Modern Languages

Towards a Transnational Portuguese Studies

By Hilary Owen and Claire Williams

Transnational Portuguese Studies edited by Hilary Owen and Claire Williams uses the idea of the ‘transnational’ as a means of thinking beyond the disciplinary frames of the nation-state and ‘methodological nationalism’ which have tended to shape Modern Languages as traditionally conceived. Our book aligns itself with the other volumes of the Transnational Modern Languages series in deconstructing the historical boundary work that delimits ‘things Portuguese’ in naturalized cultural, symbolic, ethnic, racial, religious or linguistic terms, aiming instead to highlight flows of mobility, transcultural points of contact and the dialogues created by the intersectional.


At first glance, given Portugal’s early importance in European maritime expansion, Portuguese might seem particularly amenable to a mode of analysis that could  be designated ‘transnational’, albeit somewhat retroactively since the naming of ‘nationhood’ per se occurs only in the late eighteenth century. However, Portugal’s foundational role in the emergence of globalization brings its own challenges with it.  Underlying any inherently transnational-looking projection of Portuguese as a world language, are powerful myths, materialities and practices of ‘globalism’ and ‘worldmaking’ which already infuse the dominant foundational narratives of Portuguese nationhood as imperial, most notoriously so under the New State dictatorship in twentieth-century Portugal. Central to our project, therefore, is the need to  demarcate our contemporary transnational idea, with its transcultural, cross-border emphases and its denaturalization of rigid national formations, from the forces of globalization, seen as a more unidirectional process with a tendency to homogenize and to channel (neo)imperial designs. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of these neo-imperial designs, and the most important to deauthorize, from the perspective of Portuguese teaching in higher education, has been the official designation Lusofonia [Lusophony] drawing eight different nations into a uniform Portuguese language-space, reinforcing a European centre. This has been formally consolidated, and much critiqued, in recent times, in its manifestation as the CPLP (Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa).

The political epicentres of the Portuguese empire shifted, in fact, more than once at different moments in history, focussing only discontinuously on metropolitan Lisbon. Goa in India was the hub of trade and Catholicism during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and Rio de Janeiro became the capital of Portugal’s empire, following the Napoleonic invasions of the Iberian Peninsula in the early nineteenth century. In common with other transnational and postcolonial critiques of Lusofonia, we contend that learning the Portuguese language remains central to studying this mobile conjunction of places, peoples, cultures and ideas. However, it is important to note here that the Portuguese language, even as it is packaged for teaching purposes, almost never represents a ‘singular’ entity. As a second language, it is now universally taught in both its European and its Brazilian variants, sometimes both in parallel as in the Ponto de Encontro textbook (Clémence Jouët-Pastré, Anna Klobucka et al), offering a necessarily dual ‘root system’ for the development of further studies.

Furthermore, the very term ‘Portuguese-speaking’ becomes necessarily polysemous as we ask which language contexts Portuguese has historically displaced, downgraded or mixed with and what it is that 240 million or more contemporary speakers of Portuguese are, in fact, speaking now.   The study of modern-day ‘Portuguese’ embraces over 240 million first-language speakers across eight countries in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, even without taking into account its many manifestations as Creoles or when spoken as a second, ‘heritage’ language in diaspora.  Languages such as Nheengatu, or Língua Geral Amazônica, from the Tupi-Guarani family, continue to exist as minority indigenous languages in Brazil. Portuguese also cohabits with significant, widely spoken indigenous languages such as Macua, Sena and Tsonga in Mozambique or Kimbundu and Umbundu in Angola, which have national status but are not co-official with Portuguese. At least 19 indigenous languages are recorded in the small space of East Timor alone, and Tetum enjoys co-official status there with Portuguese, as does Cantonese in Macau.

In our endeavour to highlight fields of mobility, disjuncture and transcultural contact in this very diverse object of study, our book offers a theoretical and historical Introduction followed by twenty chapters, divided into four sections. In Part One, dedicated to ‘Spatiality,’ our contributors discuss: the geopolitics of mapping and spatial representation in the early maritime expansion in Asia (Zoltán Biedermann); cross-cultural translatability and the centrality of Brazil in the twentieth-century Lusotropicalist theories of Gilberto Freyre (Anna M. Klobucka); the travelling of literary texts in seventeenth-century Anglo-Portuguese piracy in Brazil (Vivien Kogut Lessa-de-Sá and Sheila Moura Hue); the creation of Lusophone and Creolophone African cultural spheres through music (Fernando Arenas); the palimpsestic layering of home and exile spaces in the work of Portuguese artist, Bartolomeu Cid dos Santos (Maria Luísa Coelho) and the shifting emplacement of Portugal in the EU in the cinema of Miguel Gomes (Hilary Owen).

In Part Two, which focuses on ‘Language’, contributors explore: the  historical suppression of West African and Brazilian indigenous counter-influences on Portuguese language and culture in the  seventeenth-century foundation myths of Lusofonia (Toby Green and José Lingna Nafafé); the linguistics of divergent Portuguese-language communities in Mozambique, Macau and Brazil (Susana Afonso); the role of language in transnational identity formation through trans-languaging and codeswitching in the sixteenth-century theatre of Gil Vicente (Simon Park); the politics of dialect translation in Portuguese and Brazilian versions of George Bernard Shaw (Sara Ramos Pinto), and the interplay of local and transnational dimensions in the subtitling of a webdocumentary protest at the Rio Olympics in 2016 (Tori Holmes).

In Part Three on ‘Temporality’ our contributors discuss: the decentring of Portuguese Second World War memory from a Salazarist New State hegemony to a broader, transnational narrative of Holocaust and exile, in two twenty-first-century Portuguese documentaries (Ellen W. Sapega);  the emergence of non-linear transnational temporalities in the photobooks of a Lebanese migrant to Brazil (Edward King); the embedding of national, memory in transnational Brazilian cinema (Tatiana Heise) and the travelling, multi-directional memories occasioned by the Three Marias’ feminist activism, in the USA and the UK (Ana Margarida Dias Martins).

In Part Four on ‘Subjectivity’ our authors discuss: the importance of transnational influence in forming the political subjectivity of nineteenth-century Portuguese feminists (Cláudia Pazos Alonso), the role of poetic self-estrangement as a marker of the transnational in the work of Fernando Pessoa (Paulo de Medeiros); the role of cultural fusion (fado, postpunk and Gothic musical forms, merging into fadocore) in the cultural expression of the Luso-American diaspora in California (Kimberly DaCosta Holton); the importance of autobiographical experience in queer transnational and translational debate (Christopher Larkosh) and the exploration of a possible Brazilian cosmopolitanism in the 2007 international writing project, ‘Amores Expressos’ (Claire Williams).

As this collection of essays seeks to demonstrate, our response to the relativizing and reductive snares of globalization entails a fashioning of new methodologies, epistemologies and critiques, out of a broad, open concept of the ‘transnational’. In this reflection upon and reaching beyond the borders of the nation-state, we seek to challenge the inevitability of resurgent nationalisms in the twenty-first century, along with the racism they reinforce. The counternarrative we propose reaffirms the centrality of translingual and transcultural communication to the ways in which we study and conceptualize communities and people(s) as productively transnational.

Transnational Portuguese Studies is part of the Transnational Modern Languages series.

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