Language is increasingly becoming difficult to justify isolating from the larger ecology of social and semiotic factors that influence writing. Hawkins (2018) notes:

The ‘trans-’ turn in language studies is a response, in large part, to new and rapidly changing contexts of mobility, and new global configurations of people, resources, and communications. It calls for a destabilization—a post-structural and even post-sociocultural understanding—of how language, culture, and community have historically been defined, and new understandings of semiotic assemblages and trajectories across place, space, and time, in which language is integrally intertwined with other ‘things’ to mediate meaning making.

(p. 75).

In other words, what makes language uniquely different from gestures or technologies or images or the countless other ways people communicate?

Even if one is committed to focusing on the dubiously discrete category of words, Canagarajah (2013) has critiqued the modernist, monolingualist assumption that languages are “pure and separated from each other” (p. 20) and instead urges us to acknowledge that “boundaries are difficult to discern” and that “languages relate to each other in fluid ways” (p. 26). Noting that in today’s world “unpredictability and diversity are the norm” (Canagarajah, 2013, p. 26), he advocates for a “pedagogy of shuttling between languages” (Canagarajah, 2006) where writers improvisationally assemble spatial repertoires (mobile resources composed of multimodal signs and contextual artifacts) for each rhetorical situation so that communication transcends autonomous literacies (Canagarajah, 2018).

The names for the language paradigm Canagarajah describes—known variously as translingualism (Horner et al., 2011), transmodalities (Hawkins, 2018), crossing (Rampton, 1999), or code-meshing (Young, 2014)—are crossing metaphors, evoking horizontal movement, transgression, weaving. Canagarajah (2013) notes that these terms are not without their problems: They may reinforce the same myths of linguistic separateness that they aim to dispel. Languages have often been artificially tied to stable places in the imaginaries of cultures, and it is difficult to escape this fiction. But even if these crossing metaphors inadvertently evoke monolingualist assumptions, they are helpful for conveying dynamism and movement, the actions and practices involved in writing across languages.


While the field of translation studies (emerging out of modern language studies, linguistics, literary studies, and applied professional practice) has explored translation theoretically and empirically for decades, translation is still a largely unexplored landscape for writing studies. Translation has operated as a powerful metaphor in writing studies for some time (e.g., Cook-Sather, 2003; Schor, 1986). Increasingly, however, trailblazing work like Gonzales (2018) and Wang (2020) is beginning to take up translation—or “the process of transferring meaning” (Scarpa, 2019, p. 19), usually across languages—in more literal ways as well, marking translation as a rhetorical practice that writing studies methods and frameworks can shed new light on.

The field of technical communication has perhaps the closest connections with translation in writing studies, with good reason. Technical communication has been considered as translation by many, since both translators and technical communications convey meaning or build bridges from one community to another (St. Amant, 2019). In addition, the user-centered work of technical communication coupled with the globalization of business and technical fields means that technical documents must often be translated or localized for multiple audiences. This means that technical communicators need to collaborate with tranlsators and understand translation processes even if they do not undertake this work themselves (Batova & Clark, 2015; Minacori & Veisblat, 2011). This has resulted in the emergence of technical communication pedagogies that incorporate interaction between students, translators, and multilingual/multicultural stakeholders, such as the one described by Gonzales and Turner (2017).

In composition studies, some of the first and most influential uses of the term translation were in reference to the conversion of thoughts to symbolic (written) language in Flower and Hayes’s (1981) cognitive process theory of writing. Critiques of cognitive models from social theorists of writing caused research into cognitive translation to slide into the margins of composition research, but research has continued in adjacent fields (e.g., see Fayol et al., 2012). This body of research has maintained that translation is not transcription—it is more mental and audience-oriented than mechanistic—and it is always an act of juggling, managing situational constraints alongside conceptual, linguistic, and kinetic resources (Hayes, 2012). Translation is the cognitive bridge or “bottleneck” mediating the writers’ inner and outer worlds.

Meanwhile, the translingual turn in composition and related fields has caused scholars and teachers to explore translation in language as a rhetorical strategy for college writers. While much of this research has focused on pedagogical interventions for multilingual students (e.g., Baalbaki et al., 2020; Gentil, 2018; Jiménez et al., 2015; Kiernan et al., 2016), Horner and Tetreault (2016) urge us to frame “all writing as translation” (p. 16), a practice as critical for writers commonly deemed monolingual as it is for multilingual writers. Horner and Tetreault argue that “because the negotiation of language difference is more immediately apparent in translation writing, translation provides a useful framework by which to explore such negotiation in all writing” (p. 19). They contend that while translation is often imagined as a way to bridge and smooth out the differences between languages, exact equivalence is impossible, and so translation always involves the creation of difference, orchestrated by human agents for social and rhetorical purposes. Within this framework, Horner and Tetreault use paraphrasing, a commonplace activity in composition classrooms, as an example of intralingual (within one language) translation, and they advocate for inviting students to experiment with interlingual (across language) translation as a way to make visible the mediational functions of writing.

According to Turner and Gonzales (2020), “translation is about relationships—relationships between translators and clients, community members and organizations, people and their languages, experiences, and histories.” The research on translation in writing studies reviewed here affirms the ways that translation acts as a crossing point for various communities but at the same time cautions that translation has often been made “invisible” (Venuti, 2008), overlooked as a seamless and mechanical process rather than the dynamic, messy, and rhetorical process that it is. When translation becomes transparent, we can fail to see something fundamentally important: Translation never simply transfers or transmits meaning, as much as that might seem its implicit goal; instead, translation also always transforms, making something genuinely new.

Transgressive Rhetorics

Related to issues on identity and language difference in writing, a number of writing researchers have taken up crossing metaphors in their study of texts and rhetorics that transgress conventions. While discourse community theories in rhetoric and composition tended to frame conventions as static homogeneously applied across an entire community, Thaiss and Zawacki (2006) have drawn attention to the actual dynamism and heteroglossia (Halasek, 1999) in professional communication practices of the academic disciplines. Despite such diversity, there is little doubt that certain language practices enjoy more privilege than others, and scholars who highlight rhetorical difference and deliberately position their writing in contrast to hegemonic conventions often face real consequences. Transgressive literacies have been described with a number of terms—among them, alternative discourse (Schroeder et al., 2002), experimental writing (Sullivan, 2012), multigenre texts (Jung, 2005), alternative rhetoric (Wallace, 2011), and unflattening (Sousanis, 2015). Transgressive rhetorics demonstrate difference through “marking”—that is, including within a text an array of semiotic and formal features that, according to Wallace (2011), bear “some stamp of who we are” and signal acknowledgement of “what dominant culture expects” while taking “a stand in regard to those expectations” (p. 206). Tardy (2016) notes that such genre-defying moves carry risk, which makes them easier for writers whose authority has been validated than, say, students who are generally positioned as disciplinary novices or outsiders. The social context, according to Tardy, determines whether alternative rhetorics are viewed as transgressive and deviant or innovative and trailblazing.

Transgressive rhetorics necessitate strategic boundary crossing, toggling between two forms of contrasting discourse. Rhetors must understand the dominant literacy culture in order to create identification and solidify their authority before crossing boundaries and claiming alternative voices or identities. This toggling usually requires concessions, compromises. Ayash (2020) argues this often occurs in paratexts like prefaces or author’s notes, which translate the “alternative” discourse into something more familiar to readers socialized into dominant literacy conventions while also coaching these readers on how to negotiate the potentially less familiar parts of the text. Such paratexts have often been endorsed as a means of evaluating unfamiliar, experimental, and multimodal student texts as well (Shipka, 2009). However, Braun (2013) notes that the constant pressure to justify texts that transgress traditional forms places additional burdens on those who already face challenges inherent in creating something for which there are few models. Frameworks like translingualism, the New Literacy Studies, and Universal Design for Learning are pushing writing professionals to flip these logics by shifting the burden of negotiating difference to teachers and readers in order to create more space for diversity in writing. Our field is beginning to understand that readers must develop rhetorics for “listening” (Ratcliffe, 1999) and not just speaking/writing in order to cross divides.

A map of a city with two intersecting lines overlaid onto it
An illustration from Guaman Poma's New Chronicle, which Mary Louise Pratt uses as a case study to construct her theory of contact zones.
A dense web of overlapping red threads from an installation by Chiharu Shiota
Social Interaction

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021