credit: Michael Gaida via Pixabay.

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