The languages of Berlin

Cities across the world are increasingly multicultural and multilingual. Former ILS participant Martin Jankowski introduces STADTSPRACHEN, a festival to celebrate the non-German literatures of Berlin.

Huguenots, Russians, Poles, Turks, Vietnamese and many more - for centuries, people of different languages ​​have come to Berlin, whose history once began as a Slavic settlement in the 7th century. Today, Berlin is a city with more than 3.5 million inhabitants, and it is becoming even more international. Almost one-third of the inhabitants have their roots abroad. In Mitte (the central urban district), 47.2% of inhabitants have a foreign background. And among those who have moved to the city in the last year, foreigners dominate: Syrians make up the largest group with 11,000 new citizens, followed by Afghans, Bulgarians, Romanians, Iraqis and Albanians, each with around 2,000; and about 1,800 from Poland.

More and more people who speak non-Germanic languages have made Berlin their permanent residence, cultural home and centre of life: turning the German capital into a multilingual metropolis and colouring the city’s culture with new influences and perspectives more diverse than the good old East-West contradiction. The new variety of languages has influenced contemporary culture, especially literature, with many international authors choosing Berlin as their residence. The city has more than 180 publishing houses and approximately 10,000 freelance writers, translators and editors. Nowadays it is a major centre of world literature. German may be the language of Berlin’s high-culture, but English is already the connecting street-sound of the clubs, bars and galleries of the rich and very complex artistic scene of the city. This contrast between renowned high art and the internationally diverse life of the city is “very Berlin”.

'German literature audiences discovered authors new to them, even if they had been neighbours for decades.'

Big world-cities like Berlin and London are increasingly international and multicultural. Maybe we can learn from each other about reflecting that internationalism in our literature programming? We consider it crucial that we raise awareness of the multilingualism of contemporary Berlin, and reflect our literature’s multilingualism. Too often the 5 state-funded literature houses of Berlin only present German writing (or at most also some English writing), while the two main literary festivals of Berlin invite authors from all over the world but completely ignore those who already live in the city and write in languages other than German - even if they are successful and well known in other countries. That’s why the STADTSPRACHEN Festival for International Literature has been developed by the Netzwerk Freie Literaturszene Berlin to represent and celebrate Berlin-based authors who write in languages other than German. Taking place city-wide over 10 days in autumn 2016, STADTSPRACHEN presented multilingual performances, discourses and encounters in the languages of our city. More than 100 Berlin-based authors, translators and cultural activists, originally from 36 countries with 42 different languages, took part in 30 literary events for almost 2000 visitors. For the audience two things became interesting: discovering new authors and their texts as well as discovering new, unusual venues in Berlin’s widely spread literary scene.

We had a number of challenges. Foremost was making the work as accessible as possible. We translated a part of each text into German, with speakers and actors reading these excerpts bilingually. We worked with professional translators to ensure high quality translations of their work. Moderators introduced the audience into the biography and work of the guest authors, and interpreters translated their talks with the guests who were free to speak in their writing language or mother tongue. Usually we presented at least two authors (or more) together in one event, mixing the languages and nationalities whenever possible. We always mixed languages on stage. We always interpreted the talks live and never used technical systems because we wanted to keep the communication process as natural as possible. So we got interesting effects of mixed audiences which otherwise may not have engaged together in one event. German literature audiences discovered authors new to them, even if they had been neighbours for decades. Most effective of all was for Berlin authors writing in different languages to meet for the first time, and to build a sense of the city's literature as multilingual. We’ve built a network of authors who understand that it makes sense to connect, cooperate and support each other, and create a new awareness of the non-German literature of Berlin. We’ve started a regular follow-up project called Parataxe which will run for the next two years, and where these authors can meet and read in places all over the city, make new friends and contacts as well as publish and discuss their texts in the multilingual Berlin literary online-magazine.

We now estimate that there are now more than 1,000 non-German authors living and working in Berlin. Usually they speak German in the street and in daily life but they write their literature in another language – a phenomenon that is very common in Berlin but still not much discussed in the literature houses, media or universities. STADTSPRACHEN and the follow-up projects are still the pioneers of an emerging era for polylingual literature originating from Berlin.


'It is not a question of the language in which a book is written but the distribution and quality.'

The German genius Goethe coined the famous term ‘world literature’ (Weltiliteratur). In his definition it is the literature which is created from an overwhelming cosmopolitan spirit. Today, the qualitative definition of the term is understood to mean that the international distribution of a work alone is not a sufficient condition for its assignment to world literature. What is decisive, on the other hand, is the exemplary artistic value of the respective work and its influence on the development of world literature. Our next question is whether we can call the literature which the international writers of Berlin (or London or elsewhere in the big polylingual cities) are creating today world literature? Thinking Goethe’s definition to an end, it is not a question of the language in which a book is written but the distribution and quality. On the other hand, the influential Austrian literary scientist Sigrid Löffler notes that a new kind of world literature is emerging - as a result of the decolonization of the 1960s and the globalization of the last 30 years, a completely new, non-Western literature, which is mostly written by migrants and language changers from former colonies and crisis regions. Nomadic authors tell stories about mixed origins and hybrid identities, transnational migrations and difficult integrations. Most of them live in big cities, but not forever, just for a while. So it seems that the answer to the question how writer’s best succeed and collaborate internationally today is not a question of place. The skills, the networks, the abilities that best help writers thrive in a global literature can not be found in a special place, area or city. Berlin or London, Tokyo or Buenos Aires – the world literature of our time is written everywhere. To get it we only need three things: good texts, good translations and a good internet-connection.

So what about Berlin and it’s city-languages? What about the multilingual literature of London? For these cities it is less important whether their books are world literature or not. The main question is: who is living together with us, which stories and poetry do they want to tell us, and what does this mean for he next chapter of our culture? Multilingual cities need mutilingual stages for otherwise unheard stories. And they need somebody who translates and presents all the text treasures hidden in the backyards and canyons of our crowded streets. Stadtsprachen in Berlin is one of these rare multilingual stages.Maybe other cities need something similar?     

About Martin

Martin Jankowski, born in Greifswald, GDR in 1965, is a Berlin-based writer and poet who started in the eighties as a singer-songwriter in the oppositional movement of Leipzig. Though the STASI’s ‘operational procedures’ banned his texts, his songs and poems became popular during the Monday demonstrations that finally led to the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the GDR. After 1989, he published songs, four poetry books, tales and short stories, as well as essays, literary criticism, nonfiction on history and culture, and a novel about the year 1989 (“Rabet” 1999). His works were translated into 17 languages and were granted awards like the annual German Literary Science and Philosophy Prize (1998) or the Alfred Doeblin Scholarship of the German Academy of Arts (2006). He is a regular guest at international festivals and universities. As a cultural activist he chairs Berliner Literarische Aktion e.V., curates international projects, and hosts several regular literary salons; on behalf of Netzwerk freie Literaturszene Berlin he was project manager of STADTSPRACHEN in 2016. In 2017 he is chief editor of the upcomming web magazine STADTSPRACHEN and director of the longterm program PARATAXE which presents the polylingual literature of Berlin. 

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