31 December 2008

Kristina Langarika

The report on the conference cited earlier says: "Kristina Goikoetxea Langarika explained that in addition to the practical reasons for her writing in Dutch – the language of the country where she lives and wants to find her audience as an author – there were also psychological reasons for her choice of language. For example, she explained, she writes in the second language 'with a certain distance', especially when she writes about her home country. But the internalisation of this 'objectivity' also leads to a change of perspective on the conditions and positions from which the author tells her stories or has a character tell a story." Again, a crucial question arises: does that "distance" not constitute a weakness in literariness? In terms of the classic Chinese definition of literature (shih yen chih), how can a writer truly express the self if the language of the self is not the language of the expression? Or in Greek terms, is writing in a second language twice (or more) removed from the reality of the self?

30 December 2008

Milan Kundera

In the conference I mentioned in my last post, Jan Rubeš of Brussels talked about "Czech writer Milan Kundera, who has been living in France since 1975 and who in the early 1990s started to write in French. Rubeš explained that, through this other language, Kundera’s themes and language, as well as his inspiration, had changed." The question that comes up is: was this good or bad? Do we prefer the Kundera writing in Czech (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984) or in French (Identity, 1998)? Is anything lost or added by the French language to the Czech writing? Some kind of change is clear, but is it change for the better or for the worse?

Divided selves?

The Report on the Conference Immigrant Literature - Writing in Adopted Languages held on 24 April 2008 in Brussels, organized by the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) offers fertile ground for ideas about the core issue of this blog. I will go through the report in some detail, one detail at a time, to react even at this late stage, perhaps to elicit some posts from interested readers. Leonard Orban (EU Commissioner for Multilingualism) is reported to have said, "In their intermediate position, the authors are forced to give up a part of their own culture in order to better understand a new country. They live in a 'divided self' and have to become part of the foreign culture, thus both cultures enter a reciprocal relationship that could become a role model for a prudent interculturalism." I like the way Orban stresses the importance of literature for peace and unity initiatives, but I am a bit wary about the divided self (in some circles, that is called "hyphenated identity") idea. I think, on the contrary, that second-language authors, even if they do not know it, represent a third, rather than a mixed or cross-bred culture. Literary critics have to begin recognizing that reading a poem not written by a "native speaker" needs a different set of criteria from that we use in reading a poem written by a "native speaker." To begin with, the literary critics themselves must know the mother tongue intimately, to know which rhythmic patterns and so on contribute to the patterns intrinsic to the new language.

Beckett on writing in a second language

Here's something from a site about Samuel Beckett: "Beckett said that when he wrote in French it was easier to write 'without style' - he did not try to be elegant." One problem with Filipinos writing in English is they try to be elegant in English, which is their second language (just like French was Beckett's second language), instead of focusing not on style but on content. Here might lie a clue why Philippine writing in English is not as recognized outside the Philippines as English writing from other countries is.

29 December 2008

Anthony Gardner's list

In an article entitled "Second-language authors" in a recent issue of the magazine Europe in the UK, Anthony Gardner lists several authors that wrote in other than their mother tongues: Józef Teodor "Joseph Conrad" Konrad Korzienowski (spoke Polish and French, wrote English), Samuel Beckett (spoke English, wrote French), Vladimir Nabokov (spoke Russian and French, wrote English), Oscar Wilde (spoke and wrote English, wrote French), Andrei Makine (spoke Russian, wrote French), Spinoza (spoke Dutch, wrote Latin), Leo Tolstoy (spoke and wrote Russian, wrote sometimes in French). Gardner writes, "Curiously, however, when speaking English Conrad never lost his Polish accent (indeed, according to his wife, it became stronger as he grew older); and the question remains as to how far a writer can assimilate a language other than his or her own. The critic A.C. Ward observed of Conrad that 'he never wrote quite as a born Englishman' (though, he added, 'he wrote the language incomparably better than most educated Englishmen do'); while the French poet Adolphe Retté, who was asked by Wilde for his comments on the manuscript of Salomé, claimed that his main task was to remove 'les anglicismes trop formels.'" It would be very interesting to find out what "native-speaking" British or American critics think of Nick Joaquin (spoke Spanish and Tagalog, wrote English), who is highly regarded as a great English writer by his fellow Filipinos, but by very few outside his own country.

28 December 2008

Fun game on accents

Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" reads very differently depending on the accent or nationality of the reader. Try the Language Trainers fun game on accents. Try and see if the meter is kept by the various speakers. If sound is as important as sense, as many poets claim, what happens to the overall meaning and effect of the poem when speakers put the stresses on different syllables, as happens in this fun game? Is a poem's music really in the ears of the hearer (or speaker)? Or is there, as the New Critics once pronounced, an "objective" music in the poem independent of human beings?

27 December 2008

Film dubbing vs. subtitles

This is really about film, rather than literature strictly speaking, but the point raised by one reviewer about the Mandarin Chinese dialogue of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gives me an idea of how to test experimentally the effect of language on readers or audiences. Holly E. Ordway says this about the soundtrack of the DVD version of the highly-acclaimed film: "I recommend that on the first watching you play it with the English dubbed track. The subtitles can be tricky to watch, as it’s possible to wind up slightly confused about the story because you looked away at the wrong moment and missed a key plot element mentioned in the subtitles. Choosing the dubbed track allows you to follow the story without having to worry about missing a crucial piece of information, and it also allows you to enjoy the cinematography and imagery of the film more fully, as you won’t have to be constantly looking at the bottom of the screen. On the second watching (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie that definitely merits multiple viewings), you should consider watching it with the original Mandarin soundtrack with English subtitles, thus allowing you to get the original flavor of the film’s dialogue now that you are familiar with the storyline." I recommend three, rather than just two viewings: first, watch the film in Mandarin without English subtitles; second, watch it with the dubbed English; third, watch it with the English subtitles. Do the visuals change? Not from the point of view of the film, but it would from the point of view of the viewer, who has to move her/his eyes up and down with the subtitles. Does the overall effect change? If we assume that the viewer does not understand Mandarin, then clearly the first viewing would not be exactly completely satisfying. Even more interesting would be the case if the viewer knows neither Mandarin nor English. The DVD has French (and perhaps in later versions, other languages) subtitles, so a French person would have a fourth possible viewing. But consider a Filipino that's a non-Chinese and non-English speaker. There's plenty of economic evidence that, in places where Tagalog is not widely spoken, Tagalog kungfu movies are very popular. I would think Ang Lee's film would be similarly attractive even to those that cannot understand any of the languages in the DVD. This is an experiment that can surely be tried by someone.

26 December 2008

Kuwadro / Portrait 3

The climax of the play occurs with Katerina cursing Don Isagani with the Tagalog cuss words "Putang-ina niya!" I had to change the Tagalog to the Spanish "Hijo de puta!" when the play was anthologized for a secondary school textbook, at the request of teachers in a Catholic school; otherwise the textbook would not have been adopted. Curiously, the Spanish (which is a literal equivalent of the Tagalog) sounds a bit less vulgar to Philippine ears. In the English version, I used the pretty mild "That son of a bitch!" The English doesn't even begin to approach the complex sharpness of the Tagalog curse. When spoken in an American film, SOB has little shock value, but when spoken in a Tagalog film, "Putang-ina" still surprises. The three versions (Tagalog, Spanish, English) of exactly the same literal meaning (referring to the mother's less than exemplary sexual behavior) show why the language makes a lot of difference to the literariness.

Kuwadro / Portrait 2

This is the last line of Kuwadro in Filipino: "Sambahin mo ako, sapagkat ako, ako, si Katerina Alonso, ang iyong reyna, ang reyna ng sarswelang filipina." This is how I translated that line into English in Portrait: "Worship me, kiss my feet, because I, I, Katerina Alonso, am your queen, the queen of the Filipino sarswela." I realized that the English "worship me," the literal translation of "sambahin mo ako," does not carry the same connotations the Filipino original has ("sambahin," a play on "simbahan" and "sambahan," alludes to a religious context), since I can say to a significant other "I worship you" or "I worship the ground you walk on" and be entirely secular. I added "kiss my feet," which is more idiomatic in English and has the right non-religious connotation, which would work better with a secular audience (Americans, as a rule, are not as obsessed about religion as Filipinos are). In Filipino, "kiss my feet" would literally translate into "halikan mo ang mga paa ko," which has no meaning, or at least does not have the meaning that the English text does. Incidentally, I deliberately wanted to allude to Nick Joaquin's famous story "The Summer Solstice" (1947), where the man in the last scene kisses the feet of the woman.

Kuwadro / Portrait 1

Let me talk a bit about my one-act play entitled Kuwadro, which was a high point in my playwriting career. It was inspired by the life of Honorata "Atang" de la Rama, was a play originally written for and acted by Rita Gomez (both now-deceased female actors were icons in Philippine theater and cinema) and subsequently performed by various other actors, and has been anthologized in various books. I wrote it originally in Filipino in 1980, having been commissioned by the Metropolitan Theater in Manila, then was prevailed upon to translate it into English for an English secondary school textbook. The English translation, entitled Portrait, was staged in various countries (the most recent in 2006 in Los Angeles, USA, with some changes by Johnny Jose Cruz that I authorized). The Filipino play was also translated into Cebuano and staged in the Southern, Cebuano-speaking part of the Philippines. The English play is available online on the Asia and Pacific Writers Network website. It's my only play that I translated myself. My other plays were translated by other people. In future posts, I want to talk about what I learned from the experience of translating my own play into a second language.

25 December 2008

Thinking in English about non-English languages

The issues raised by, among others, T. Ruanni F. Tupas of the National University of Singapore, about so-called "Standard Englishes" appear to be of great interest to linguists. Literary critics can learn from the debates. One thing we literary critics (and not linguists) can learn is the way thinking changes depending on what language we start thinking in. For example, Tupas thinks in English about the relationship between English and vernacular Philippine languages; his conclusions, to be polite about it, look weird to someone thinking in Filipino or Tagalog about the very same relationship. One only has to read Virgilio Almario or Bienvenido Lumbera on the same issues to see that the conclusions of each group depend very much on the assumptions foisted on them by the language they use.

24 December 2008

For formalist literary critics

This is a sentence from the novel The Bamboo Dancers, by N.V.M. Gonzalez, a Philippine National Artist who lived much of his adult life in California: "To understand and to be understood - this has been my motto." What insights do we get if we read this sentence as a sentence in Tagalog (NVM's mother tongue, in which he also wrote fiction), "using English words," as he himself liked to say? In English, the sentence plays cleverly with two meanings of the word "understand," namely, to comprehend the nature of something, and to be sympathetic towards someone or something. That ambiguity is enough to give the sentence literariness, as the Russian formalists would put it. The two meanings in English are distinct from each other ("I understand this sentence" is different from "I understand you"), which is why the ambiguity works. In Tagalog, however, the two meanings are identical when the word "intindihin" is used in reference to oneself ("Intindihin mo ako"). There is no ambiguity in Tagalog. The play between ambiguity and non-ambiguity adds to the literariness of the sentence. This is similar to what the New Critics used to say about meter: the meter of a good poem should work as a counterpoint to the way a line is said in ordinary language (e.g., "To be or not to be - that is the question" is iambic except for the last foot, but it is almost always recited with stresses in other places: be, not, that). The Tagalog of Gonzalez works as a counterpoint to the English, adding to the complexity of the prose.

23 December 2008

Decolonizing literary standards

Similar to the efforts of other postcolonial theorists around the world, what I am working for is to get Philippine students to learn literary terms and standards by reading Philippine literature, rather than non-Philippine literature. When I was growing up, I was taught the elements of a short story by reading Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and so on. From these non-Philippine writers, I learned about plot, character, conflict, etc. By the time I started reading Nick Joaquin, N.V.M. Gonzalez, and other Philippine short story writers, I had pretty firm ideas about what constituted a good story. It was inevitable that I thought that Hemingway wrote better than Gonzalez, that Joaquin was no match for Faulkner, and that Philippine short story writers sucked. The culprit here is that the standards are set by non-Philippine writers. Philippine fiction takes a lot of its narrative strains or plots, its characters, even its types of conflicts from Philippine fiction written in various vernacular languages long before the short story became popular in the United States. Naturally, these Philippine short stories do not follow the American rules on short fiction writing. Philippine writers wrote short stories even before Americans did, so it does not make any sense to insist that the short story as a form should follow American standards. It makes more sense to insist that American short stories should follow Philippine standards, since Philippine readers are steeped in Philippine narrative traditions and evaluate stories in the context of this tradition. In fact, the stories of Joaquin and Gonzalez are marvelous if read as stories in a second language. If they are read as stories in a first language, they fail, sometimes miserably, even in terms of grammatical correctness, not to mention idiomatic accuracy.

22 December 2008

The first sentence of the Noli

This is the first sentence of the first chapter of Jose Rizal's Noli me tangere: "A fines de Octubre, don Santiago de los Santos, conocido popularmente bajo el nombre de Capitán Tiago, daba una cena, que, a pesar de haberlo anunciado aquella tarde tan sólo contra su costumbre, era ya el tema de todas las conversaciones en Binondo, en otros arrabales y hasta en Intramuros." Is this better or worse than the back translation done by Yahoo! Babel Fish: "En el último de octubre Don Santiago de los Santos, conocido popular como Capitan Tiago, dio una cena, a pesar de que, contrariamente a su aduana generalmente, él había hecho el aviso solamente que la tarde, él era ya el único asunto de la conversación en Binondo y districtos adyacentes, e incluso en Intramuros"? I offer this only to solicit opinions on (1) machine translation, (2) Rizal's Spanish. (For example, are "popularmente" and "costumbre" less correct or idiomatic than "popular" and "aduana"?)

21 December 2008

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

I have never met Ngugi wa Tiong'o, but like countless others, have been deeply influenced by his advocacy for African literature as the centre of literary study (as opposed to British literature). In 1996, I authored a similar revolution in Philippine tertiary education, when I solely and without asking anyone reversed the sequence of required literature subjects in colleges and universities. Philippine Literatures is now a prerequisite for World Literatures, thus ensuring that the definitions of the genres, such as poetry and fiction, are based on Philippine literary texts, with American, British, and, yes, African texts having to measure up to the standards set by Philippine writers. Like Ngugi, I decolonised my own mind by studying and teaching in the belly of the beast (in the Philippine case, the beast is the United States). Ironically, Filipinos that have never studied or taught outside the Philippines think that literary standards are set outside the country.

20 December 2008

Cirilo Bautista's "Pedagogic"

This is one of my favorite poems:

by Cirilo F. Bautista

I walked towards the falling woods
to teach the trees all that I could

of time and birth, the language of men,
the virtues of hate and loving.

They stood with their fingers flaming,
Listened to me with a serious mien:

I knew the footnotes, all the text,
my words were precise and correct—

I was sure that they were learning—
till one tree spoke, speaking in dolor,
to ask why I never changed color.

Bautista's first language is Tagalog. He started out writing short stories and poems in Tagalog and has written two novels in that language. He is also considered as the most important poet in English in the Philippines, having won practically all the available prizes in that field.

Notice, however, that the rhyme scheme fails if we pronounce "mien" the American or British way. To make the rhyme work, we have to pronounce "mien" the way Filipinos do (to rhyme with "men" with a hard E). Here is a clear case of literary critics having to take into account local linguistic conditions, instead of reading a text as though a "native speaker" had written it.

19 December 2008

Blake's symmetry

Will someone please enlighten me about the pronunciation of William Blake's "symmetry" in "Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry"? All the other rhymes in that poem are easy to see, except this one with "symmetry." One of the most difficult aspects of English for those not born to the language is pronunciation. That is why poetry in a second language is much more difficult than fiction, since poetry, as Cirilo F. Bautista loves to say, is primarily sound, with sense merely an adjunct.

17 December 2008

Marjorie Evasco

Cebuano poet Marjorie Evasco, after winning major prizes for her poetry in English, not to mention being included in major international anthologies and guides for her poetry in English, recently shifted to writing in Cebuano. She has finally discovered that Cebuano is the "language of her blood," as the poet Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido writes in “Muted Cry”. I recall the same thing happening much earlier to Muhammad Haji Salleh, who was quite successful as a poet in English, but then decided to write in his native Bahasa Melayu.

Colonizing English

The Philippine poet-critic-fictionist-professor Gemino "Jimmy" H. Abad has claimed repeatedly in various articles and lectures that a Filipino writer using English colonizes the language. It's a good sound bite, an even better insight, and certainly one of the best critical ideas to come from postcolonial critics. Thanks to Braj Kachru, linguists have long recognized that English has moved from what they like to call the "inner circle" (we used to call it "native speakers") to outer and expanding circles or to what is often called today "International English" (with every variety being more or less equal to each other, a sort of linguistic democratic ideal), but literary critics have been slow to use the same idea about the relationship of language to literature. Abad may have found the key to the issue of second language literature. Unfortunately, many Philippine writers writing in English do not even suspect that their English is, first, not at all American English, and second, may actually be subverting American English.

16 December 2008

Spivak and Derrida

I haven't read Jacques Derrida in French (I tried to, without much success, since my French is very, very elementary), but some of those that have say that he is much clearer in the English translation of Of Grammatology done by Gayatri Spivak. Will it be critical heresy to say that, just maybe, Spivak has added to the value of Derrida and may, just maybe, be superior to the French thinker?

Perhaps we should start using the word transformation, which is Spivak's English translation of the concept of Derrida of translation. Translation theory is a tremendously advanced field of literary study, and I do not want to get into it, though I would not have met Spivak had I not participated in a conference on translation at Warwick in the eighties, where we luckily sat next to each other at the same table for lunch. I would rather venture into the relatively unexplored field of second language literature (not just second language writing, in which much has already been done). Specifically, I wish more critics and writers would address the question of how the second language affects creative intentions. For example, when I write in a second language, do I know that there are certain things I cannot express? Or am I completely satisfied that whatever I want to say I can say in the second language? Again, my caveat is that I am not talking of just literal levels or communicative competence. I am talking of literature, where the entire history of the word (as the now pretty old New Critics were fond of saying) enters through the word in a text.

15 December 2008

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Jose "Butch" Dalisay Jr., a Filipino writer who writes in both Filipino and English, alerted me through his Philippine Star column to this passage from the Nobel lecture of the 2008 Nobel laureate, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio: "True, it is unjust that an Indian from the far north of Canada, if he wishes to be heard, must write in the language of the conquerors — in French, or in English. True, it is an illusion to expect that the Creole language of Mauritius or the West Indies might be heard as easily around the world as the five or six languages that reign today as absolute monarchs over the media. But if, through translation, their voices can be heard, then something new is happening, a cause for optimism." I turn out to be au courrant!

Omar Khayyam

As an expatriate teacher of American literature in pre-revolutionary Iran, I was shocked to be told by literature scholars there that the translation by Edward Fitzgerald of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat was not very faithful and that Omar Khayyam himself, though considered an important Persian poet, was far from their best. (That distinction belongs to Ferdussi.) Here is an example of a translator adding so much value to a work that the original writer undeservedly gains an international reputation.

Rizal's Spanish

The case of the 19th century Philippine writer Jose Rizal is instructive. His biographer and lifelong admirer, Jose Baron Fernandez of Spain, admits that Rizal's Spanish left much to be desired, presumably in terms of grammar and idioms. I am no great expert on Spanish, despite having been taught the language since 1956, when the Spanish Capuchins required the language in the small Roman Catholic school I attended in Quezon City, Philippines. But if the "native speaker" Baron is right, then Rizal, widely-read in Tagalog (since he is required reading in all Philippine secondary schools) and in English (the latest English translation of his first novel was published by Penguin), has not been properly read, in the literary criticism sense. In fact, his novels are not even available in the original Spanish, except in rare and out-of-print editions studied only by the most avid Rizal scholars. How can a writer gain such a great reputation for works that have been rethought by translators in other languages? For Rizal, of course, Spanish was a second language, since he grew up using Tagalog and, in fact, started but never finished a novel in Tagalog.

14 December 2008

Who I am

I'm Isagani R. Cruz, a Professor Emeritus of Literature at De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines, and currently also working at Ateneo de Manila University, Far Eastern University, and the University of Santo Tomas (all in Metro Manila, Philippines). My mother tongue is Filipino, but I learned to write in English during secondary school. You can Google me for my profile.

Writing vs. Literature

I appreciate and certainly welcome all the theoretical and pedagogical discussions going on in the area of second language writing, such as those in the Journal of Second Language Writing. Much, if not all of the discussion, however, focuses on what I would call lower-level writing skills, the kind that allows one to communicate effectively in the second language. Very little, if any (and I would be very glad to be corrected) thought is being given to literature, which to me is a higher-level writing skill (in fact, it is not even a skill anymore, but an art). Much of the work done on Philippine literature in English, for example, does not even bother to acknowledge that the authors are thinking in a vernacular, non-Indo-European language, and translating or rethinking their thoughts in the second language (English, in the case of Tagalogs) or the third language (in the case of non-Tagalogs, Tagalog is the second language and English is only the third, both languages being learned in school rather than in the home). This point is very important in the case of poetry, where Tagalogs routinely pronounce English words differently from the British or the Americans, leading to quite different meters and rhymes.

13 December 2008

Hungarian writes in English

Peter J. Oszmann writes candidly of his attempts to write poetry in English, after a previous lifetime of writing in Hungarian, his mother tongue. Here are a couple of sentences from his 2004 article entitled "Writing Poetry in a Second Language":

"The Hungarian language also lends itself easily to writing poetry. There is no difficulty in finding rhyming words, as and when and where you need it; the accent in every word – without exception – always falls on the first syllable, there are no ambiguities in pronouncing a word and finding the right meter is relatively easy, regardless whether one uses very short or very long sentences or lines."

He says of his first forays into poetry writing after moving to England: "I made a few attempts at writing poems in English, but was deeply disillusioned with the results. I found it almost impossible getting the right 'tone' and had great difficulties with rhyme and meter."

Is his experience typical? I would venture to say that it is not just typical, but inevitable. Frankly, I have found very few poets writing in a second language that are able to catch the "right tone" in that language. Prove me wrong by giving me what you consider successful poems in English written by writers that learned it late in life as a second language.

12 December 2008

Bilingual writing

Parallel to my interest is Bilingual Writing or Contrastive Rhetorics, as studied at the University of California at Irvine. Unlike linguists or language teachers, however, I am not really into just writing, but writing that is considered literature, at least in the pre-postmodern sense of being part of the tradition of literary writing (whatever that means). I know that, after Raymond Williams deconstructed the word literature, it has become fashionable, even ideological, not to evaluate writing and to just say that everything everybody writes is literature (or not), but there is clearly a sense we all share that some things are literary and some things are not. Not even Stanley Fish, who has since reversed some of his positions anyway, would have considered as literary during his angry young man days everything printed (though he became famous or infamous for saying that even newspaper items could be read as literature). What this blog wants to investigate, among numerous other things, is whether a writer, learning another language at a later stage of her/his life, can actually produce literature in that language. Could Shakespeare, for instance, have written what he wrote had he been born in France, speaking French?

11 December 2008

Why this blog

Many literary works are read in languages other than those used by their authors. Some very obvious random examples are the New Testament, the Iliad, Oedipus Rex, Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment, Noli Me Tangere, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. The list is endless. But just as important to literary history are the works written in languages other than the mother tongues of the authors. Immediately coming to mind are authors like Joseph Conrad, Jose Rizal, Nick Joaquin, Bienvenido Santos, Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Though shorter than the other list, this list is also pretty long. This blog welcomes posts about these authors and/or their works. For an epigraph/epigram, this blog could very well use the self-description of Filipino writer N.V.M. Gonzalez, who grew up speaking and writing in Tagalog but became famous for his novels and short stories in English: "I write in Tagalog, using English words."