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Née Lou Sarabadzic: Translating digital identities, a bilingual experience

Lou Sarabadzic
Translation(s):
Née Lou Sarabadzic. Traduire les identités numériques : une expérience bilingue

Abstract

In this fragmented text made of 46 observations, Lou Sarabadzic reflects on her practice as an author writing digitally in both French and English, mainly through blogging and social media. Considering her identity as fragmented, composite, hybrid, she shows that the online world shouldn’t so readily be opposed to the “real world,” as a virtual identity may be felt as more authentic than any other we perform offline. She also suggests that while power dynamics are definitely at play, both online and offline, when it comes to multilingualism, the digital offers a space for individual and collective resistance. Bilingual writer, performer and (self-)translator Lou Sarabadzic speaks about the birth of her hybrid virtual-yet-real identity and authorial persona on the web, living in and through writing in her two languages in constant (inter)action with one another and with people in the networks.

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Author's notes

Cyprus Well, Launceston (UK), 8/12/19.

Full text

0.

1My identity as Lou Sarabadzic started online, as it allowed me to be fragmented, composite, hybrid: this is precisely how I consider myself to be.

I.

2I live for literature.

3Literature only ever starts to exist when it is shared.

4Social media and online platforms allow me to share writing – my own or that of others – widely and (almost) instantly. They also help me to challenge traditional one-way dynamics (see the etymology of “lecture”): writers write, readers read. Through social media, as a writer I get to read my readers, readers get to write to me. Doesn’t this system seem more equal?

5I write, therefore I’m connected.

II.

6It’s true of everyone, but perhaps even more of writers, since a text can’t exist without readers: my identity as a writer doesn’t start with me. It starts with the people reading me.

7My readers are French speakers.

8My readers are English speakers.

9A fraction of them speak both languages. Not all of them do. As much as I love and encourage language learning, I don’t want anyone to ever think they need to be bilingual to access my work. I feel as close to my French-speaking readership as I do my English-speaking one. So I often self-translate my own work. Particularly non-fiction. There’s something about non-fiction that feels fundamentally translatable. Is it because I’m talking about myself, and I live between languages?

III.

  • 1  Actually, the most common length of tweets is 33 characters anyway. Source: Will Oremus, “Remember (...)

10I engage with bilingualism differently depending on the platform I’m using: on Facebook, I tend to self-translate my posts. On Twitter and Instagram, I never do. I’ve never checked how much I write in each language there, but I guess I write most of the time in English, partly because I assume that the vast majority of my followers on Twitter and Instagram either understand English or are used to Google Translate, and would consider the same tweet or photo twice in a different language as just being spam. Facebook also encourages long texts, so I can put both languages within the same post (readers just have to click for More), while Instagram, and Twitter especially, definitely don’t. On Instagram, you’re here for pictures – perhaps you can manage a few hashtags, but that’s it. On Twitter, you’re here for the 280 characters,1 even though you can create threads.

  • 2  [Online] https://www.polarsteps.com/Montaigneoulitalie/1425813-montaigne-ou-l-italie [accessed 8 D (...)

11On my blogs, it varies. I started out sticking to a bilingual layout: both predictedprose.com and telpere.com are written in English and French. However, the blog Montaigne ou L’Italie,2 which I started in 2019 to document my trip to Italy through France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria is only in French. I didn’t have enough time to translate my daily posts, and I was focusing on writing a book in French at the time. The interactive nerdsproject.com doesn’t have much text as it is mainly visual anyway, but the small amount of text I had to put there is in English. The aim of this blog is to collect visual representations of cultural productions (books, films, icons, songs…), so these have to exist in a global (or almost global) collective imaginary. That’s why the source of inspiration I suggest usually needs to have been translated into English, if not directly created in English.

IV.

12I read a lot, and I said earlier I believe literature is to be shared. I therefore share many quotes through Facebook. Sometimes, the books from which I’m quoting are already translated into French or English in a different edition. I try to find the corresponding extract, #NamingTheTranslator.

13Sometimes, the books I’ve read aren’t translated, in which case I translate the quotes myself. I used to, anyway.  At first, I translated any quote I posted into the other language: if it was coming from a book in French, I translated the quote into English, and vice versa. Except one day, anxiety was too high I guess, the imposter syndrome too close; I stopped translating quotes from French into English, and concentrated on English into French.  

14Thankfully, I keep translating my own posts. The imposter syndrome hasn’t stopped me from writing – yet.  

V.

  • 3  Before Chinese and Spanish. French is only the seventh most spoken language on the Internet. Sourc (...)

15Writing in English through social media and blogs is as much a way of including my local community (I have lived and worked in the UK for 10 years) as it is a way to reach out to the largest possible online community, since English is the most spoken language on the internet.3 To me, a bilingual presence is as much about local as global.

16Even if I said I didn’t want to reach a wider audience, I would anyway, unless I made my posts and texts private. I don’t get to decide the politics of online language. That’s the privilege that comes with the English language: people are more likely to hear and read you.

VI.

17Writing in French is a way of including my previous local community by showing them that I’d rather spent time to translate myself than to make them dependent on Google Translate.

18I’ve been told it probably was a control issue, too. That may well be true. If there’s anything we learn from dystopias, it’s that we never know how authoritarian we are until we’re in charge of language.

VII.

19Writing in both French and English is a way to assert my identity as essentially bilingual. I may be more fearful than authoritarian, actually. I may want to prevent people from challenging me: “So, are you thinking in French or in English right now?”

20What if I think in both?

21What if I don’t know?

22I sometimes think in franglais. Perhaps I’m interlingual more than I’m bilingual.

23Does it matter anyway? “Well, of course it does,” they say.

VIII.

24Writing in both French and English is also a translation game.  

25For each blog, I change the rules: my posts on predictedprose.com are always written in English first, then translated into French. It’s the other way around on my blog telpere.com: I first write in French, and then translate my texts into English. For social media posts, it varies.

26Yes, sometimes I’m aware that I rewrite certain extracts.

27No, you’re right, I’m not always aware.

IX.

28The way it works may be closer to facts than it is to my so-called rules of the game.

29On predictedprose.com I write about mental health. The doctor’s office was in Scotland, then in England. Memories come to me in English. To this day, I mostly live my mental health, whether good or not, in English.

30On telpere.com I write about my relationship with my father, who has always lived in France. I lived with my parents for 17 years. Memories come to me in French.

31I said there was something about non-fiction I found fundamentally translatable.

32Perhaps I meant: translating non-fiction allows me to distance myself from real-life experiences.

33But writing online, in any of these two languages, feels like a real-life experience too. In fact, it is even more real: self-translating means facing your memories twice, and with the most careful scrutiny. You need to feel again the weigh and texture of every single word. No act of reading is more attentive than the reading of a translator.

X.

34The consequences of writing bilingually in the digital world are twofold: it empowers me, and it makes me doubt myself. It makes perfect sense, yet it can confuse me.

35Bilingual writing highlights my contradictions, weaknesses, fragilities.

XI.

36Once someone told me that when translating thrillers, they regularly noticed errors in the plot: inconsistencies. Impossibilities, even. Contradictions in the story line. They discussed it with the writer, who usually agreed to have them corrected.

37Translated stories might be closer to what we mean than the original ones.

XII.

38I can’t really trust the language I was born in.

39That’s probably because I felt that suspicious towards French that I went on to study stylistics and linguistics.  

XIII.

40I particularly like that after years of writing a blog bilingually, the tag cloud reflects differences as much as intersections. For some words, a translation was necessary, for instance: grief/deuil on predictedprose.com, so they both appear. For others, I didn’t create a new entry just for one missing accent; I am not that much of an authoritarian after all. So dépression is just depression. (Power dynamics: I let the English win.)

XIV.

41Writing bilingually means I can connect with two writing communities. Given the important differences between the French and the British publishing industries, it isn’t just helpful: it’s necessary. This sense of belonging is invaluable.

42Plus, I can be as lonely in English as I am in French. Language isn’t always great company.

XV.

43Writing bilingually is political: it means that I refuse the hegemony of English, the most dominant language on the Internet.

44Yet I confront it with another dominant language, so while it can appear as a form of resistance to French speakers (especially those based in France), other people usually find this argument rather weak.

45Writing bilingually is political, whether we like it or not, and I may not have developed the best defence mechanisms.

XVI.

46Writing in English and French makes privileges obvious. I don’t think we talk about this enough.

47For instance, people think it’s “wonderful” or “incredible” that I can write poetry in two different languages. Immigrants the world over speak two, three, four and more languages, use them with their storytelling skills every day, but they don’t receive such praise. Because these immigrants are not white, because they came for different reasons, or because they don’t speak the “right” languages.

48The way my bilingualism is seen or perceived reflect the way I’m perceived as an immigrant: people would rather say “expat.” Before, during, and after the Brexit referendum, this was made extremely clear: many said they didn’t see me as an immigrant. So I went to check the definition in a dictionary: I can confirm that I am an immigrant. A white, middle-class immigrant. An immigrant nonetheless.

49I want to promote multilingualism. I do try through my writing platform, and I’m aware that my own position is one of privilege. I’m writing bilingually to support voices different from my own, to increase my chances to meet and hear these voices.

XVII.

50Experiences of bilingualism (speaking and writing) are different depending on a range of factors, among which age, gender, race, class.

51Language is, always will be, political.

52In French, to translate “author,” I write “autrice” or “auteur·trice” depending on what is meant. I also like “auteurice,” but I haven’t used it myself so far.

XVIII.

53At least when I write (rather than talk) people don’t tell me my French accent is “sexy.”

54They don’t ask: “Oh, where do you come from?”

55When I write, I can create my own space. I’m not surprised it’s a virtual one I’m given.

XIX.

56We’re not all equal in relation to a given language.

57Someone once said to me I should be careful with experimental writing, on the page, screen, but even more so during performances, because people might think grammatical errors and weird sentences are simply “wrong.” I don’t get to be an experimental writer in English the same way I could in French, because people might think: “Oh, bless her, she didn’t really know what that meant.”

58In offline English I’m often a child trying to be accepted by the grown-ups. In online English I can be as broken as anyone else is.

XX.

59I share a lot of thoughts – not necessarily my own – on translation on social media. Bi- and multilingualism is not only the way I express myself and create, it’s also a major point of interest to me and my followers.

60My own bilingual digital identity logically leads to much metadiscourse.

61I’m okay with this, because I love metadiscourses.

XXI.

62Translation, ultimately, is always about making choices.

XXII.

63I love that some of my readers, who speak both French and English, actually look at my blogs in both languages, to see what translation choices I’ve made. For instance, I decided to translate a post entitled “Guilt” by “Coupable,” as I thought “Culpabilité” was too long, and therefore too indirect, to translate this idea.

64Sometimes, like in all writing, I realise that if I were to do it again today, I’d do it differently. (This is not the case with “Coupable” for “Guilt,” though. “Coupable” still is my favourite translation.)

XXIII.

65It’s not all serious. I use bilingualism on social media for fun, such as through Oulipian-type games. For instance, with the creation of the hashtag #ProverbesLeRemix, I wrote:

“Il ne faut pas mettre tous ses vœux dans le même banquier.”
“Chassez le naturel, il revient ce salop.”
“Après la pluie, vole un bœuf.”

66And with #PopPhrasesRemix, I wrote:

“Revenge is the best medicine.”
“Faith is the sincerest form of flattery.”
“You can’t make an omelet.”

XXIV.

67When we talk about creative writing in a second language (which English is to me, I learnt it as an adult), it’s usually to focus on limitations. When I give workshops to non-native speakers of French, I always insist on the opposite: “there’s so much you can write that most native speakers would never think about. Think how free you are. Think how creative you have to be, because you may not know all the words, you may not master every register.”

68We all have gaps in our own language. Bilingualism or multilingualism simply make them more noticeable. Monolingual writers do have language gaps, too.

XXV.

69I’m writing this text in English. I considered writing it in French after I had already started. It didn’t feel right.

70It may be because I gave the original talk in Lancaster in English, back in 2018. It may be because I’m writing it in Cornwall, where I’m currently a Writer in Residence for the Causley Trust, so my brain is somehow set on writing in English. Though I’ve been editing French texts here, so I’m not convinced.

XXVI.

71When I write a monolingual piece, one I don’t intend to translate, I don’t write the same things in French or English.

72One of the reasons why is quite easy to understand: I don’t have the same culture in both languages. I need both to be who I am, I am both – I said I am composite, but these two languages correspond to different times and spaces in my life. My childhood references are all in French. I’ve learned the British ones, after ten years of living in the UK, but what they mean to me is anything but childhood-related. I used to work in libraries, singing rhymes to babies and toddlers. They’re all songs I’ve learnt as an adult, in a very grown-up environment: that of work. The work you do to pay your bills. It may be a nice job. Still, it’s a job. If I like Humpty Dumpty and Diddle Diddle, it’s because they sound to me like a Dada-inspired poem, or an absurd narrative. Frère Jacques, however, has this sense of comfort I can’t find in any English nursery rhymes, however much I like them, however sweet they are.  

XXVII.

73With poetry, it’s flagrant: I don’t write in the same way at all in English and in French. Yes, I can translate my poems from one into the other. In fact, I’m often asked to do so for public readings, so I do. But I don’t have the same style in both of them.

74Another way of saying it would be: I don’t have the same poetic voice in different languages.

XXVIII.

75I actually don’t have the same voice, period. That’s what I’ve been told at least. You never hear yourself the way others do. People say that my voice is deeper in English than it is in French. And to think I used to have a complex, as a French teenager: my voice was too masculine. And that was in French.  

XXIX.

76I don’t care anymore about sounding (or looking, for that matter) masculine. In fact, I chose my first name to reflect that. I’m Lou. Because it works in both French and English. And it can be a man’s or woman’s name. In the UK, people usually assume, when they only read my name, that I’m a man. Probably the influence of Lou Reed. In France, people usually assume that I’m a woman. Probably the influence of Lou Doillon.

77Putting both cultures together equals gender trouble. I love it.

78In both countries, they usually assume Lou Andreas-Salomé has something to do with my first name. She does. She was Russian-German. I didn’t think about it at the time.

XXX.

79For my last name, I put two surnames together. I didn’t look very far: my father’s (Sauzon) and my mother’s (Arabadzic). I asked my mom whether she’d agreed to let me borrow her name. To my great joy, she said yes. I kept the first letter of my father’s, and now it reads Sarabadzic. It didn’t exist, and yet it feels real.  

80It feels real because it’s so much my own identity that I actually was the one who chose it. How much closer to the self could my name ever be?

81It feels real because my mom isn’t erased. Because every time I say my name, I say hers too. Because every time I say my name, I say my grandfather’s name. A grandfather who came from former Yugoslavia, who didn’t teach my mom his native tongue – it wasn’t what good immigrants did. Good immigrants had to prove they were committed to everything French. Good immigrants had to forget a little where they were coming from.

82I never met my grandfather, so it may just be my stubbornness to have him live with us. To have his language made public, when he felt he couldn’t.

XXXI.

83My offline name is Virginie Sauzon. It’s not a secret. I didn’t take up a pseudonym to be anonymous. Quite the contrary. I took up a new name so I could finally exist publicly, as a writer.

84My offline name is Virginie Sauzon, but is it really offline? I’ve signed digitally published academic papers with that name. I have a digital account with many companies under that name.

85Virginie Sauzon isn’t only an offline name. Once again I’m composite: I’m as much Virginie Sauzon as I am Lou Sarabadzic.

XXXII.

86I used Lou Sarabadzic in my blogs and on social media, so that people in my family could choose whether or not to make our connection public. I wanted them to choose their identities as much as I chose mine.

87Perhaps we should all choose our last name. It would make family tree more complicated, perhaps, but wouldn’t it be worth it? You could stick with the one you were given, anyway. We could have 10 different names.

88I know, for security and admin purposes, it wouldn’t be good, now, would it?

XXXIII.

89It’s not just the pseudonym: the digital world protects you, and at the same time makes you more vulnerable.

XXXIV.

90I chose to be born again to exist digitally.

91It’s so cliché.

92It’s so crucial.

XXXV.

93I didn’t choose to write bilingually. It was natural.

XXXVI.

94But there’s obviously nothing natural in any writing.

XXXVII.

95I announced my pen name in the same Facebook post I announced the launch of my blog predictedprose.com, on the 4th September 2014 at 2:30pm. Two announcements were made: one in English, and one in French.

96I was born on the internet.

XXXVIII.

97Internet terrified me. I reconsidered my fears after a friend told me that to challenge internet, you may not necessarily have to avoid it altogether. You could put so much information about you that your identity gets buried under thousands of annual posts. I don’t know why, but it felt true. And there I am today: the more I post, the less I fear for my intimacy. Who would read everything that I post? Even I don’t remember I’m all of these.

XXXIX.

98After only a few hours, the visit map available on Wordpress, the platform I use for predictedprose.com, confirmed that the people who visited my blog were predominantly located in the UK and France.

99“Know your audience,” they say.

XL.

100As Virginie Sauzon I was the French girl who came to study to the UK. I was the teacher who burnt out, who quit her job because of severe mental health issues. I was the one ashamed, the one who didn’t go out for fear that people would ask questions. “What are you doing here? Don’t you live in Scotland now?”

101As Lou Sarabadzic I’m the one who talks openly, and in two languages, about OCD and depression on social media. I am the one who wrote a novel about it. It’s in French. And it’s about getting treatment and therapy in a second language.

XLI.

  • 4  Languages move quickly, though. Back in 2019, when I used to say “santé mentale,” people didn’t li (...)

102I need French as much as I need English to talk about my first book. I can’t speak about mental health in French the way I do in English. Because we don’t even have the words for it. Consider this, for instance: saying “mental health,” in English, is no big deal. But to say “santé mentale?” Try it. People will immediately picture asylums, antisocial behaviours. It’s not only a linguistic matter. In France, at least – I can’t speak of other Francophone countries with the same certitude – the conversation about mental illness, disability and stigma has only just started.4

XLII.

103All the things I’m passionate about, all the things that define me one way or another require two languages. I came to the UK to study women’s writing. At the time, people were still laughing at me in France when I said I wanted to do so.

104To engage with gender studies, feminist studies, women’s studies, I needed English. But I can’t unlearn my language. It took me years to say autrice rather than auteure. To make it sound female. To refuse this additional layer of invisibility. The way my French develops is due to my activities in and English-speaking world. Digital activism certainly encourages it. And my online social media accounts are all witness of this evolution.    

XLIII.

105I feel in both languages anyway.

XLIV.

106I search, investigate, question our world in both languages.

107I use the autocomplete function to take screenshots of internet searches, but I do it with Duckduckgo, not Google. Google tracks you, Duckduckgo doesn’t.

108I alternate: one search in French, one search in English. Even with a literal translation, you obviously don’t get the same options. Search engines necessarily translate cultures in addition to languages.

XLV.

109Virtual writing isn’t fake.

110It’s just another language of reality.

111Just like any language, it is both collective and individual.

XLVI.

112In a bilingual digital world, I’m more real, more of a writer, than I’ll ever be.

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Notes

1  Actually, the most common length of tweets is 33 characters anyway. Source: Will Oremus, “Remember when longer tweets were the thing that was going to ruin Twitter?,” Slate, 30 October 2018. [Online] https://slate.com/technology/2018/10/twitter-tweet-character-limits-280-140-effect.html [accessed 8 December 2019].

2  [Online] https://www.polarsteps.com/Montaigneoulitalie/1425813-montaigne-ou-l-italie [accessed 8 December 2019].

3  Before Chinese and Spanish. French is only the seventh most spoken language on the Internet. Source: Miniwatts Marketing Group, “Internet world users by language: Top 10 languages,” 2019. [Online] https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm [accessed 8 December 2019].

4  Languages move quickly, though. Back in 2019, when I used to say “santé mentale,” people didn’t like the sound of it... Now, it is widely used. And that’s only in two years’ time. So many other things have changed since I wrote this text.

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References

Electronic reference

Lou Sarabadzic, « Née Lou Sarabadzic: Translating digital identities, a bilingual experience », Hybrid [Online], 07 | 2021, Online since 15 June 2021, connection on 19 September 2021. URL : http://www.hybrid.univ-paris8.fr/lodel/index.php?id=1524

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About the author

Lou Sarabadzic

Lou Sarabadzic is a French bilingual writer and performer living in the UK. She has published in French two novels (La Vie verticale and Notre vie n’est que mouvement), two poetry collections (Ensemble, which was awarded the Prix de la Crypte-Jean Lalaude in 2016, and Portrait du bon goût en individu ma foi plutôt aimable), and a collection of short texts (Éloge poétique du lubrifiant). She blogs in both English and French about OCD and her experience of mental health, as well as family relationships. In January 2018, she received the Dot Award for Digital Literature for the interactive #NerdsProject. Her poems, in French and English, appeared in a range of publications including The Interpreter’s House, harana poetry, Gutter, Morphrog, and A) GLIMPSE) OF). Very active online, especially on Facebook and Twitter, she tweets @lousarabadzic.

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