Blog piece
15 December 2016

As part of this year’s Being Human festival of the humanities, the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression (PCMWE) exhibited the results of a series of translation laboratories which took place in Paris throughout the autumn under the title of Down and Out in Paris and London.

Dr Anna-Louise Milne, director of graduate study and research at the University of London Institute in Paris, writes about this series of translation workshops with asylum seekers unable to complete their intended journey to the UK. This blog piece has been published on the School of Advanced Studies’ Talking Humanities blog.

Since late October there has been a small statement sprayed on the bridge over the Gare du Nord tracks. It reads ‘Calais is in Paris’. I’ve read it a number of times now while rushing to catch a train to London, or on my return late at night.  A to-and-fro between France and England is a feature of working for the University of London in Paris. And it has been a reminder, if I needed it, that the shape of the map is shifting fast.

London is closer than ever for me, and further than ever for others. Particularly those who camped out in Calais often for more than a year, ostensibly trying to find a way across the Channel. The changes in the map are transforming the linguistic landscape too. English is woven everywhere into the fabric of France today. Or almost everywhere. Police stations are an exception, and it’s true that most civil servants working the desks in the immigration services will generally refuse to acknowledge any capacity to get by in English.

The entrenched monolingualism of most first-world societies is one of the great frustrations experienced by people fleeing the conflict zones of East Africa and the Middle East. Given the obstacles they’ve overcome, the barrier of language is cruel in demoralising but not defeating. It takes time and often incredible resourcefulness on the part of these individuals. But if you’re an Arabic speaker who perhaps also speaks Dinka as well as good English, and you’re used to managing across different linguistic zones, you’ll learn French, or German, or Swedish, if necessary. English is easier, that’s all, and you could study faster, find quicker means into a situation where you can start contributing meaningfully to a society in which you hope to live in safety.

‘Translation laboratories’ for those ‘set on crossing the Channel’

That matter-of-fact practicality was very much present in the series of ‘translation laboratories’ with asylum seekers which we ran this autumn as part of the Being Human Festival 2016 with the theme ‘hope and fear’. It was a fitting frame within which to extend the activities with refugees we’ve been developing over a number of years, towards the UK, with a specific focus on those who have their hopes set on crossing the Channel.

We decided to start with existing representations of what Matthew Arnold called the ‘tranquil bay’ between the French coast and Dover beach, and explore what sorts of ‘translations’ we need today to speak between that tradition and the present of ‘Calais’. Would any of the tropes of safe haven from religious or political persecution survive into the contemporary idiom of refugee crisis as it is spoken by the people moved and policed by that crisis?

The answer was few. None, in fact. The vast whiteness of the cliffs, or the eternal roar of the waves translated into descriptions of the number of days at sea, with keen focus on getting the measure of days, and water rations, and fatalities right. We talked about noise, about movement. About who had never been on the sea before, and couldn’t swim. We tried a number of words on for size, and occasionally we had the impression that our languages could meet in particular sound similarities. We worked with more contemporary poems too. Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover, for example, where the waves have become ‘gobfuls of surf phlegmed by cushy come-and-go/ tourists’ and the cliffs are ‘scummed’.

The challenges in reading this poem were different, but I don’t think they transformed the direction our project was taking. The description of ‘yobbish rain’ led us on a long route guided by translation apps to arrive at ‘berserk’, a word that one participant seized upon when I described its etymological origins in Old Norse. He’d spent long, dismal years in Norway where his request for asylum was finally rejected. He feels deeply threatened by the prospect of being returned to Norway under the Dublin regulation, and from there deported. He pulled up photos on his phone of court documents written in Norwegian, expecting me to be able to read them as he can read them. They spell expulsion. He no longer has the originals.

Text that read like a random series of quantities

Does it make sense to refer to ‘berserk’ as this participant’s translation of ‘yobbish’? If by translation we mean a re-signifying in a new idiom, then ‘berserk’ would have to be an element in a larger configuration. I don’t think that claim can be made. The mobilisation of ‘berserk’ in that moment of workshop activity cannot be absorbed into the progressive production of a system of communication. It is fully riveted to the hard coordinates of this person’s map, which looks very different to mine.

And yet of course our maps intersect: ‘Calais is in Paris’ and these people turned up regularly to our classrooms on the rue de Constantine in the shadow of the Dôme des Invalides. So the unexpectedly vital taking up of ‘berserk’ – emphatically repeated in recognition of its aptness – was not fully disconnected. It was a stretch, and it yoked my starting point to a way of describing the world that needs Norwegian, but as the vehicle in this instance of deportation.

And is there any sense in continuing to think of these productions in terms of the poetic function of language? If by the poetic we mean the possibility of language reshaping its potential, extracting ‘yobbish’ from its habitual register to recast its force as exposure to the elements, then I’m not sure that this claim can be made either for the way ‘berserk’ acquired sudden purchase in our interactions.

I lost confidence in my turn towards poetry mid-way through this project. It was hard to keep it in the picture when we were trying to find a way of telling the deals struck in Libya against the promise of a sea-crossing, and what the equation was between months of work, abandonment in semi-desert with no means of return and no sustenance, shared living quarters, the threat of jail, beatings, and the eventuality of reaching the coast of Europe.

These accounts came back again and again to variables I couldn’t begin to plot. They were often expressed as numbers noted on a sheet of paper so that at the end of a session, the ‘text’ we had produced read like a random series of quantities without even any trace of the unit of measurement: days, euros, people to a boat…? This is one way of pointing to what seemed to me to have taken us outside the parameters I had imagined as large and permissive of both the translational process and the possibilities for the poetic.

Going from pragmatism to a provisional re-routing of language

At this point I reached for what I thought our participants wanted. A key to the University of London, in short. And in practice, some small progress towards the mechanisms of entrance, including an acceptable IELTS score. I’d been struck in the texts that they produced by the difficulties in choosing the right preposition, or any preposition at all. ‘I go bus Istanbul’, ‘I am fifteen days in sea’… So I pulled up some basic exercises from the internet. At least we’ll make some headway on that front.

But I found myself blocked. ‘I am going __ Spain __ holiday’; ‘We went __ train __ Florence’. More trawling would probably have offered better exercises, ones that didn’t pre-suppose a first-world relation to the map, but the very particular stresses on language that these men’s situations generated were what I needed to see. And again their effect was to prompt another unplanned stretch, this time from pragmatism to a provisional re-routing of language.

After lots of free-style sentence work on a white board, the participants chose a preposition from a pile of single words and positioned it on a map within a sentence (the maps were varied, some blank, some with capital cities, some showing the major patterns of recent population movements). The same person I have mentioned already, wrote: ‘I am in Paris because I am under Oslo.’ A short statement of fact, bristling with its adaptive capacities. What claim would I want to make for it as a sentence act? Nothing more perhaps than that, for this person, it is an expression of where he is simultaneously inserted into and denied by the contemporary regime of border control. It is effective and ‘unreceivable’ speech in the same breath, and that breath has gently buckled the map.

‘I came from Egypt by foot’ signified starkly on one wall

This was the second part of our project. A group of us gathered in Senate House on the first weekend of the Being Human festival under the guidance of Aida Wildes, a London-based Iranian artist, to build an exhibition from the words produced by the Paris participants, drawing also on photographs from the make-shift camps around the Gare du Nord, and diary writings from the project. We had a few hours and lots of paper and tarpaulin.

I was wary that we might fill the space of the university with an ersatz camp. As it turned out, the constant in the work produced by a variegated group of English-language students from the far corners of Europe, artists from all over and willing-to-try researchers from first-world institutions, was its careful attention to re-positioning. We did a lot of cutting out – abandoned shoes from the photos of the camps, letters from sheets of coloured vinyl, small explanatory drawings from a text mapping a route across Europe. What one person cut out, another inserted.

A straight statement: ‘I came from Egypt by foot’ (generated through our work on prepositions) signified starkly on one wall, and read like an unmanageable accumulation of letters on another wall. A toothbrush left along with wet covers and a partially destroyed tent after a forced evacuation, was cut from a photo, leaving an unlikely slit in the picture, then enlarged to become a looming instrument of self-preservation. A small tent-like structure mounted provisionally on cardboard offered a partial view of bits of documentation from the project.

We worked intuitively, with loose awareness of how the work was evolving elsewhere in the room. There was little talking. We were literally processing the words that had been offered us. It was a very purposeful afternoon. We were tired and flat by the end. Perhaps surprised too by the unexpected dimensions that the exhibition had taken.

The exhibition is still on display at Senate House. In early 2017, we will bring what we can back to Paris and re-install it here. More details on the work of the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression can be found on the ULIP website  and here.


Dr Anna-Louise Milne is director of graduate study and research at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). She convenes the joint ULIP-Queen Mary University of London one-year MA in Urban History and Culture programme, which uniquely takes a hands-on approach to explore the many facets of the city. Her research interests extend from cultural translation to urban sociology. She edited the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris (2013). Her latest book, an experiment in urban poetics and history, is entitled 75.