Language Webs: The Translation Network

Language Webs: The Translation Network

The original is unfaithful to the translation.

— Jorge Luis Borges

Translation is everywhere at NYUAD. Students and faculty read in translation, translate their own work, and confront the question of what is “lost in translation” every day. Some classes, including Fundamentals of Playwriting (taught by visiting playwright Abhishek Majumdar last semester), integrate translation directly into the writing process — students were encouraged to write their first drafts in any language, and present a final portfolio with the play in the original language and in translation.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. The artist, Eila Hiltunen, attempted to translate the composer's music into sculpture. (photographed by Hannah Walhout)

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. The artist, Eila Hiltunen, attempted to translate the composer’s music into sculpture. (Photograph by Hannah Walhout)

It is common for Writing Fellows to hear from students, “I always write in my first language, then translate later,” or “I am translating in my head every time I write a sentence.” How can this process of translation affect the way we think and write? What can we gain from the act of translation? What can we lose? What amazing things can we create with language on a campus with a hundred different mother tongues?

With this tension in mind, Writing Fellows Claire Pershan and Mohit Mandal have been working for months on a new project they call the Translation Network. The site aims to get the GNU community creating work across languages and grappling with questions of translation and meaning. Electra Street sat down with the team to discuss their work.

Electra Street: Tell us about the project – what are you building here?

Claire Pershan: So, the Translation Network is a digital platform for anyone in the NYU community – anyone with an NYU email address, basically – to post texts that they have written (in any language), and those texts will be available to be translated into any other language. The idea is to create a space to encourage translation, to encourage languages that are not English, to encourage the creation of texts in languages that are not necessarily used in classrooms here. Because, obviously, the student body is so polyglot, and not necessarily encouraged to draw on that amazing resource they have.

Mohit Mandal: I see this website working as a very messy and complicated and dynamic space – because it will kind of mirror how messy and complicated and dynamic translation is. And it will also open up conversations, not only around the production of written work, but also the translation of written work. Because there is a lot that is lost and gained when one crosses from one language to another. As it is right now, in terms of spaces for students and other writers on campus, there isn’t much conversation around translation.

ES: What got you interested in translation? How did this project come to be?

MM: Well, Claire was the one who started this idea. I’ve always been interested in the question of translation and what possibilities there are in the amazing hybrid space between languages, so the two of us started working together in September, and went from there.

CP: I actually thought of this as a ridiculous idea that might happen if I got the job here – this was before I even arrived. I was working at a small Los Angeles publisher called Phoneme Media, and doing some thinking about translation for them. Then, I encountered a project through them called the Enemies Project, which was an event between poets in London and Mexico City. These poets exchanged work, translated each other’s work, and then read simultaneously. So I liked this weird communication across traditional boundaries, and this idea of translator also as creator, and this collaboration and polyphony. And I thought, “Well, NYU has a similar setup between these different campuses, and between different students and faculty who come and go here all the time.” So it seemed like an amazing space to test this project and facilitate more translation.

ES: Why is translation important? NYUAD students certainly read a lot of scholars and writers who have theorized about this (Borges, Derrida, Eco, etc.) – but why is it important on a more tangible level, especially in the NYUAD context?

CP: It’s just everywhere. I think language is an essential technology that we’re using all the time – we haven’t found a better one yet. We have emojis, so we’re working on it. But as long as we’re using language, we’re translating, necessarily.

MM: I think translation is one of those things which is so embedded in our day-to-day lives. Just for our student body, who is constantly translating between languages – and a large part of our student body is bilingual, if not trilingual, which is just crazy to think about. We have so many of these languages roaming around in our heads, so we wanted to have them come together and see what would come out of these interactions.

CP: And I think translation is necessarily political, and necessarily represents (and perhaps reinforces) systems of power and knowledge. So in that sense – I mean, in the United States, there’s that famous percentage: only 3% of all texts published in the U.S. are in translation. Meaning the U.S. is just reading anglophone stuff again and again. I see translation into other languages, from other languages, as working to equalize that and share voices.

MM: We wanted to start within the NYU network, because the notion is that the Translation Network is founded on community. It might even be counterproductive if it’s open to everyone, because that reduces a kind of intimacy that exists in the NYUAD community and the larger GNU.

CP: The student body obviously speaks so many languages other than English. Students are also learning so many other languages, and have the desire to know so many – and to know each other. So I think of the Translation Network as a space where they can do that, in a small way. It would be problematic to extend it outside the GNU, because we shouldn’t be putting translators out of work. It would be dangerous for translation to just turn into a wiki. And the Translation Network is about community, about practice, about small pieces of text. It’s not supposed to be producing the next novels.

ES: How should people use the Translation Network?

CP: The ideal use of it is just for people to put drops in this bucket, and to experiment. I think of this as kind of a heuristic for translation, and as a way for anyone to see themselves as translators – since they’re probably already doing this all the time, without thinking about it in that way. So this is something someone could do in that half-hour break they have after lunch. They read a post, and are inspired by it, and want to translate it into another language. We would also love to see the Translation Network integrated into classroom spaces, since it could be a great tool. But that’s mostly just to get the ball rolling. I want it just to be an open, fun thing. I see it as also a portal for communication, where some student here is maybe practicing Italian – and they can go and read some student’s post from Florence, and translate it into English, or vice versa. This idea of crossing those paths through dialogue with other current students.

MM: Just to add on to the idea of the Translation Network as a tool for community – I see a lot of potential for people learning different languages, especially for, for example, security guards on campus who are taking “English in the Workplace” classes. A lot of the security guards actually write poetry themselves, in Urdu, or in Hindi, or their own native languages – and it would be lovely for these poems to be translated into English, and then translated into other languages as well. And for them to work with their own translations, as they’re learning different languages.

CP: And also, this is not supposed to alienate monolingualism at all. I’m basically monolingual myself. It’s about showing the nuances within language – I would love to be seeing English to English translations, or Arabic to Arabic. It’s about just thinking about words, and there are so many languages that exist within our delineations of “one language.” So I would love to see students really pushing at the border – I would love to see a submission in half Spanish, half English. Any quote-unquote “weird” stuff.

ES: Awesome! So what should people do if they want to submit or get involved?

CP: We’re looking for anything, any text – the Translation Network is really open with the idea of text, because we don’t want it to be just something literary. It’s not necessarily a projection of literature at all. Haikus are something that would be a nice length, because it’s approachable. But if someone wants to give an excerpt of something longer – a journal entry, anything. Anything goes. It’s really easy to go through our website, and people should submit whatever they want, about anything they want. I would also really love to see more translations of stuff that’s there, to be interacting more in the space.

MM: People should definitely feel free to submit work that they’ve already produced. We would love to see snippets of things people have written for class, or journal entries, or personal projects. And eventually, our website will have a neat visualization which shows the relationships between different posts – how one post was changed into another, and what that was changed into. Which I think will make the spiderweb, messy nature of what we do more visual.

The Translation Network is actively looking for contributors, translators, and curators. To submit or translate, simply visit the “Contribute” section of the site. Original submissions will be reviewed for suitability, and translations will be briefly checked for relevance, but no edits will be made.

A team of curators is responsible for reviewing all contributions submitted to the network before posting them to the site. If you are interested in joining Claire and Mohit and participating more closely with the project as a curator, email




BY ZHENG ZHENDUO (1898-1958)


Three Translations: Reflections on Pets in Chinese Letters

The following essay is the first installment in a series of three translations I have undertaken in conjunction with my class, “Animal, Culture, and Society.”  I teach this course, which examines traditional and modern formulations of human-animal differences in Chinese, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian letters, as part of the core curriculum in “Structures of Thought and Society” at NYU Abu Dhabi.  My choice of these three essays, drawn from a larger pool of writings on which I am currently conducting research, was somewhat random, but as I’ve worked on the translations, I’ve been struck by a number of notable areas of overlap and patterns of historical significance.  All three essays draw on long-standing tropes of nature, the human, and the animal in the history of Chinese letters that remain little understood, whether in terms of their formal literary operation, their potential impact on actual human interactions with nature, or their relevance for Chinese of more “modern” times.

The first essay, “Cats,” by Zheng Zhenduo (1898-1958), evokes a well-known (to Chinese readers at least) exchange between the early Confucian philosopher Mencius and King Xuan of Qi on the subject of human conscience.  When Zheng, at the end of “Cats,” notes that his conscience (liangxin) has been pierced by the two arrows of his own rage and abusive behavior, he is alluding the core Mencian concept of the “compassionate heart” (also liangxin), which Mencius posits as a component of human nature, albeit one that humans are not always capable of acting on, or not always aware they are acting on, as was the case with King Xuan.  That this concept would be evoked by a figure of the iconoclastic May Fourth/New Culture Movement suggests that if Chinese intellectuals imagined “Science” and “Democracy” as the future bases of a strong Chinese nation-state in the twentieth century, Confucian concepts might yet guide humans toward forms of non-nationalistic community, or even to what might be called today a form of planetary community.

In the two essays to follow we find a similar parsing of place and culture, albeit through distinctly different conceptual formulations.  Feng Zikai’s (1898-1975) “Tadpoles,” for example, offers a variant of what Philip A. Kafalas has termed “Chinese Nostalgiology,” varieties of which I have also previously explored in a study of culinary nostalgia.  In Feng’s essay, we find that nostalgia is no mere category of pathology, but one with a critical edge that allows Feng to examine the ways in which the built forms of the city shape human perception.  A master illustrator and painter as well as a prose stylist, Feng evokes a number of ocular metaphors to suggest that, in the city, both humans and non-human animals are subject to processes of distortion, largely visual amplification, that may confuse humans, at least, of their respective essential natures.  In more subtle ways, the essay also appears to allegorize the life of the kept tadpole as a figure of the politically stunted Chinese intellectual.  When Feng teaches a group of children how to properly raise tadpoles, the larger lesson speaks to the challenge facing the modern Chinese nation-state of learning how to properly foster a climate of open political discourse.

Children figure prominently in all three essays, most explicitly in Taiwanese writer Chen Guanxue’s (Koarnhak Tarn, b. 1934) “My Daughter’s Insect and Bird Friends.”  The presence of children lends to all three essays a slight tenor of children’s literature (Zheng’s “Cats” has in fact been anthologized in middle school texts in the People’s Republic).  But the essays are ultimately about childhood and encountering nature.  No sooner does Chen’s daughter acquire a new insect or bird friend than she names it, a common enough act of course, until we learn that her names are part of a larger overall system of ordering nature on a model of human social organization.  Chen’s essay is ultimately a celebration of his daughter’s remarkably healthy relationships with her animal friends, which he compares most favorably to the general unhealthiness of human sociability.  One is still left wondering, however, if the impulse to name, a key component of the ordering of nature in general, remains for Chen a limiting concept, one that reifies both social hierarchy and the notion of a human-animal divide.

As should soon be evident in the short student reflections that will accompany the translations, these few topics barely begin to scratch the surface of the meanings of these essays, and of what they have to teach us about not only animals, but of animals as components of “Structures of Thought and Society.”  None of the essays translated here push the envelope on the concept of the non-human animal so far as to explicitly posit animals as social agents, as urged by some recent contributors to the emerging field of Animal Studies.  All, however, register non-human animals as what might be called “actants” (to borrow a term from Actor-Network Theory) and thus demand their incorporation as such, and not merely as objects, into social theory.  In this regard I am doubly-grateful for the opportunity to teach in the NYU Abu Dhabi core curriculum: first, for the chance it provides to design a core course on social thought that is not only globally comparative but also potentially posthumanist in scope; and second, for the need it creates for the translation of wider varieties of world literatures than core curricula have conventionally demanded.

[Click here for a PDF of the original Chinese text.]

My family has raised quite a few cats, with the final outcome always either disappearance or death.  Third Sister liked cats the most, and she often played with them after coming home from school.  One of them was a kitten she brought home from next door.  It had grey fur and was very energetic, and it often rolled around in the sunlight on the front veranda, looking like a snowball speckled with mud.  Third Sister would often drag a red ribbon or a length of string back and forth in front of the cat, and the cat would pounce first in one direction and then the next.  I would sit on our rattan chair watching them and could while away and hour or two of daylight with a smile on my face.  The sunlight was warm then, and I felt full of the freshness and joy of life.  Then, for some unknown reason, the cat suddenly started losing weight.  It wouldn’t eat a thing, its lustrous pelt turned grimy, and the cat lay under a chair all day in the parlor, unwilling to come out.  Third Sister came up with all kinds of ways to play with it, but the cat ignored them all.  We were all grief-stricken.  Third Sister even made a special trip to buy a tiny copper bell, which she tied to a red silk sash and dangled underneath the cat’s neck.  But somehow the bell seemed unsuitable, as the cat simply lay there, lifeless, lazy, and dejected.  One afternoon, when I came home from the translation bureau, Third Sister exclaimed, sadly, “Big brother, the cat’s dead!”

I also felt a tinge of grief at the loss of our pitiable and yet perfect companion of the past two months.  All the same, I could only comfort Third Sister by saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you another one from somewhere.”

A few days later Second Sister came back from our uncle’s house in Hongkou.  She said that they had three or four kittens over there, that they were a lot of fun, and that they were about to give them away.  Third Sister wouldn’t stop pestering her to go and get one.  Then, on Sunday, mother came home and brought one of them with her, brown all over from head to tail.  Third Sister was immediately taken in by this little brown kitten.  This cat was even more fun than the last, and livelier too.  It would run all over the courtyard, jump through the tree onto the surrounding wall, and then jump down to the street into the sunshine.  None of us could rest assured that it was safe, and all day long we’d ask each other, over and over again, “And the kitten?” “And the kitten?”  It always took us a good while before one of us could finally find it.  Third Sister would point her finger at it and scold it, but with a smile on her face, saying: “Kitten, you’re never going to learn your lesson about running off, not until some beggar steals you!”  But whenever I came home for lunch, I never failed to find the kitten sitting outside the front gate.  And as soon it saw me walk inside, it would dash inside after me.  My after-lunch entertainment was watching the cat climb the tree and take cover in the dappling sunlight amid the green leaves, if as it were lying in wait to catch something.  No sooner would I bring the kitten back down and let it go than it would climb right back up again.  After two or three months, it learned how to catch mice, and once, to our surprise, it caught a really fat one.  From that point on, we never had to listen to that irksome sound of their screeching any more.

Early one morning, after I’d gotten out of bed, put on my clothes, and gone downstairs, I didn’t see the kitten anywhere.  I looked around the courtyard, but still there was no sign of it.  Then I had a feeling, a premonition of loss.
“Third Sister, where’s the kitten?”

She ran downstairs in a frenzy and answered, “I was just looking all over and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Everybody in the family hurried about looking for it, but the cat did not turn up.

“When I opened the door early this morning,” Sister-in-law Li said, “the cat was still sitting in the parlor.  It only disappeared once I started cooking.”

Everybody was upset, as if we’d lost a beloved companion.  Even Aunt Zhang, who’d never really liked the kitten, said, “Such a pity!  Such a pity!  Such a sweet kitten.”

I still felt a ray of hope, thinking that it had just randomly run off to some faraway place and might be able to make its way back home.

At lunchtime, Aunt Zhang announced: “I just ran into the Zhou’s servant next door.  She said she saw the kitten outside this morning, and that it was taken away by a passerby.”

And so the loss was confirmed.  Third Sister was very unhappy and mumbled, “They watched it happen.  Why didn’t they stop it?  They knew it was ours!

I was also upset, and incensed too, and I repeatedly cursed the anonymous person who stole our object of affection.

After that, our family didn’t raise cats for a little while.

One winter morning, a truly pitiful kitten lay curled up outside our door.  It had grey fur but wasn’t the least bit attractive, and it was terribly skinny.  It just lay there and didn’t move.  If we hadn’t taken it in and cared for it, at the very least it would have died from the cold or hunger.  Aunt Shen brought it inside and fed it every day.  Only none of us really liked it.  It wasn’t energetic, and it didn’t like to wander around mischievously like other cats did.  It was as if this kitten were congenitally melancholic.  Even a cat-lover like Third Sister didn’t pay any attention to it.  Several months passed like this, and the kitten remained the animal of the house that might as well have not been there.  It gradually fattened up, but it never livened up.  Whenever we all gathered to chat on the front veranda, the kitten would come over and curl up under mother’s or Third Sister’s feet.  Third Sister would sometimes try to play with it, but she wasn’t as interested in doing so as she had been with the previous two cats.  One day, taking cover from cold night air, the kitten tucked itself underneath the stove, only to burn off several patches of fur.  Now it was even uglier.

Come springtime, the kitten had grown into a strong cat, but it was still just as melancholic, and still wouldn’t chase mice.  It just lay around lazily all day, eating itself fatter and fatter.

Around this time, my wife bought a pair of yellow canaries and hung them on the veranda.  Their chirping was beautiful.  My wife was forever instructing Aunt Zhang to change their water, give them more bird food, and wash the cage.  The grey cat also seemed to have taken a special interest in the birds, and it often jumped up on the table and stared into the cage.

“Aunt Zhang, watch out for the cat,” my wife would say: “It’ll eat the birds.”

Then Aunt Zhang would hurry over and move the cat away.  At little while later, it would jump back onto the table and stare into the cage again.

One day, as I was coming down the stairs, I heard Aunt Zhang shout out: “One of the birds is dead.  Its leg was bitten off.  There’s blood all over the bottom of the cage.  Could something have bitten it to death?”

I quickly ran over, and indeed one of the birds was dead.  There were feathers scattered all over the place, as if it had put up a valiant struggle against its enemy.

I was furious and shouted, “It had to have been the cat!  It had to have been the cat!”  And then I promptly set out looking for it.

My wife overheard and also ran downstairs.  She was terribly sad when she saw the dead bird, and remarked, “What else could it have been if not the cat that killed it?  Always staring at the cage.  That was why I was always telling Aunt Zhang to be careful.  Aunt Zhang!  Why weren’t you more careful?”

Aunt Zhang was silent, unsure how to defend herself.

Consequently, the cat’s evil disposition was now established as fact.  Everybody started looking around for that wretched animal, eager to mete out an appropriate punishment.  We looked all over the place but couldn’t find it.  I became convinced that it had actually “absconded to avoid punishment.”

Then Third Sister called out from upstairs: “The cat’s right here.”

The cat was lying very peacefully in the sun, right out in the open on the balcony, though it seemed to have something in its mouth that it was still eating.  I thought to myself, it had to be that pitiful little bird’s leg.  Overcome with rage, I grabbed a wooden pole that was leaning against the side of the door, and then chased after the cat and beat it.  “Me-ow!” the cat howled mournfully, before jumping onto the roof.

I still felt furious, thinking that the punishment hadn’t been decisive enough.

A few days later, Sister-in-law Li hollered out from upstairs: “The cat, the cat!  It ate another bird.”  Then and there, I saw a black cat jump straight away over the balcony railing, a yellow bird clenched between its teeth.  I started to think that I’d been wrong.

I felt absolutely miserable.  I had a wounded conscience.  I hadn’t judged clearly and had issued a hasty verdict, wronging an animal that couldn’t speak in its own defense.  Recalling how the cat had run away without putting up a fight, I felt even more deeply that my rage and abuse were in fact two arrows, two arrows that had pierced my own conscience!

Oh how I wanted to make up for my mistake, but the cat couldn’t speak, so how was I supposed to explain my misunderstanding to it?

Two months later, the cat suddenly died while up on the neighbor’s roof.  That loss, compared with the previous two, was much harder for me to bear.

I would never have an opportunity to correct my mistake.

After that, our family never raised cats again.

7 October 1925

Mark Swislocki is Associate Professor of History at NYU Abu Dhabi.

[Translation © 2010 Mark Swislocki.]

Colloquium on Cosmopolitanism



This video was recorded in July 2010 as part of the inaugural Summer Colloquium for incoming NYU Abu Dhabi students. The theme of the colloquium was “Cosmopolitan Ideas for Global Citizens.” One of the goals of the colloquium was to get students thinking about a term —  cosmopolitan — is often applied to both New York and Abu Dhabi and as a result to NYU Abu Dhabi. To its credit, NYU Abu Dhabi as an institution has embraced the idea of cosmopolitanism with a self-conscious deliberateness that led to a series of ongoing programs and conversations about the benefits and the costs of embracing cosmopolitan ideals. The opening of NYUAD’s New York home at 19 Washington Square North last year was marked by the inaugural session in a series on “The Cosmopolitan Idea” that continued throughout the 2009-10 academic year. Subsequent sessions focused on such topics as “Cosmopolitanism and Multiculturalism,” “The Cosmopolitan Idea and National Sovereignty,” and “The Universal Claims of Cosmopolitanism.” (Many of these talks given at theses sessions will be collected in a volume due out this spring.) An exhibition of photographs by Zubin Shroff entitled “The Cosmopolitans” opened in New York before traveling to Abu Dhabi this fall.

A few weeks before the opening of 19 Washington Square North, I had the privilege of giving a lecture at the invitation of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute during my first visit to Abu Dhabi. The subject of the lecture was “Cosmopolitanism, Multiculturalism, and the Promise of Literature.” The sample classes that I taught during three admissions weekends in Abu Dhabi also exposed candidates for admission to NYUAD to current thinking about cosmopolitanism. In all of these venues, I tried to explain how cosmopolitanism has evolved from being a critique of nationalism into a critique of universalism, in which difference is conceived not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an opportunity to be embraced.

The summer colloquium became a way of inviting all incoming NYUAD students to participate in this conversation about this idea that is so central to the mission of NYU Abu Dhabi. Each incoming student received a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and was invited to read it by late June. (The colloquium was purely voluntary.) The project was framed for this students in this way:

As a student attending NYU Abu Dhabi, you have been described as cosmopolitan. But what does it mean to be a cosmopolitan in an international context? Often the term is associated with the sophisticated urban elite; however, the root of the word, “cosmos,” refers to the universe. A cosmopolitan is therefore a citizen of the world, with no national or political home. But how can one become a citizen of the world? Is it even desirable to do so? After all, few people want to divorce themselves wholly from a cultural community in order to join a global society. While human beings may share some beliefs, desires, and values, we rarely agree wholeheartedly on our interpretations of those beliefs, desires, and values, which are often rooted in experiences grouped by geographic place. The summer colloquium offers an opportunity to discuss the advantages and limitations, in short the paradox, of being a cosmopolitan.

In early July, my NYUAD philosophy colleague Matthew Silverstein began convening online chat groups that put the students in conversation with one another across geographical and temporal divides, helping them to distill their thoughts on Appiah’s book into a set of questions about cosmopolitanism. The students were interested in the history of philosophy that Appiah presented to them in his account of “positivism”; in the relative claims of the individual and the communal in cosmopolitan theory; in the rhetorical strategies that Appiah employed; and in the ways that the rather abstract ideas presented in Appiah’s account could be put into practice. I recorded this video in response to those questions — not with the aim of offering definitive answers, but rather with the aim of continuing the conversation, venturing provisional responses, and seeking out even more challenging questions.

Both the lecture that I gave in Abu Dhabi and the classes that I presented during candidate weekends began with an anecdote about my childhood that went something like this:

When I was growing up, strangers would ask me, “Where are you from?” and I’d say, “New York” or “the upper West Side.” They’d look vaguely disappointed: “No, I meant what’s your background.” I wasn’t really being disingenuous, though I was well aware what the first question really meant. It’s just that I never particularly identified with either of my parents’ cultural traditions. My father is a Parsee, born in Karachi, when Karachi was a part of India, and my late mother was a Filipino. They had met at the International House at Columbia University, my father coming from Pakistan to study mathematical statistics, my mother from the Philippines to study literature and drama. We spoke English at home, and my parents had gradually lost their fluency in their mother tongues (Gujarati and Tagalog, respectively). What I identified with was being mixed and being able to slip from one cultural context to another. To my Parsee relatives, I looked Filipino; to my Filipino relatives, I looked “bumbai”; and to my classmates—well, on the rare occasions when someone wanted to launch a racial slur, the result was usually a lame attempt to insult me as if I were Puerto Rican.

We weren’t particularly religious at home, though we did celebrate Christmas and made it a point to attend the Christmas Eve services at Riverside Church in New York, a few blocks up the street from where we lived. My mother sometimes liked to attend Easter services there as well. It was always assumed that I would become a Zoroastrian like my father. As my mother explained it, that way I could keep my options open. I could convert to Christianity but not to Zoroastrianism later, because Zoroastrianism didn’t accept converts. But, when the time came during third grade for my navjote ceremony to be performed, we couldn’t find a priest. We kept hearing excuses along the lines of, “I would do it, but my mother-in-law is very old-fashioned.” The problem was that my mother was a Christian—oddly enough a Protestant, unlike most Filipinos, because my grandmother had converted to a Pentecostal sect before my mother’s birth. Eventually, we managed to secure the services of a priest from Mumbai who was traveling in the U.S. and spending some time in New York. Four years later, we had to go to London to have my sister’s ceremony done.

I later realized, I told my audiences, that this experience to be an early lesson in the dynamics of culture, though it would take me years to recognize it: my parents’ marriage was an emblem of cosmopolitan cultural mixing, while the priests’ belief in the importance of cultural purity served as an emblem of all the forces that are arrayed against cosmopolitanism.

Like Appiah in Cosmopolitanism, I’ve adopted the tactic of using stories from my personal history — and the history of my family — as a way of getting across some of the complexities of cosmopolitan theory. I chose to begin the summer colloquium video, therefore, with another bit of personal narrative, this time about the origins of my name — Cyrus Rusi Kaikhusroo Patell — and the naming of my children.

Conversation across boundaries of difference and cultural divides is the practice that lies at the heart of cosmopolitan theory. This video is meant to serve as an invitation to conversation, a conversation that we are committed to continuing here at Electra Street.

Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Dean of Humanities for NYU Abu Dhabi. Electra Street’s “Colloquium on Cosmopolitanism” will continue throughout the coming year. Videos from “The Cosmopolitan Idea” series held at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute in New York can be found at The lecture “Cosmopolitanism, Multiculturalism, and the Promise of Literature” is available at