On both sides of the Atlantic, rhetoricians of populism are calling for a revival of some utopian age: the nation state’s return to its former glory. Politicians are making America great again. They are taking back sovereignty over the United Kingdom and its borders, after decades of violation at the hands of its European neighbours. In this age of post-truth populism, countries are turning inwards to seek a homogenous utopian sphere that, like all utopias, never existed in the first place.

In these troubling times, we should recall that utopia was always an elsewhere – a place at the end of an impossible journey. This essay offers an exploration of the languages of these remote “elsewhere”s, examining the function of multilingualism and translation in the contemporary utopian imagination. My discussion is situated at the intersection between the debate about utopia in the age of globalisation and arguments concerning reading as geopolitics in the field of World Literature. I will therefore begin by outlining the paths converging at this juncture.

Around the time of the new millennium, critics argued that we had arrived at a moment that could be characterised as “beyond utopia.” [1] With utopia’s dual meaning in Greek of “non-place” and “good place”, the canonical texts of utopian fiction include works such as Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia (1516) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). But through a gradual shift during the twentieth century, the term came to denote a more flexible concept of utopianism, often described as an impulse of utopian possibility. In the words of one critic, it became “experimental rather than prescriptive, […] a politics of change cast in the subjunctive instead of the imperative mode.”[2]

At the end of history there is ample resistance to such imaginings.[3] The failure of the socialist utopian experiment in the twentieth century has led to our disillusionment with the social order of the “good place.” Centuries of colonisation followed by intense globalisation have exhausted the geography of our planet: there is no longer a terrestrial “non-place.” One scholar of utopia describes globalisation as “associated with a lack of alternatives, an irretrievable loss of confidence, and the triumph of corporate, hegemonic sameness.” Yet the claims of the death of the utopian imagination are widely recognised as polemical, and the same critic further argues that social and political discontent is inspiring new demands for radical change. “The need for utopian thinking has re-emerged.”[4]

What appears consistent in this debate is the understanding of the utopian imagination as a measure of our capacity for geopolitical fantasies of a better society. But if the contemporary utopian imagination engages in questions of the function of reading in geopolitics, it also trespasses onto the field of World Literature and the ever-ongoing debate about the duties and direction of the study of literature in a global perspective. The World Literature debate has recently seen a defining turn towards arguments concerning different kinds of exchange between languages, particularly practices of translation and mistranslation.[5] If these theories converge, it is on the notion that practices of (mis)translation are redrawing the global literary landscape, and that the study of these practices allows us to trace the fault lines. Which leads me to my question: What is the function of multilingualism and translation in the contemporary utopian imagination? Or, more succinctly, if utopia is a foreign country, what languages are spoken there?

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia

The refugee narrative stands out as an example of contemporary utopianism that engages in these questions about literature as expression of our geopolitical imagination. In the following discussion, I therefore offer a reading of utopianism in J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013) against recent arguments concerning literary techniques of multilingualism and translation as presented in Emily Apter’s Against World Literature (2013) and Rebecca Walkowitz’s Born Translated (2015). For the sake of the reader unfamiliar with these authors and their arguments, the analysis is divided into three parts: two brief expositions, of utopianism in Coetzee’s novel and of Apter’s and Walkowitz’s arguments respectively, are followed by a discussion in which I bring these texts into dialogue with each other. Ultimately, it reveals how the use of multiple languages and ambiguous, at times erroneous, translation is central to Coetzee’s envisioning of utopia as an ever-receding aspiration in his characters’ struggle for a better life.

Utopianism in The Childhood of Jesus

Coetzee’s text is a curious tale about Simón and David, a middle-aged man and a young boy seeking a new life in a foreign country. Both have been “washed clean” of their old lives and memories in a refugee camp.[6] In the novel’s opening scene, they arrive at a relocation centre in a city with the Spanish-sounding name “Novilla.” Yet the reader never receives confirmation that this is in fact Spain. Neither do we find out from where Simón and David have fled, nor why. When the boy asks the man “Why are we here?” Simón simply replies: “We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live. […] It is a great thing, to live.”[7]

Once Simón and David settle in, Novilla appears as something close to a socialist utopia. There is no shortage of employment or food. The two are soon provided with an apartment in “the Blocks,” free of charge. Free are also the various educational courses offered at “the Institute” as well as health care and, later, school for David. Yet it soon becomes obvious that something is awry. Even though they have arrived at their destination, Simón is not satisfied. He is constantly perplexed by the people’s lack of strive to improve their situation; “they have no secret yearnings he can detect, no hankerings after another kind of life.”[8] When he introduces the idea of bringing in a crane to aid with the work at the docks where he is employed, the discussion soon spirals into a debate about the meaning of life and labour. “Without labour,” argues one of his fellow stevedores, “and the sharing of labour, comradeship is not possible, it is no longer substantial.”[9]

Equally unsatisfying are Simón’s attempts to build a romantic relationship with the neighbour Elena. Like others, Elena uses the word “goodwill” to describe her feelings toward Simón; frustrated, he demands: “Can goodwill by itself satisfy our needs? Is it not in our nature to crave something more tangible?” To Elena, as to the other inhabitants of this, his craving of utopia, Simón’s passion is “an old way of thinking.” And in this outdated worldview, she retorts, “no matter how much you have, there is always something missing.”[10]

To the reader, Novilla retains some defining utopian characteristics. It is never located on a map or in a country, and so remains an elusive “non-place.” It is also a “good place” of sorts – where goodwill is abundant and social institutions provide for its citizens. Yet it fails to meet Simón’s expectations. His life there may be good, but he is kept from pursuing his yearnings for better. The utopia he expected to arrive at seems to shrink away from him, as a continually retreating aspiration.

As the narrative evolves, Simón thus begins to question his way of thinking:

Is it all part of a far too tardy transition from the old and comfortable (the personal) to the new and unsettling (the universal)? […] If so, how much longer before he will emerge as a new, perfected man?[11]

This introduction of Simón’s self-doubt and gradual acceptance of the Novillian mindset heralds an unsettling change in the direction of the narrative. Simón becomes convinced that a woman called Inés is David’s “real” (although not biological) mother; he insists on leaving the boy in her care. Inés, who has no previous experience of raising children, lets David follow his every whim. When the authorities threaten to take David away, they finally flee town. Simón and David are once again refugees in the search of a better place, this time as part of a strange company: Inés, Bolívar the Alsatian, and the hitchhiker Juan. As the self-dubbed “family of David”[12] sets out, the utopian experiment has come full circle.

Translation, World Literature, and Reading as Geopolitics

If Coetzee’s novel is an experiment in geopolitical fantasy, so in many ways is Apter’s Against World Literature, published the same year. Apter, however, offers a theoretical argument rather than a fictional story. She imagines a literary history that does not rely on the “translatability assumption” that undergirds so many of the recent efforts to revive World Literature. It is the assumption that translation is “a critical praxis enabling communication across languages, cultures, time periods and disciplines,” which functions at the exclusion of “incommensurability” and “untranslatability” from the literary heuristic.[13] She argues that the translatability assumption may seem like a mechanism to bridge cultural divides, but has in fact led to a model of literary comparativism that, “in promoting an ethic of liberal inclusiveness or the formal structures of cultural similitude, often has the collateral effect of blunting political critique.”[14]

To remedy this, Apter wishes to introduce untranslatability as a “theoretical fulcrum.” Among the iterations of the untranslatable, she includes the “mistranslated,” “unreliable translation,” as well as that which is “lost in translation.” She writes that untranslatability implies the broken, the queer, and the disrupted: “subcultures,” “thwarted orders of nature,” all which “stand outside language families.” Perhaps most accurate, Apter argues, is to understand the untranslatable “not as pure difference in opposition to the always translatable […] but as a linguistic form of creative failure with homeopathic uses.” She writes eloquently of “language worlds that bleed out,” and of how untranslatability will enable us to redraw a “linguistic cartography that allows literary comparatism to be more responsive to the geopolitics of literary worlds as they occur in real time.”[15]

Rebecca Walkowitz also explores the effects of approaches to translation on the geopolitics of reading. Walkowitz introduces the concept of novels that are “born translated”: texts that approach “translation as medium and origin rather than as afterthought.”[16] Central to my reading of The Childhood of Jesus – which she refers to in her own discussion – is her argument concerning novels “written as translations”:

In born-translated novels, translation functions as a thematic, structural, conceptual, and sometimes even typographical device. These works are written for translation, in the hope of being translated, but they are also often written as translations, pretending to take place in a language other than the one in which they have, in fact, been composed.[17]

Walkowitz refers to several of Coetzee’s works to illustrate these points. She confirms that within the first ten months of publication, The Childhood of Jesus was translated into and published in nine languages on five continents. She argues that it was “born-translated” in two ways: written in English, it was first published in Dutch and pretends to take place in Spanish.[18]

These insights, Walkowitz argues, have significant theoretical consequences. For centuries, scholars of literature have relied on the distinctness of languages to organise literary histories and syllabi. The evolution of born-translated novels means that we have to change our analytic categories and procedures. Because born-translated fiction emphasises “ongoing production” and “multilingual reception,” it disturbs the novel’s historical role as “an instrument of monolingual collectivity.”[19]

This is by far Walkowitz’s most important contribution: her study shows how born-translated novels force us to consider how texts that take their origins in several languages and places are changing the ways communities are imagined. She argues that they block readers from being “native readers”: from assuming that the book they are reading was “written for them or that the language they are encountering is, in some proprietary or intrinsic way, theirs.” These texts purposefully disrupt the assignment of languages, geographies and peoples, “in which one place is imagined to correspond to one language and one people, who are the users of that language.” Interestingly, Walkowitz also adds that “viewed from the perspective of migration, the concept of literary belonging may have outlived its usefulness.”[20] Born-translated novels question belonging, keeping it in play by suggesting that texts begin in several languages.

Coetzee and Utopia in Translation

Apter and Walkowitz offer analytical tools for us to consider how changing practices of translation and mistranslation are changing the way we read – particularly how we imagine Apter’s “geopolitics of literary worlds” and Walkowitz’s “literary belonging.” Applied to utopianism, these insights allow us to study the particularities of our geopolitical fantasies. In the case of Coetzee’s text, they enable us to explore the centrality of multilingualism and translation to the utopian imagination.

The Childhood of Jesus is an example of a text that is, in Walkowitz’s words, “written as translation.” The prose was composed and is presented to the reader in English, but recurring clues indicate that the story is in fact unfolding in Spanish. These clues include occasional Spanish words and references to the Spanish language, and, notably, a scene in which Simón tells David that the alphabet is comprised of twenty-seven letters. These clues are confirmed by Simón’s references to his struggles with Spanish, a language that “he has worked hard to master.” He is often hunting for the right phrase or asking to have such words as “tontería” and “anodina” explained. As the text progresses, Simón seems to be improving. At one point he even incorporates a word he previously needed explained – “tontería” – into his own usage.[21]

In the text, synonyms and explanations are always offered by other characters in English, leaving the reader unsure of what language the speaker is supposed to have used. For, one thing is made certain – Simón is not familiar with the English language. In one revealing scene, David sings a corrupted version of Goethe’s ballad Erlkönig, which he has been taught in a music lesson. David asks Simón: “What does it mean, Wer reitet so?” The latter answers: “I don’t know. I don’t speak English”.[22] The exchange illustrates that you need to have at least some acquaintance with a language to be able to recognise it as one you do not know. As Walkowitz notes, “Simón lacks even that little bit, and thus Coetzee imagines a world in which English is so distant, or so insignificant, that it can be confused with a neighboring tongue.”[23] German too, I would add.

There are other hints of the language politics of Coetzee’s fictional world. Simón notices that the Institute only offers different levels of Spanish. “No other language courses. No Portuguese. No Catalan. No Galician. No Basque. No Esperanto. No Volapük.”[24] Here, Spanish is the language of central importance, at the exclusion of all others.

I argue that it is in fact through the Spanish language that the characters of the text must attempt to imagine utopia. When David asks Simón why he must speak Spanish, Simón explains that we must all speak the same language. David continues to be obnoxious (“But why Spanish? I hate Spanish.”) and Simón answers:

Everyone comes to this country as a stranger. I came as a stranger. You came as a stranger. […] We came from various places and various pasts, seeking a new life. […] One of the ways in which we get along is by speaking the same language.[25]

Simón makes clear that it is only through the Spanish language that they may create a new life in Novilla. If David continues to refuse to speak Spanish, Simón warns, “you will be shunned.”[26] The utopian imagination must thus be exercised in this foreign language; it is the only way utopia can be accessed.

Apter’s notions of mistranslation and the untranslatable can be brought to bear on this particular aspect of Coetzee’s novel in revealing ways. In one scene, Simón explains his frustration: “Our very words lack weight, these Spanish words that do not come from our heart.”[27] It seems that his inability to access the utopia of his expectations is somehow tied to his failure to translate his thoughts and feelings into a foreign language. “[A]ll human relations have to be conducted in beginner’s Spanish,” he complains.[28] He explicitly links his worries about failing to integrate into this new society to his inability to express himself in Spanish. “Is my Spanish all wrong?” he asks. “I am beginning to think there is something in my speech that marks me as a man stuck in the old ways.”[29]As in Apter’s theory, it is failed translation – the “lost in translation” – that signifies the outsider. At the very end of the novel, when they have become refugees once again, this connection is made even more explicit. When David asks Simón if this new company of theirs is a family, Simón replies: “Spanish doesn’t have a word for exactly what we are, so let us call ourselves that: the family of David.”[30] Social outcasts, they now stand outside society – in Apter’s words, “outside language families.”

Experimentation with multilingualism and translation is not new to Coetzee’s œuvre. Other notable examples include Summertime (2009), in which a series of translated interviews are presented in English without reference to the original language. Also significant is Slow Man (2005), an anglophone novel in which the main characters are thinking and speaking in translation. The latter includes words from and references to at least seven languages in addition to English, creating, in Walkowitz’s words, “a general sense of partial fluency.”[31] (Notably in relation to Simón and David, the main character of Slow Man asks his nurse: “Don’t immigrants have a history of their own? Do you cease to have a history when you move from one point on the globe to another?”)[32] In addition, in Doubling the Point (1992) as well as Inner Workings (2007), Coetzee offers various essays on topics related to the history and practices of translation. This has led scholars to pay close critical attention to the nuances of Coetzee’s language; my essay is intended as a small contribution to this work.

Thoughtful studies have focused on the way language affects the human mind in Coetzee’s works,[33] as well as how these texts confront “the difficulty of bringing meaningfully into linguistic range that which appears without precedent in given language.”[34] Two of Coetzee’s most prominent critics have built their studies on similar ideas. In one of his earlier contributions, David Attwell argues that Coetzee’s brilliance lies in his absorption of the postmodern textual turn while also taking seriously and addressing ethical tensions in contemporary South Africa[35] In a similar vein, Derek Attridge explains that his fascination with Coetzee’s writing is with the way his “handling of formal properties is bound up with the capacity of his work to engage with – to stage, confront, apprehend, explore – otherness.”[36] They all share this same investment in which I partake, in Coetzee’s ability to employ linguistic strategies to address ethical questions.

I began this essay by posing a question about the function of multilingualism and translation in the contemporary utopian imagination. If the latter is considered a measure of our capacity for geopolitical fantasies of a better society, it seems obvious that the utopian imagination is still alive and active. In my discussion, situated at the intersection between utopian studies and the World Literature debate, I have argued that theories of multilingualism and practices of (mis)translation can help us gain a better understanding of the way contemporary utopia is imagined and accessed.

This kind of reading also reveals the ways in which utopian texts may speak back to or moderate recent theoretical contributions to the field of World Literature. Apter’s argument for untranslatability proves helpful in understanding the way Coetzee’s characters are portrayed as outsiders, but her focus on the “translatability assumption” places unintended failures of translation at the centre of her study. In The Childhood of Jesus, on the other hand, mistranslation is a strategic literary device. It is through the instances of failed translation that the reader understands Simón’s frustration with his ever-receding utopian expectations.

If utopia is a foreign country in Coetzee’s fictional universe, Spanish is the language spoken there. Yet it is not a Spanish novel, and neither does it appear to be South African. As Walkowitz argues, these strategies of multilingualism and (mis)translation force us to rethink our analytic categories and procedures, particularly in relation to linguistic collectivities and literary belonging. Perhaps they can also act as a partial remedy against the rhetoric of introverted nationalism as it attempts to infiltrate our language and politics. Because, as my discussion has shown, Coetzee’s text is an instance of utopianism in which the issues most central to the geopolitical fantasy are ones of un-belonging, migration, and failed translation. These are issues which ought to receive more attention in the debate about utopia in this age of nationalist populism.



[1] Gordin, Michael D., Helen Tilley and Gyan Prakash, Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2010), 3.

[2] Angelika Bammer. Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s (London: Routledge, 1991), 51.

[3] E.g. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Russel Jacoby’s The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy (1999), and Slavoj Zizek’s Living in the End Times (2010).

[4] Florian Mussgnug. The Good Place: Comparative Perspectives on Utopia (Oxford: Peter Lang), 5-6.

[5] E.g. Emily Apter’s The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (2006) and Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (2013), as well as Rebecca Walkowitz’s Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (2015). Already in 1993, Susan Bassnett argued in Comparative Literature: An Introduction that Translation Studies ought to eclipse and supplant Comparative Literature as a discipline.

[6] J. M. Coetzee, The Cildhood of Jesus (London: Vintage, 2014), 95. Hereafter references to the novel by page only.

[7] 21. Throughout this essay all emphasis is presented in the original.

[8] 77.

[9] 130.

[10] 67, 75.

[11] 68.

[12] 309.

[13] Emily Apter, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (London: Verso, 2013), 8.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] Ibid., 3, 9, 20, 39.

[16] Rebecca Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia UP, 2015), 3-4.

[17] Ibid., 4.

[18] Ibid., 3-4.

[19] Ibid., 44-46.

[20] Ibid., 6, 22, 25.

[21] 1, 40, 76, 165.

[22] 80.

[23] Walkowitz, 4.

[24] 143.

[25] 222.

[26] 223.

[27] 77.

[28] 127.

[29] 168-169.

[30] 309.

[31] Walkowitz, 62.

[32] J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man (London: Secker & Warburg, 2005), 49.

[33] Michela Canepari-Labib. “Language and Identity in the Narrative of J. M. Coetzee,” English in Africa, 27:1 (2000), 105-130.

[34] Carrol Clarkson, “J. M. Coetzee and the Limits of Language,” Journal of Literary Studies, 25:4 (2009), 106.

[35] Attwell, David, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

[36] Derek Attridge, J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event (London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 6.[/learn_more]