Multilingual Novels as Transnational Literature: Yann Martel’s Self

Oana Sabo


Yann Martel’s experimental novel Self (1996) recounts the story of a young man’s gender transformation as he also negotiates his national and linguistic identity through cosmopolitan and multilingual affiliations. To convey the tropes of mobility and flexibility, the novel juxtaposes English and several other languages in parallel columns, inviting comparisons across discrete linguistic and literary traditions. Conceptualized from the start as a multilingual novel, Self challenges monolingual ways of classifying national literature, raising interesting questions about multilingual texts’ canonical location, implied readership, and translation into another language. Drawing on recent debates on transnationalism, I argue that the novel’s formal strategies require a mode of reading predicated on comparison and translation. Readers are encouraged at once to conceive of distinct languages relationally and to uncover the hegemonic relationship between global and local languages in Canada as well as globally. Through its formal aesthetics, which underscores both the opportunities and the limits of multilingualism, Martel’s novel contributes valuable insights to current debates on transnational literature. 


Multilingualism, transnationalism, Canadian literature, gendered identity, translation

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The Johns Hopkins University Press

ISSN: 1920-1222

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