29 December 2009

Government vs multilingual literature

As a general rule, governments do not like mixed-language texts. The idea that people will write in the mixed-language that they speak in tends to be, for some reason, unpalatable to the ruling class in any country. Here is a 17th century example from India:

“After the fall of the Vijaynagar kingdom the Muslin dynasty of Qutb Shahi Kings of Golkonda took over and also ruled over a good part of northern Telugu area. Telugu writers, however, received some patronage from these kings specially Sultan Ibrahim Qutb Shah, who encouraged pure Telugu diction for composition, instead of a highely Sanskritised mixed language, which by that time almost completely controlled poetic activities.” [The Written Languages of the World: A Survey of the Degree and Modes of Use: India: Book 1 Constitutional Languages (1989), by Heinz Kloss and Grant D. McConnell, p. 547]

What literary critics call "hegemony" is at work here: the ruling class inevitably wants to recognize or legitimize works written only in their highly-educated language, rather than in the uneducated language of the oppressed classes. In the Philippines today, the bestselling novels of Bob Ong and numerous romance novelists (written in Taglish, a chaotic mixture of Tagalog, Filipino, and English) are not considered "respectable" and are not taken up in literature classes. Clearly, multilingual criticism cannot ignore political realities.

23 December 2009


Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there is no theorizing going on in the field of multilingual literature. There is, not just among linguists, but among literary critics, particularly the most perceptive ones. Take Gayatri Spivak, for example, clearly among the best of the best of living critics today. She has thought hard about French, which of course is not her "mother tongue" (a term she obviously is uncomfortable about). Here is a recent paragraph showing how Spivak's theorizing has influenced another theorist:

"There’s a very nice variation on the ‘you must begin where you are’ word of wisdom. It comes from the postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak. In an early interview with the Chicano poet and bicultural thinker Alfred Arteaga, Spivak talking about Samuel Beckett says about the bilingual writer: ‘One must clear one’s throat, clear a space, step away, spit out the mother tongue, write in French.’ This is a surprising physiological analogy through which to question connections between body and language. A lingual event is taking place, not in the voice but rather in its absenting, in the clearing of the throat."

Not everybody can understand Spivak, because the depth of her thought demands a similar profundity in her readers, but this account of one of her early statements is fairly easy to grasp. In fact, the writer of the paragraph, Caroline Bergvall, is able to draw quite a number of insights from the statement. Bergvall ends her provocative article, "A Cat in the Throat: On bilingual occupants" (2009), this way:

"I remembered this when the news broke recently of the American use of water torture, waterboarding, on some of its recent and current political prisoners. This excruciating invasion by systematic asphyxiation. Forcing up speech by drowning it. What kind of language emerges and for what kind of madness?"

Multilingual criticism (I still prefer to call it Wikcrit, along the same polemical line that second-wave feminists coined gynocritique) is not just about literary texts. It offers food for thought to all human beings concerned about violations of human, not just linguistic, rights.

21 December 2009

Call for papers

Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture has issued a call for papers relevant to our concerns. Deadline is 1 May 2010:

Reconstruction 11.1: Multilingual Realities in Translation

Edited by Angela Flury and Hervé Regnauld

"Cityscapes, landscapes, subway stations, tomato fields, universities, and bedrooms — the locales of multilingual or mixed language realities are everywhere. Yet literary and popular representations of multilingual realities as such remain largely constricted by the single language that must, in hegemonic fashion, encompass all others, especially on the printed page of a novel. The dominance of a single language also affects so-called nonliterary discourse; for instance English is now the primary language charged with disseminating scientific (and technological) words and concepts. Film, arguably, has come closest to conveying the Babeldom of public and private spheres, as its projected translation, by way of subtitles, nevertheless promises a semblance of cohesion. Perhaps this accessible rendering of multilingual fragmentation can even be regarded as one of the emerging conventions of world cinema as a contemporary global form.

"But multilingual realities are not exactly reader friendly in any medium, including film. One wonders at the function of characters’ thoughts made audible in Wim Wenders’s film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire), when commuters on a Berlin subway train can be heard thinking in German and Turkish (though the English subtitles render only the German). One wonders what Apollinaire’s already fragmented conversation poem “Lundi Rue Christine“ would look like with bits of conversation in languages other than French. Would the bits make a meaningful difference? One wonders at the fragments of French floating through Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, fragments yet to be translated, even in the most recent edition. Charlotte Brontë’s Villette continued to be published well over a century without an annotated translation of all its French bits and pieces. One wonders how and to what extent the foreign language is immaterial (a point raised by Umberto Eco with reference to Tolstoy’s War and Peace).

"Another open question is the status of languages in the formation of scientific knowledge. When science is concerned, some languages play a unequaled role, as did Greek at the beginning of the Christian Era (or Common Era), Latin in the Middle Ages and English today. It seems English is becoming a language which invents (creates) scientific words (and concepts) and that there is no need to find any equivalent in other languages as most every scientist speaks and publishes in English. But can scientific neologisms properly be considered English in any traditional sense, even given the fact that neologism is a constant process in any language? How can scientific concepts, born inside of one language, be translated into another language? Does working in a 'single language' limit scientific creativity? Is there anything (or could there be) like a Pidgin, or Creole way of writing in the sciences?

"How do single language texts, in any discourse or genre, signify mixed language realities? What is at stake in the representation of multilingual realities in a particular text, medium, place, or time? To what extent do texts at different historical and cultural junctures reflect the ideologies of their scene of writing? What are the affects of characters/individuals in multilingual situations, the affects of multilingual space? How do 'other' languages in a given text/situation play with questions of figure and ground, decor and inflection? How have certain authors and artists made the conventions and realities of multilingual space a central thematics? What formal innovations have writers from various disciplines and traditions produced to address such realities and what are the politics of these experiments? What are the links between language and identity, and what are the problems which may arise from these links when translation is at stake?

"We invite papers that address the above issues and related questions from a variety of disciplines and in any conceivable context, including nationalism, imperialism, modernism, epistemology, sexuality, gender, class, religion, race, etc. Please send completed papers and abstracts to Angela Flury (aflury@depauw.edu) and Hervé Regnauld (herve.regnauld@uhb.fr) no later than May 1, 2010. Earlier submissions and queries are welcome as we may be able to collaborate authors in order to produce work that not only fits with the intent of the issue but with the standards of Reconstruction. Also, we encourage you to forward this CFP to interested parties and lists."

20 December 2009

"Local" versus "national" languages

One of the reasons I got interested in developing a multilingual theory of literature is the need for tools to approach literary texts written in several Philippine languages other than Filipino (or its mother language Tagalog). Writers writing in, say, Ilocano or Cebuano have necessarily to mix languages in a single text, because Filipino (or earlier, Tagalog) and English (not to mention Spanish for older writers) are so hegemonic (i.e., powerful and omnipresent) that they inordinately influence all other languages in the country. It is inappropriate to use the technical tools we have for analyzing "purely" English or Tagalog texts on these "local" (as opposed to "national" or "international") texts. The Philippine situation (with its 170-plus languages) is not unique. The same phenomenon, I am sure, occurs in countries such as Indonesia.

An interesting article appears in the blog Antara Kita of the Indonesia and East Timor Studies Committee on the novel Sitti Djaoerah (1927), written in Angkola Batak instead of Indonesian (or Bahasa). I wish the article had dealt with the multilingual nature of the novel, which it must have had.

18 December 2009

Multilingualism in medical texts

Multilingualism is not a purely literary or even everyday phenomenon. Other types of writing also tend to be multilingual. For example, during the medieval period in the UK, medical writings used more than one language in a single text. Write Irma Taavitsainen and Päivi Pahta in their Medical and Scientific Writing in Late Medieval English (2003):

"Multilingualism has an important role in scientific and medical writings produced in medieval England. The tendency to combine materials in different languages appears to be more prominent in medicine than in other disciplines, although language mixing is also attested, for example, in astronomical-astrological and alchemical writings of the period. The proportions of languages and patterns of switching in mixed-language materials vary. Primarily Latin materials contain parts in English or French, French materials include Latin and/or English passages, and English materials incorporate Latin and/or French."

It might be a truism that, in a society where the learned language is not the market language, writers (and other users of language) will tend to use more than one language in a single text, written or oral. Either the learned language or the market language will prove to be insufficient for one's communicative needs, especially since the languages involve different cultures or subcultures, not just dictionaries.

14 December 2009

The writer's language

Poet-critic Gemino H. Abad, who won this year's Premio Feronia (the Italian international literary prize), recently gave a talk at a writers' forum in Manila. He said:

“Any given natural language has its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax: those are the fountainhead of its communicative power, and one transgresses them at his own peril. But any language too has inner resources from the infinite possibilities of its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, their figures and rhetoric: those are the fountainhead of its expressive or evocative power, and one is circumscribed only by his imagination by which, sometimes, by assiduously working the language, he might transcend its inadequacies or limitations.

“So then, after a time — a long, persevering time — the writer’s language becomes essentially his alone, both its matter — and its manner, by which its matter is endowed with its interpretative form.”

I quote the passage from the equally engaging column in today's The Philippine Star of Jose "Butch" Dalisay, whose novel Soledad's Sister was shortlisted in the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

In our evolving multilingual theory of literature, we have to add "the writer's language" to the "natural" languages in a text. It is then easily seen that, in an apparently monolingual work, there are at least two languages at work - the language of the text and the writer's language. (Of course, this is old hat for followers of Mikhail Bakhtin.)

13 December 2009

Literary texts important to linguists

Linguists usually base their research on what literary critics, following William Wordsworth, call "the real language of men (and women)." Some linguists, however, use literary texts (though artificial or human-made) for their research. This is a very recent example:

"Motion events in Chinese novels: Evidence for an equipollently-framed language," by Liang Chen and Jiansheng Guo (Journal of Pragmatics, Sept. 2009):

"Motion events typically involve an entity moving along a path in a certain manner. Research on language typology has identified three types of languages based on the characteristic expression of manner and path information. In satellite-framed languages, the main verb expresses information about manner of movement and a subordinate satellite element (e.g., a verb particle) to the verb conveys the path of movement. In verb-framed languages, the main verb expresses the core information of the path of movement, and the manner information is expressed in a subordinate structure (e.g., a gerundive). Both manner and path, however, are expressed by equivalent grammatical forms in equipollently-framed languages. In this paper, we explore the place of Mandarin Chinese in motion event typology through an examination of motion event descriptions in Chinese novels. We find that Chinese writers do not pattern their narrative descriptions of motion events as do writers of satellite-framed languages, nor as writers of verb-framed languages. Rather, Chinese writers follow unique habitual patterns of language use that lead to the contention that Chinese is an equipollently-framed language."

Writers have a lot of influence not only on readers and on other writers, but on scientific scholarship (in this case, on the science of linguistics). This is one reason creative writers have to be very careful about what they write and also one reason literary critics have to help scholars in other disciplines to understand what is really going on in a literary text.

11 December 2009

Harry Potter in Camfranglais

I'm teaching a course in Speculative Fiction at both the Ateneo de Manila University and the De La Salle University (rival schools in the Philippines along the same lines as Oxford vs. Cambridge and Harvard vs. Yale), where I take up the Harry Potter series. Naturally, I got interested in the blurb of an article that apparently talks about the translation of the first four Harry Potter novels into Camfranglais. This is the only part I can read without paying the pay-per-view rate:

"Camfranglais: A novel slang in Cameroon schools
Jean-Paul Kouega
University of Yaounde

"Camfranglais is a newly created language, a composite slang used by secondary school pupils in Cameroon, West Africa. It draws its lexicon from French, English, West African Pidgin, various Cameroonian indigenous languages, Latin, and Spanish. Secondary school pupils use it among themselves to exclude outsiders while talking about such matters of adolescent interest as food, drinks, money, sex, and physical looks. There are four sections: language in the Cameroon educational system; Camfranglais defined; an analysis of a sample Camfranglais text; and the semantic domains of Camfranglais. There is a glossary of the terms cited."

Someone with access to English Today of Cambridge University Press may want to tell us what the article says about the use of many languages in one (translated) text. (I had an article published in English Today a long time ago, but they did not give me a complimentary subscription as a reward. All I got for the article was a lot of citations and reprints, but I wouldn't have minded a free lifetime subscription. I did say I was teaching Speculative Fiction, didn't I?)

09 December 2009

Mixed languages do not multilingual lit make

When we have a language that in itself is a "mixed language," such as Yiddish or Taglish, literature written in it may be multilingual in the general or linguistic sense, but it is not exactly multilingual in the literary theory sense. What I mean is that the use of non-mother tongue words in a mother-tongue work does not automatically make the work multilingual. What we are really looking for are works that use the second language as a way to incorporate a foreign culture into the mother or native culture. It is not just words that matter, but cultures. Yiddish, Taglish, and other languages that combine two or more earlier or older languages (English does, too, after all) should be considered as "pure" languages, or at least, in the linguistic sense, dialects. As the New Critics loved to say, it is when truly unrelated or even opposing elements are yoked together in a metaphor that the metaphor attains the level of literature. When unrelated languages or cultures are suddenly brought together in the same literary text, something bigger than either language or culture occurs. Multilingual art happens.

05 December 2009

Intellectual Property vs. poetic convention

YouTube songs that mix languages are sometimes (often?) removed "due to terms of use violation," which usually means copyright infringement (unless we are talking of obscenity, which occasionally makes it to YouTube). Music might be a different case, but in the case of poets taking lines deliberately from earlier poets, the issue of copyright (or Intellectual Property) violation has to be seen in the context of the poetic convention of allusion, or using a piece of some other poem to refer to that entire poem. It would be ridiculous to have footnotes in a poem (although T. S. Eliot did it famously in "The Waste Land," though still ridiculously). The reader of a poem is presumed to know the history of poetry, to have read the original poems which are being alluded or referred to, to realize that what is going on is not stealing somebody else's words or images but integrating poetic tradition into an existing work (exactly as Eliot theorized in "Tradition and the Individual Talent"). If we take lyrics for a song as an extension of poetry, then we could make a case for lyricists and singers that use lines from earlier artists without explicitly mentioning that these lines are allusive rather than original. I am upset that the song "Liubi, Liubi, I Love You" (described as "Romania's entry in Eurovision 2007, ... basically a love ode performed in six languages") was removed by YouTube.

03 December 2009

English lyrics in a Hebrew song

For music buffs, here's the Hebrew song "Hamakolet" by Havareth that briefly shifts to English in the middle:


I was alerted to this by an old blog.

01 December 2009

Offline & Kindle

The commercial server I use was down most of the day yesterday, and I realized how dependent I am on the Web for research and communication. Have I moved within seconds of E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (or for younger Web followers, The Matrix)? I haven't even touched the books I bought last month but have been relying (much too much, it now appears) on Google Books. My friends tease me as "Professor Gadget," and now, instead of just being amused, I should be disturbed. Still, the next big thing excites me - the Rolltop. (I did think long and hard about the Kindle, but decided not to buy it because it doesn't have one of the best features of a book - I lend my books to my friends or donate them to a library after having read them. In fact, all my 7,000+ Philippine books are now in the Aklatang [Library] Emilio Aguinaldo of De La Salle University Dasmarinas and most of my 10,000+ non-Philippine books are now in the Library or in the Society of Fellows Room of De La Salle University in Manila.)

29 November 2009


When studying multilingual verse, it is important to know if the “foreign” words in the text are there because the poet wants to use a second language to enhance whatever s/he is trying to do or if the words are there because they are there to begin with in the ordinary speech of people on the street. A multilingual literary text, in other words, may merely mirror what is going on in real life, or it may be a conscious creation by the writer to harness the resources of two or more languages. Such a distinction was clear even in 1993, when Lars Johanson studied the poetry of Rūmī. Wrote Johanson: “There are in Rūmī’s work no clear signs of contact with a TE [East Oghuzic Turkic] literary tradition. It is, in this connection, irrelevant that his Persian texts contain a number of Turkic words, since these were common integrated borrowings in the Persian of the period in question. Turkish was was not yet a literary medium, elaborated as a functional dialect in the sense of a TW [Anatolian Turkish]+lit variety; it was no equivalent poetic tool which Rūmī or other poets could have used immediately and adequately for their purposes. This is why it is often considered ‘rough.’ European vernaculars in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance were characterized similarly in comparison with Latin. Poets often wrote Latin with greater ease than their mother tongue.”

Also brought out in this passage is the idea that, when a poet uses words from a second language, s/he imports not just words but the literary tradition in that language. This use of a second literary tradition, more than the use of a second language, is actually more important as far as literary criticism is concerned. A critic must know not just the second language but the literary tradition in that language. A multilingual poet lives not just in one literary tradition (or even one geographical country), but in two or more literary traditions, making her/him truly a global artist.

26 November 2009

Singapore and Hong Kong

Just off the press is an article about multilingual poetry in Singapore and Hong Kong: "Text messages: A tale of two songs: Singapore versus Hong Kong," by Kirkpatrick and Moody (2009). Unfortunately, reading it requires a subscription to ELT Journal (which I don't have). If you have or your library has a subscription to this journal, you might want to read the article and summarize its contents for us.

24 November 2009

Salvador Novo

Here's the last part of the poem "Noche" by Salvador Novo (1904-1974):

Tu novia y la mía
harán encajes y proyectos.
Todos duermen, pero
Voici ma douce amie
si méprisée ici car elle est sage
and numerical and temperamental.
Adiós, amigo, éxito
con Lady Gordiva.
Por mí, Vive la France
aunque mi amiga
no pueda ahora, materialmente,
agradecer el compliment.

Rafael Hernández-Rodríguez comments that "in order not to be confused with a follower of socialist realism, he [Novo] ends his poem in the most pretentious way with multilingual verses." It is inevitable that every literary technique has a political implication. Conversely though less obviously, every political message needs a particular (not necessarily unique) literary technique.

22 November 2009

Lawrence Rosenwald's Multilingual America

A book that I forgot to buy when I was in the US recently (on a book-buying spree) is Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature (2008), by Lawrence Alan Rosenwald. Have you read it? What do you think about it? The publisher-friendly blurbs from Amazon.com are promising, but of course they may not tell the real picture:

"'This is a splendid book, unlike any currently in the field, and setting a standard for literary scholarship the rest of us can only aspire to. Lawrence Rosenwald brings to the project an impressive range of languages and a different vision of what we might want to do with texts. His goal is to write a history of American literature showcasing languages as the key players. Multilingual America is an impressive achievement: all Americanists will sit up and pay attention.' Wai Chi Dimock, Yale University

"'This is a remarkable work. This book addresses an extremely important and timely subject. It combines high intelligence and lucidity with deep erudition and modesty. Every page is extremely interesting. Every scholar or teacher of American literature will learn much from it, and it will be greatly useful to many students of American literature and culture (around the world as well as domestically), as well as to students and scholars of comparative literature and of intercultural encounter more broadly.' Jonathan Arac, University of Pittsburgh

"Product Description: Throughout its history, America has been the scene of multiple encounters between communities speaking different languages. Literature has long sought to represent these encounters in various ways, from James Fenimore Cooper's frontier fictions to the Jewish-American writers who popularised Yiddish as a highly influential modern vernacular. While other studies have concentrated on isolated parts of this history, Lawrence Rosenwald's book is the first to consider the whole story of linguistic representation in American literature, and to consider as well how multilingual fictions can be translated and incorporated into a national literary history. He uses case studies to analyse the most important kinds of linguistic encounters, such as those between Europeans and Native Americans, those between slaveholders and African slaves, and those between immigrants and American citizens. This ambitious, engaging book is an important contribution to the study of American literature, history and culture."

18 November 2009

Pat Mora book

Here's a book notice:

"In My Own True Name, Pat Mora investigates the origin of identity through 62 poems, crafted to give the reader a more-than-cursory view of the Mexican-American's status in this country. . . Mora is careful to illustrate how important language can be. When words are combined with the spirit of the land, the poet reveals the secret of language's power. Because she is a native of the southwestern United States, Mora translates that area into a homeland that rises above borders and nationalities. There is an indomitability accompanying that region, and it gives its people the strength to survive." — "Mi Poema Es Tu Poema: Mora celebrates multiculturalism in multilingual verses," Home News Tribune

And here's an excerpt from the poem "Mango Juice":

Eating mangoes
on a stick
is tossing
fragile cascarones
on your love's hair,
confetti teasing him
to remove his shoes
his mouth open
and laughing
as you glide
more mango in,
cool rich flesh
of México
music teasing
you to strew
streamers on trees
and cactus

17 November 2009

Alina Troyano

One of the effects of the original macaronic verse was comic; writers used more than one language in a text to make their readers or audiences laugh. The comic impulse has not disappeared from multilingual literature. In the performing arts, for instance, there is Alina Troyano, described as "a Cuban lesbian performance artist whose work skewers racial, cultural, and sexual stereotypes." Here are typical verses from her:

"Hello people, you know me, I know you.
I am Carmelita Tropicana.

"I say Loisaida is the place to be. It is multicultural, multinational, multigenerational, mucho multi. And like myself , you've got to be multilingual.

"I am very good with the tongue."

Modern multilingual writing, however, is much more complex than macaronic verse. With the more subtle and more sophisticated tools now available to writers, modern writing is deadly serious, though it draws laughs. Here is how Lisa Alvarado writes about Troyano: "In the preface [of the book I, Carmelita Tropicana: Performing Between Cultures (2000)], there is a reference to Troyano's use of 'innuendo, bilingual puns, double entendre, burlesque, parody, political farce, biographical revisionism, and an irreverent appropriation and collaging of popular culture.' She draws text from popular movies, past stereotypical icons, and popular music. While the style is irreverent, her themes are hardly light. In placing expropriated material in another context, it becomes reinvented, with layers of new meaning and ultimately a critique of the original manifestation itself."

As in most cases of comic writing (or performing), we have to go beyond the smiles to appreciate the frowns.

14 November 2009

Rai music

There are lyrics that are written in two or more languages, as well as the more familiar lyrics adapted to the melody of a song originally written in another language (such as the delightful "New York, New York" in Hungarian of Ildy Lee). As far as music is concerned, however, that scratches only the surface of the art form. More important is the blending of different types of music from different cultures. This is most obvious in Rai, which blends Algerian, Spanish, French, African, and Arabic musical forms. The mass audience that loves Sting's Desert Rose (which uses Rai) has been primed to accept multilingual poetry (which, of course, blends words rather than rhythms). On a really deep critical level, a critic should understand how a particular poem blends not just words but poetic traditions from different cultures. We are not there yet, since we are still trying to mainstream the use of words from other languages in a poem.

13 November 2009

Multilingual popular music

Here's an old but still interesting account of singers and songwriters using more than one language in songs. The mass audience has awakened to multilingual writing! Vox populi, vox Dei?

Readers recommend: multilingual songs, by Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian, Friday 11 May 2007:

"Every year, media coverage of Eurovision reaffirms one of the fundamental assumptions underpinning British music's self-image, namely that pop in other languages is intrinsically inferior, not to mention hilarious. Even as music becomes more polyglot (at least half of this week's suggestions, including Air, CSS and Arcade Fire, were recorded in the past decade), the novelty factor lingers.

"Perhaps it's because so many lyricists struggle to make sense in their native argot, let alone anyone else's. Full marks for effort to the Clash (Spanish Bombs), despite doing to the Spanish language what Hitler's bombers did to Guernica, and the Fall (Bremen Nacht), apparently using German gleaned exclusively from Commando comics: 'Ich raus schnell mach von Bremen Nacht.' Achtung, schweinhund! Hande hoch! The most multilingual offering was Madonna's Sorry. It seems she can now apologise for Swept Away in 10 different languages.

"Predictably, French produced the richest pickings, though whether that's a tribute to the unrivalled sophistication of the Gallic tongue or the legacy of compulsory French lessons I cannot say. Faced with changing the gender of Randy and the Rainbows' Denise, and understandably averse to Dennis, Blondie invented a French casanova called Denis, and sang a verse accordingly. Amorous exchange students took notes.

"German industrial metal band Rammstein slip into English to make their point about US cultural dominance on Amerika. 'This is not a love song,' growls Till Lindemann. 'I don't sing my mother tongue.' Ukrainian-born New Yorker Eugene Hutz mixes Russian and English on Sally, a lusty manifesto for his gypsy-punk troupe. 'I ended up being walking United Nations,' he explains in an accent broader than the Dnieper.

"Pixies' Frank Black frequently amplified his alien quality with manic bursts of Spanish, but there's only room for one Anglo-Spanish entry - Venceremos (We Will Win), British jazzers Working Week's elegantly understated tribute to victims of the Chilean junta. Tracey Thorn, Robert Wyatt and Chile's Claudia Figueroa swap verses. Brazil's Jorge Ben mixes Portugese and English on the breezy Take it Easy My Brother Charles.

"Now for some less commonly heard languages. Along with Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci flew the flag for the Welsh vernacular in the early 90s. Patio Song does so with unforced charm. Sigur Ros went one better, inventing a lingo called Hopelandic. The ecstatic Hoppipolla, which you will recognise if you've seen any TV trailers in the past year or so, combines it with their native Icelandic. On Satta Massagana, reggae trio the Abyssinians prove their devotion to the Rastafarian homeland of Ethiopia with a refrain in Amharic.

"Bryan Ferry sang auf Deutsch on Roxy Music's Bitter-Sweet, but Ferry and Germany aren't such a happy match at the moment. Song for Europe is not only a better song with a fortuitous title; it has verses in French and Latin, the least pop language of them all. Enfin, Blur's ravishing To the End, reworked as a fully bilingual duet with Parisian icon Françoise Hardy. Et voilà, c'est tout."

10 November 2009

Jain narratives

I was traveling these past few days and could not post. I'm home now in Manila and here's something that would have been interesting to go to last December:

"Jain Narratives in multilingual early modern North India: Apabhramsa texts from the 15th-18th centuries
Dr Eva de Clerq (Ghent & AHRC project)
Date: 5 December 2008 Time: 4:00 PM
Finishes: 5 December 2008 Time: 6:00 PM
Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 4421
Type of Event: Seminar
Series: CSAS Seminar Programme
Jains were perhaps the most multilingual writers and readers in medieval and early modern India, but their literary contribution is often ignored in literary histories. Particularly striking is their continued used of Apabhramsa for literary texts. These two sessions will present two texts. One is the story of Candragupta, Canakya and the Jain saint Bhadrabahu by the most famous "late Apabhramsa" poet, Raydhu. The other, Bhagavatidas's Mrgankalekha (1700), considered the "last" Apabhramsa poem, is a strikingly multilingual work in that it contains verses in Prakrit and "Hindi"."

De Clerq's observation that multilingual texts are "often ignored in literary histories" is sadly too familiar to us. We really need to be more vocal about our discovery that multilingual texts are the norm, and monolingual texts are only a special case (following the analogy of the Special Theory of Relativity, where "normal" happenings that we can see with our eyes are only a special case of what is really going on in reality).

06 November 2009

How to write a multilingual script

Here's a good example of what to do if you are writing a screenplay and your characters need to speak in a language or languages other than the language of the script:

A corrugated-metal shack. We don’t see much of it.
A terrified Dagny is flanked by TWO KIDNAPPERS.
Their leader (the Voice) passes the phone to Dagny.

Papa? Papa!
(fast stream of Norwegian)
Give them what they want, please get me out of here, I’m scared! Papa!

Hospital! Where is hospital?

The old man scurries inside.


There are also comments on that blog from other screenwriters about what they do. Since multilingual screenwriting is relatively new (I presume that you have noticed how many recent films have dialogue in a language you cannot understand and is not subtitled), there are no real conventions yet. Multilingual creative writing is emergent, not dominant, so the rules will come later.

05 November 2009

Starting young

One recent technique in child language acquisition is very promising for developing the audience for multilingual writing. Here is an account of the way a second language is taught to kids:

"There are, of course, many different ways of telling a story to a group. One of the most powerful ways with a group of beginners is to tell the story in the way that follows: (In this case the target language is Modern Greek):

"There was this man and he seemed very agitated. This andras, this guy, he went round and round the kipo behind his house (kipo is a garden) looking for something. The andras got down on his hands and knees and started scrabbling around in the border underneath the traiandafila, the roses.

"Now the wife of the andra, his yineka, happened to be in one of the upstairs rooms of the house. The yineka looked out through the bedroom parathiro and saw her andra searching for something in the border under the traiandafila.

"She asked him what he was doing. 'I’m looking for my house keys,' her andras shouted back.

"'Did you lose your house klidia down there in the kipo, in the border under the traiandafila?'

"'No,' said her andras, 'I didn’t lose my klidia here under the traiandafila, but the light is so much better here!'"

"I hope the text construction was logical enough for you to understand all the Greek words without having to strain too much. Bi-lingual stories of this sort are magic with small kids and people at this stage of linguistic brilliance (3-8) lap up and ‘interiorize’ the new language without realizing what is happening in their minds. When the story has been told half a dozen times with more and more target language words being used in each telling the whole story is told in the target language and the learners have the giddying sensation that they have understood everything."

We always say that the youth is the hope of the future. In this case, this is literally correct: the bilingual or multilingual generation now growing up is going to make multilingual writing/reading the rule, rather than the exception.

03 November 2009

The London Skool

From poets reciting poems in different languages to poems written in different languages is a short journey, and events such as Risk of Poetry (June 2009) should hasten the development of multilingual writing. Check out the event on YouTube.

Here is the description of the event: "London Risk of Poetry delivers a collage of poetry, literary theory, imagery, fantasy, voices, music, exile, before and long after, by London Skool - an avant guarde band of multi-lingual poets and critics, who aim to create poetry and text from hybridisation of languages, genres and lifestyles in order to endanger the tranquillity of norms and shake up the standards of the literary genre, bringing together Ali Abdolrezaei, Parham Shahrjerdi, Abol Froushan, Mansor Pooyan, to propose the new directions in the Risk. Their aim is a globalisation of poetry through literary exchange between English, Persian, French, etc. (7 languages in the latest issue of www.POETRYMAG.ws) in a context of post exile, through translation and analysis. The event is on the occasion of the publication of Parham's multilingual book of the same title. Monday 1 June 2009 at 7:30pm Poetry Café 22 Betterton Street, London WC2 (Convent Garden tube)." Too bad I missed this event. I left London 22 May and was already in Budapest on 1 June.

01 November 2009

US multilingual ethnic literature

In her "Code-switching in US ethnic literature: multiple perspectives presented through multiple languages" (2005), Holly E. Martin writes:

"For the multilingual author, switching between two or more languages is not an arbitrary act, nor is it simply an attempt to mimic the speech of his or her community; code-switching results from a conscious decision to create a desired effect and to promote the validity of the author’s heritage language. This article looks at code-switching in literary texts between Spanish and English, English and Chinese, and English and Jemez, a Native American language. Incorporating native and heritage languages along with English within a literary work, usually through code-switching, creates a multiple perspective and enhances an author’s ability to express his or her subject matter."

Among the five elements of the literary experience (author, text, reader, world, tradition), the one with the least attention focused on it is that of the reader. The study of multilingual literature is no exception. We need to do a lot more, as the article does, to focus on the reader and how the act of reading is enriched by the use of more than one language in a text.

29 October 2009

Multilingual poem by Albert B. Casuga

There are all kinds of variations to the saying that "we use German (or English) to talk to dogs, Italian to talk to lovers, French to talk to cooks (or soldiers), and Spanish to talk to God." For example, some old folks in the Philippines say that we use Tagalog to talk to maids, English to talk to foreigners, and Spanish to talk to God. While sayings of that sort today sound racist, they do point to a genuine theological problem: what language does God use to think (assuming that divine beings think in the way we understand the word)? The answer, of course, is that God thinks in all languages. The best way to reach God then is to write in as many languages as you know at the same time.

Albert B. Casuga's most recent poem, "Basura Days," takes the theme of Christianity as T. S. Eliot understood it and applies it to today's most universal phenomenon, namely, garbage (trash, junk, shit, or whatever you want to call it) and builds a modern parable taking off from the Biblical insight that whatever we do to the least of God's creations (animate or inanimate), we do to God.

Here's a taste:

Prophylactics and sanitary napkins, masticated fries vomited
With the arrant fish bones, newsprint-wrapped pet faeces,
Faded pictures of grandmere leering at grandpere glancing
At some tightly dungareed wench flaunting palpable haunches
Sans underpants that was last millennium’s acceptance of taste
If not coyness or even breeding in vaulted manors of delicadeza ---
Are picked up by the City Dump Meister on an antiseptic mission
To rid these fallen-leaves-strewn paseos of accidental memories,
Recuerdos de faltas pasadas, putrid waste of body functions
And memento mori gone past their memorial usefulness.

For more, turn to Casuga's blog.

27 October 2009


Multilingual literary criticism (or Wikcrit, as I prefer to call it) will never fall into the trap I have called elsewhere as "tempocentrism" or the tendency not to look beyond our century's nose. The reason is simple: multilingual writing has been with us for centuries, macaronic verse being the most obvious example. A less literary example that is very popular is the multilingual (probably better put in quotes?) work of Michel de Nostredame (better known as Nostradamus), believed by some (though not by me) to have foretold all events since then and in the future. See a book on this or read a literal translation of his Les Propheties. It's a good respite from serious literary reading.

24 October 2009

Multilinguality in a coming conference

"Professor Nargis Virani will present at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Melbourne, Australia, on December 5, 2009

"Prof Nargis Virani is Assistant Professor of Arabic at The New School, University Liberal Studies. She received her MA in 1991 and her PhD in 1999 in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Harvard University, and also holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Education from London University and a Bachelor of Commerce from Bombay University. During the course of her Arabic Studies she studied at many prestigious institutions in the Muslim world such as the University of Jordan in Amman, the Bourguiba Institute in Tunis, and al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. At al-Azhar she studied the Qur’an with the Shaykh of al-Azhar and holds a shahadah (certificate) and an ijazah (permission to teach the Qur’an). Her areas of specialization are Arabic Language and Literature, Persian Language and Literature, Islamic Intellectual Thought, and Sufism. Her doctoral dissertation entitled ‘I am the Nightingale of the Merciful Macaronic or Upside Down?’ analyzed the Mulamma’at, the mixed-language poems, in Rumi’s Diwan. In this work she proposes that ’speaking in many tongues’ be looked at as a brilliant linguistic strategy employed by the mystic to fashion an imaginative form of apophatic discourse. She is currently converting her dissertation into a book which will also include a translation into English of all of Rumi’s multilingual verses in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Greek, and Armenian. Dr Virani’s second book project is tentatively entitled, ‘Qur’an in Muslim Literary Memory’. She hopes to analyze the use of the Qur’an by a variety of ‘litterateurs’ from secular, religious, and mystical backgrounds."

Had I but world enough and time and money, I would be there.

23 October 2009

Ahdaf Soueif's "new English"

Mohammed Albakry and Patsy Hunter Hancock's "Code Switching in Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love" (2008) ends with this paragraph:

"In the tradition of prominent postcolonial writers (e.g. Chinua Achebe,Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Raja Rao, to name a few), Soueif seems to push the frontiers of the English language so as to express and simulate the multicultural experience of her characters. She uses code switching, particularly lexical borrowing and transferring from Arabic, as a way of finding a ‘new English’, a language between two languages. This mixed new English seeks to encompass both her new home and ancestral home in order to enable her to participate in both worlds. The hybrid English, then, could become a means by which bilingual writers are able to preserve their cultural identity and capture its flavor while at the same time writing about it in the dominant language."

This description could apply to most multilingual writers, except obviously to those that do not live in two cultures but only in two (or more) languages (such as those that do not leave their land of birth but nevertheless use more than their mother tongue). Similar linguistically-heavy work could and should be done on writers forced by colonization or other historical circumstance to live in two language worlds without necessarily wanting to "participate" in another geographical or national world. For example, I do not think Nick Joaquin seriously wanted to live in Spain and from his writings clearly had nothing but disdain for the USA, yet his being born into the Spanish language and growing up in Tagalog but writing in English surely cannot be explained away by a desire to participate in two or more worlds. Linguists have much to learn from literary critics.

20 October 2009


It will be safe and convenient for us to adopt the definitions put forward by K. Alfons Knauth in his "Literary Multilingualism: General Outlines and the Western World" (2007), remembering, however, that he is dealing primarily with the better-known languages and presumably admits ignorance about languages with fewer literary works (such as the Bicol-Tagalog-English works of Abdon M. Balde Jr., this year's South East Asia Writers or S.E.A. WRITE Awardee from the Philippines). Knauth has extended definitions and examples of such sub-genres of multilingual literature as intertextual multilingualism, intratextual multilingualism, macaronic mixtilingualism, Occidental and Oriental multilingualism, courtly multilingualism, pentecostal multilingualism, modern diglossia, national and international multilingualism, simultaneism, globoglossia, primitivist multilingualism, futurist multilingualism, panlingualism, onomatopoetics, fascist multilingualism, postwar internationalism, poetic holography and zerography, fictional holography and zerography, conflictive multilingualism, and mass-medial multilingualism. I am not too comfortable with having so many sub-genres, particularly at this time when multilingualism itself has not entered mainstream or general literary theory and criticism, but the passion of Knauth more than makes up for his eagerness to rush ahead.

18 October 2009

Hong Kong's language mix

I'm in Hong Kong, and I can't help but remember the article by Ho Judy Wong Yee in the Australian Review of Applied Linguistics (2008), which had this abstract:

"China resumed its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. Since then drastic changes in this former British colony have occurred. One of these changes is a shift in language policy, from bilingualism (Cantonese and English) to trilingualism (Cantonese, English and Putonghua). The present study is aimed at investigating tertiary students' use of Cantonese, English and Putonghua on a daily basis, analysing the roles and functions of each language and discussing how these may impact on language policy and language education. Research instruments included 52 students' language diaries and written analyses, 51 hours of audio-recordings of verbal exchanges, and focus group semi-structured interviews. Results show that the students' speech repertoire mainly consists of two languages: Cantonese and English and their various mixes. Cantonese is used to ensure understanding, consolidate solidarity and maintain social cohesion. The English-Cantonese mix has become a more powerful identity marker for educated people in Hong Kong than pure Cantonese. English and its supplement with Cantonese are often used in the domain of education. The majority of students seldom use Putonghua in everyday life, but there is a strong instrumental motivation to learn it. Measures are suggested to facilitate a more successful move from bilingualism to trilingualism."

The article confirms what the late linguist Andrew Gonzalez FSC kept saying, despite his having been instrumental in institutionalizing bilingualism in the educational system of the Philippines: "You cannot legislate language."

The other evening, I had dinner with friends who exemplify the multilingual character of Hong Kong society. One was born in Brazil, grew up speaking Chinese and Portuguese (Brazilian), and now speaks the English that she first learned in school. Another was born in the Philippines, grew up speaking Spanish at home, learned Filipino from her playmates, learned French when she lived in France and English when she lived in the US, and now speaks mainly English in Hong Kong.

If most readers are multilingual, why are writers still writing for imagined monolingual audiences? Is the idea of writing a text only in one language a product of language legislation? Is there an unwritten law that we should write a text only in one language? Just as we cannot legislate or limit language, we cannot and should not limit writers to writing in only one language while their readers speak in more than one language.

15 October 2009


Here's an excerpt from "From language mixing to mixed language via purism? Spanish in contact with Zapotec (Oaxaca/Mexico)" by Martina Schrader-Kniffki (2008):

"The present study analyses aspects of the intense long-term contact between Spanish and Zapotec in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. After a short characterization of Zapotec and its language contact situation, which has developed since the colonial period, this article will systematically describe the consequences of this contact for Zapotec within a continuum of gradually differentiable contact varieties. Puristic attitudes of particular speaker groups who intend to reverse these consequences is a further aspect of this study. Puristic attitudes towards the Zapotec language are closely connected with the efforts of its standardization and manifest themselves in the lexicon of the incipient intents to introduce a written Zapotec variety. Inconsistent with this purism, the search for a standardization of this hitherto oral language is unfolding with an almost exclusive orientation towards Spanish as a well established written language. This orientation leads to a discontinuous contact variety of Zapotec." (p. 49)

All over the world, "purism" is the real enemy of multilingual writing. Instead of mirroring the "language really used by men" [and women], as William Wordsworth put it famously (excuse his sexist language), writers feel obligated to write in "well established written languages." Writers who give in to the demands of purist critics are betraying their craft, because they would rather be praised by prescriptive linguists or monolingual critics than by the vast masses of readers, who speak and would love to read in their natural mixed languages.

13 October 2009

Bias against multilingual literature

The Review of English Studies (2000), in its review of David Wallace’s The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (1999), talks about the bias literary historians have against multilingual literature:

"Yet the new Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, for all its anxiety to be inclusive – of the various languages and literatures of the British Isles, of ‘literature’ as most broadly defined, and of its institutional as well as its authorial production – begins (at least as far as England is concerned) at 1066. Why should this be so? And what will be the effect of this implicit but seemingly authoritative pronouncement about what counts as ‘medieval’ within the English literary tradition? If Old English and Anglo-Latin literature are not part of ‘medieval English literature’, then what are they part of? Or are they – as the Cambridge History seems to wish – to be consigned to oblivion?"

The review adds: "One of the enduring lessons of literary theory of whatever school is that critical positions are necessarily particular, and cannot be hidden or half-hidden behind a façade of apparently stable authority or an implicit claim to some measure of enduring validity which might have the commercial advantage of guaranteeing ‘shelf-life.’"

Because multilingual literary works are rarely included in textbooks, literary anthologies, and even literary histories, they are "consigned to oblivion" unless a significant number of writers and critics take up the cudgels for them. Studies of the canon of literature in various countries invariably show that the majority rules, and as Henry David Thoreau so aptly put it, the majority are always wrong. (What he actually wrote was this: "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?" But we can change government to literary history and conscience to taste.)

12 October 2009

One or four poems?

When a writer writes what should be the same poem in four different languages, are the products to be considered as only one poem translated three times (plus the original) or should they be considered four different poems? Translation theory tells us that they are four different poems, since each one is read within the context of different cultures. One of our followers gives us an insight into the making of the four poems, at the same time illuminating an issue lying at the heart of this blog, i.e., whether a language restricts or expands the possibilities of writing. Here is the relevant excerpt from the blog of Albert B. Casuga:

"The primary and necessarily the most ordinary medium of poetic expression, of course, is the poem’s sound/verbal system. The more melodious and sensible the verbal equipment of the language used, the sharper its edge in translating a thought into a palpable/real plane of experience.

"In this exercise, self-translation provided this writer with a limbering up that revealed intriguing discoveries. I found the Spanish version to have the most significant verbal devices that helped objectify/subjectify the putative lament ruing abandonment. I felt the lament’s tug more profoundly in the Ilocano version. I consider the English version a tad uninspired."

I wonder what would happen if the writer - as many other writers are now doing - mixes the four languages in the same poem. Will the pluses and minuses of each language neutralize each other, or will the whole become larger than its parts?

11 October 2009

Down to the Bone

Thought I'd share this notice in Publisher's Weekly about Mayra Lazara Dole's debut novel Down to the Bone (2008):

"Laura Amores is a tortillera - slang for 'lesbian' in Miami's Cuban-American social scene, and a term either of endearment or a slur, depending on who is using it. But once Laura's secret is out, a tortillera is all Laura seems to be - to her mother, the nuns at her Catholic school and even some friends. Laura is thrown out of school and even from her house: 'I'm sorry, Laura, but I can't continue loving you if you stay gay,' Mami says as she literally pushes her daughter out the door. Luckily, Laura meets 'bois' who introduce her to Miami's Cuban gay scene, and her best friend shares her home and family, unconditionally. Laura remains reluctant to accept her gay identity, however, and her exploration of possible relationships - with a boi, a 'delicious' young woman and a boy she dates in hope of restoring herself to her mother's good graces - form the main arc of this honest, intense and at times moving romance. Using Spanish colloquialisms and slang, this debut author pulls off the tricky task of dialect in a manner that feels authentic. As Dole tackles a tough and important topic, her protagonist will win over a range of teen audiences, gay and straight. Ages 14-up."

It's hard to find driven authors nowadays that are not grim and determined. Fortunately for us, those that follow this blog (including Dole) share the unusual human trait so aptly described by Rafael Sabatini in the novel and film Scaramouche: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." Life is too serious to be taken seriously.

09 October 2009

Words are sticks and stones

The commonsense saying that sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never harm you is not at all true. Words are just as harmful as sticks and stones, and writers - being stewards of language - know that best. Even in the non-literary world, words are deadly.

Take the way most Italians today use the word "Filippina" (the feminine form of the word "Filipino," referring to someone born in the Philippines). According to TIME Magazine, the word "Filippina" to Italians means "cleaning woman." Some years back, Filipinos raised a howl when the Oxford English Dictionary defined "Filipina" as "nanny" and a Greek Dictionary defined "Filipineza" as "maid." Today, there are unconfirmed reports (probably and hopefully untrue) that some South Korean tourists in Manila refer to Filipinos (not just Filipinas) as "monkeys." A hundred years ago, American soldiers invading the Philippines loudly called Filipinos "monkeys with no tails."

Italians, British, Greeks, Koreans, and Americans may think the words harmless, but Filipinos take these words to heart, as indeed they should be taken. This is why words are important, whether in real life or even more especially in literary works, where words are forever.

08 October 2009

Language and imperialism

Those that insist that second-language writers write in exactly the same way as mother-tongue writers are, to use the jargon of literary theory, complicit in hegemony (translated into a bit more lay English, this means "subconsciously continuing colonial or class domination"). Literature in Africa, according to some, deliberately indigenizes European languages in order to decolonize or recolonize their former colonizers. (As Filipino poet Gemino H. Abad likes to put it when he talks about Filipinos writing in English, Filipinos have "colonized the English language.") Here, for example, is an observation by Peter W. Vakunta: "Linguistic creolization exists in virtually every country on the African continent. Everywhere, people of all ages are trying to jettison the yoke of cultural imperialism by indigenizing European languages in an attempt to better convey their thought patterns, imagination and lived experiences." In other words, when a writer consciously exploits her/his mother tongue while writing in a second or foreign language, political and not just aesthetic issues enter the picture.

05 October 2009

Kenyan novels in English

In European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa (1986), the idea is suggested but unfortunately not elaborated that language might be a key to the popularity of Kenyan novels in English in the 1970s. Writes Elisabeth Knight: “This popular literature managed to create its own distinctive idiom, colloquial, confident, resembling the journalese of Drum and its sister magazine Trust. The style is usually converstational and intimate. Dialogue plays an important part; as in Mangua’s Son of Woman, it is frequently an amalgam of predominantly American with some British slang and a number of archaisms. The language and register are often uneven, with a tendency to sentimentality and melodrama.” (p. 911)

I have not kept up with scholarship on Kenyan writing in English, but it would seem to me that we should move from readings based mainly on character, plot, and theme and move into the more specialized but probably more fruitful area of language use.

There are clearly more things to say of fiction than these statements (valid though they may be) that Knight makes of those popular novels:

"Characters tend to be stereotypes."

"While plot (generally of the multiple climax variety) is as a rule more important than character, traditional communal values are usually rejected if mentioned at all."

"Few of these novels are really pornographic. Many are curiously moral."

"While the heroes are bent on asserting their manhood, the heroines are happily not passive, submissive creatures despite some vestiges of a Western-style romantic literature of the woman’s magazine type."

"Though these writers are Kenyan they are, in the main, agents of a kind of cultural imperialism."

New Criticism, moral criticism, feminist criticism, and postcolonial criticism may be useful in general, but we still need to do the more tedious but necessary linguistic analysis, if we are to appreciate fully the efforts put in by writers.

03 October 2009

Cycle, wheel, or pendulum

It's almost a truism to say that history repeats itself, or that the world moves in cycles. It looks that way with languages in literature. I was reading just the first paragraph of "Trilingualism in Early Middle English Miscellanies: Languages and Literature" by John Scahill (2003) when I was struck by his observation that "miscellanies containing English were trilingual until the end of this period, when the appearance of the nearly monolingual Auchinleck manuscript marks the appearance of a public whose literacy is essentially confined to English." From being multilingual, England became monolingual. Today, from being monolingual, England has fast become multilingual. Some may say it's because of immigration and globalization, but we in literature (being understandably inclined to give more importance to our field than perhaps is objectively justified) could say, at least to ourselves, that writers have a lot to do with it, with multilingual writers forcing readers to become multilingual.

01 October 2009

Giant step towards multilinguality

This is a news item from Google:

Google gadget lets websites go multilingual

Agence France-Presse
First Posted 09:34:00 10/01/2009

"SAN FRANCISCO – Google on Wednesday released free software that lets website operators automatically translate online pages into any of 51 languages.

"A 'translator gadget' powered by Google Translate offers to transform pages for visitors if the language settings in their browsers are different from the language of a particular website, according to Google product manager Jeff Chin.

"'Automatic translation is convenient and helps people get a quick gist of the page,' Chin said in a blog post.

"'However, it's not a perfect substitute for the art of professional translation.'

"In August the Internet giant added automatic translation to Google Docs allowing users to translate documents into 42 languages.

"The 'Tools' menu on Google Docs now includes a 'Translate Document' feature which provides a list of the various languages offered, which run from Albanian to Icelandic to Vietnamese.

"The Mountain View, California-based company has already built automatic translation features into its popular email program Gmail and into services such as its blog reader."

Once most readers become multilingual, in the sense that they will no longer think that one language is more important than another and will be dissatisfied with reading in only one language, multilingual literature will gain in appeal and importance. Instead of being marginalized as it is now, it will become the mainstream, in a perfect example of what Raymond Williams described as the historical process of the emergent becoming a dominant form.

What a great gift from Google on International Translation Day!

29 September 2009

Les Podervyansky

Les Podervyansky (Ukrainian Олександр [Лесь] Сергійович Подерв’янський) writes plays in Surzhyk (Ukrainian суржик), a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. The language serves him so well that he has become a household name in Ukraine. In what insensitive non-Ukrainians would doubtless call tortured English, a Ukrainian article describes him this way:

"It’s not necessary to present Les Poderviansky. His plays are in all before eyes, his pictures obtained the proper place in private collections and museums, his publicists lunges are sharp, unexpected and controversies, and movement by sinful land from a cleanly mechanical act, often outgrows in an artistic action. About his defiled it was possible to make a three-hour elite movie... So the not complete list of reasons through which it would cost to talk with him looks far, especially at the beginning of year."

Not knowing how to read Ukrainian, I should not really say anything about Les Podervyansky, but I suspect that his mixing of languages has a lot to do with his famous humor. In fact, the critical comment that he is heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett would point towards the direction of the central role of mixed languages in his own work.

27 September 2009

Principles 5

In translation classes, we teach our students to translate into their own mother tongue, not only because it is faster (since they are more fluent in that language than in the other one), but also because they know their mother tongue much better than the foreign one (they instinctively know the connotations and contexts of words they use in the translation). If we apply this to multilingual criticism, we come up with a practical insight. Since we do not have world and time enough to study all the literary works in the world, we can do literature a service if we focus on works written by those whose mother tongue is the same as ours. We can then much faster and more easily catch the nuances of the mother tongue that are behind the language of the text. Using the phrase "writing in a first language using words in a second language," we can say that the critic, like the author of a text, can read in the first language what appears on paper as a work in the second language.

Let me offer that as the fifth principle of multilingual literary criticism:

(5) The best critic of a multilingual text is one whose mother tongue is the same as that of the author of the text.

In practice, this means that, for example, multilingual Filipino critics should focus on works written by Filipinos in English or Spanish, multilingual Chinese critics should focus on works written by Chinese writers in other languages, multilingual Spanish or Latin-American critics should focus on works written by their compatriots in other languages, and so on. Monolingual critics can read whatever they want, but their ability to read will be limited by their language deficiencies. Only multilingual critics can unlock the hidden or submerged meanings in a multilingual text.

25 September 2009

The scene in Germany

Klaus Hübner gave an account of what was happening in Germany in the area of multilingual literature three years ago in an article entitled "He Alder, hassu Ei-Pott bei?” (2006; translated into English by Jonathan Uhlaner):

"Younger authors like Yadé Kara (Selam Berlin, 2003) have definitively achieved for ‘Kanakisch,’ which is often used with parodic intention (as, for instance, in Süleyman and Sauter in the book Hürriyet Love Express by Imran Ayata, 2005), the status of literature. Artists like Wladimir Kaminer (Russendisko, i.e., Russians’ Disco, 2000) have done something similar for ‘German-Russian,’ which emerged after 1990 in train of the increasing immigration of Russians of German origin and is sometimes also called ‘Quelia’ and written in a mixed Latin-Cyrillic alphabet. Altogether, the extremely heterogeneous immigrant literature in German is a rich source of examples for contemporary ‘mixed languages.’"

It is not only countries that may be called melting pots, but literary texts themselves.

24 September 2009

More on the Oresteiaka riots

Here's more background on the Oresteiaká riots of 1903 (my blog entry of 14 May 2009):

“Throughout the nineteenth century, the campaign for a ‘mixed language’ (μίχτή) envisaged a fusion of simplified Katharevousa and Demotic, removed from its natural morphology and syntax. The mixed language was associated with the journal Panathinaia, edited by Kimon Mikhailidis, whereas the Athens University professor A. Skiás battled against the mixed language, calling it a ‘linguistic monstrosity.’ Th. Frangopoulos observed (1983) that the language question still affected the way novels were written between 1830 and 1930, and only after 1920 was the Demotic really approved over Katharevousa for prose, the way it had been for poetry since 1820.

“Writers were naturally among the first to look to the Demotic as a vehicle of expression (see Vilarás). It began to be accepted as the linguistic form in which new texts could be published.”

“Historically, the dispute has even led to tragedy: the ‘Oresteia riots’ (Oresteiaká) of 8 November 1903 were the consequence of an attempt to stage Aeschylus in a mixed rather than classicizing idiom. Three demonstrators were killed and seven wounded.” ("The Language Question" in Encyclopedia of Modern Greek Literature, by Bruce Merry, 2004, p. 245)

In every period in every country, there are always those that oppose any kind of mixing of languages in writing. These are, to use their very own words against them, linguistic monsters, because they try to put a limit to creativity. Similarly, in the field of literary criticism, there are those that oppose even thinking that a writer might be self-translating from a mother tongue or from an idiolect into what on the surface appears to be her or his main language; these, too, pardon me, should also be regarded as linguistic monsters, or perhaps more precisely, critical monsters.

23 September 2009


My mini-open cholecystectomy (a medical procedure different from the traditional open cholecystectomy and the fashionable laparoscopic cholecystectomy) was successful. The operation took forty minutes, and I left St. Luke's Medical Center less than 48 hours later. I now am a gall bladder less. Recovery is supposed to take about twenty days at home, but since I can work at my computer at home anyway, I haven't really lost much time (although I do have to lie down every so often). I am advised to slow down, so I will most likely not be able to blog every day, but should be able to post something at least three or four times a week. Thank you to all that wished me well.

22 September 2009

Intralingual translation

Translating from one language to another is not necessarily harder than translating within one language, as shown by this blog post:

"I’ve begun translating a book, only to realize that a good portion of it is written in dialect from 1937 trying to pretend to be medieval. Here’s what I have so far… have fun laughing.

"Der Ackermann aus Böhmen – Johannes von Tepl

"The Farmer from Bohemia – Johannes von Tepl

"The First Chapter

"Grim extinguisher of everyone, baneful real of all (werlte), free murder of all men, his death, be it cursed! God, (ewer tirmer), hates you, (vnselden) increase lives with us, unlucky house commits violence to you…

"Yeah, I think I’m missing something. I think I better do some more research into old German before attempting this some more. Mostly because von Tepl is making up the spelling of words, and I’m trying to figure out what on Earth he’s even trying to put into German, plus he’s not capitalizing all nouns, which I never realized was so helpful.

"I hop youe hade a goodely Gigl ovr mye forrey into Older Gerrman."

17 September 2009

Be back soon

My 64-year-old body will undergo an unexpected and undesired cholecystectomy and my mind will have to take a rest from thinking through Wikcriticism or interlingual criticism or language or literature or anything else. My cardiologist swears that I am a low cardiac risk, so I am not supposed to worry. Fortunately, I have a little bit of Spanish blood running in my veins, so I can say with all interlingual conviction, "Que será será" though I know that that is not Spanish at all (since the grammar is terribly wrong!), but a Hollywood corruption of "che sarà, sarà," the motto of the Duke of Bedford. The phrase appears in Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1594):

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and
there's no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
consequently die:
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!

The phrase may be interlingual (Spanish, French, Italian, whatever), but I'm not sure I like Marlowe's context! In any case, I shall be back online in a week or so, God willing.

16 September 2009

Brenda Cardenas

Here's a portion of an article about poet Brenda Cardenas:

"Listening to Brenda Cárdenas is, on its own, an exercise in crossing borders. She has adapted ideas from interdisciplinary arts into a philosophy for interlingual literature. It's very important to distinguish interlingual versus bilingual texts. The difference between bilingualism and interlingualism is the same as the difference between 'either' and 'both.' Biligualism is using either of two languages in turn, but sticking to one discrete language or the other for an entire expression. Cárdenas, on the other hand, is an advocate of interlingualism, which is blending or mixing two languages in-line, within sentences, as they're used organically and naturally by people who speak both languages fluently. ...

"Sometimes when languages blend, and stay mixed in certain ways, they create whole new ways for people to express themselves. Grammars change rules. Fresh words appear that carry tell-tale signs of their parent languages. Old words pick up new meanings. Artists often want to rush into these circumstances to take advantage of the fresh creative opportunities that a still-forming language permits. However, critics and historians often resist this situation, and insist that serious literature is written in well-defined languages such as English or Spanish, but not a blend of both. So there's always a battle among the people who describe language as-is, versus the people who prescribe language as it should be, when interlingualism is in effect. ...

"The delicious ironies, warm blends, and pointed contrasts of commingled languages are Brenda Cárdenas' incentive to keep crossing frontiers. Listen to her poetry, songs, and stories, and cross the frontiers of the Américas." (I placed in bold letters what I want to emphasize.)

This is as good a description as any of the resistance most literary critics have towards taking the mother tongue into account when reading a work done in a second or foreign language. Perhaps I should change my word Wikcriticism to interlingual criticism, as suggested by a follower, if only to take advantage of the long history of the 17th-century term (though, of course, qualifying it by expanding it to include our concerns). "Interlingual" is used quite often in different contexts in various disciplines (including computer science, would you believe?). There might be a need, though, to have a catchphrase (similar to Russian Formalism's defamiliarization and Derrida's deconstruction), if we want to spread the gospel of interlinguality. Let me think about that a bit more.

15 September 2009

Not "interlingual criticism"

One reason I prefer "Wikcriticism" to "interlingual criticism" is that the latter has been used by comparatists (i.e., experts in Comparative Literature) to refer to studies of translation. While translation (particularly self-translation) is clearly a major area of study in Wikcriticism, interlingual criticism does not cover either mixed-language texts or texts in one language but actually being in another. An example of the use of the term "interlingual criticism" is that of James Liu, whose The Interlingual Critic: Interpreting Chinese Poetry (1982) was a real eye-opener for many scholars that could not read Chinese. I use James Liu a lot in my Critical Theory classes, because he opened my eyes to the truth that literary theory started in China and not in Greece, but his interlingual criticism is just a part, not the whole, of Wikcriticism.

14 September 2009

Daniel Gagnon

Sherry Simon, in “Translating and Interlingual Creation in the Contact Zone: Border Writing in Quebec” (in Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Bassnett, 1999), writes about Daniel Gagnon:

“Daniel Gagnon’s short, lyrical texts are idiosyncratic and difficult to categorize. Gagnon writes on the frontier between languages, producing double versions of texts which are written in a hybrid idiom, ‘my so bad English.’” (p. 61)

It is in the French text, however, where hybridity or interlinguality appears more obvious. Continues Simon: “La Fille à marier cannot be separated from The Marriageable Daughter, a translation done by Gagnon himself and published in 1989. The first text to be published was the French version; the English text is presented as a translation of that book. But Gagnon himself has said that in fact he wrote the English text first. And there are many clues in the text which confirm this, associations of words and images which manifestly make more sense in English than in French.” (p. 68)

Here is fertile ground for a Wikcritic competent in French and English, as Simon is. But it is not only trying to figure out which came first that should be of interest, but how the English actually enriches the French (and vice-versa).

13 September 2009

Interlingual poetry and music

Sergio Viaggio has an interesting analogy that has to do with interlinguality. Studying translation from a linguistic perspective, he says:

"The great men of letters who have self-translated have chosen (as far as I know, without exception) to speak in the second language not so much from the LPIo as from the LP1 tout court, renouncing the initial amalgam of the noetic plate and a formal plate in language o in order to try and amalgamate the abstract noetic plate with a formal plate in language i – a bit like the transcriptions for other instruments that great musicians have done of their own compositions. (And since I find it hard to let go of music, let me remind you yet again of a particularly telling case: Beethoven’s piano transcription of his violin concerto, which takes advantage, of course, of the vast harmonic possibilities of the new instrument, and neutralises its infinitely less warm sound.)" (A General Theory of Interlingual Mediation, 2006, p. 370)

We could say that, in an interlingual poem, the bulk of the words are notes from one instrument and the foreign words are notes from another instrument. The poet needs the other instrument/s to make the music beautiful. The notes or sounds from the other instrument/s are not there to jar the listener or reader, but to form part of the musical design.

Viaggio also writes, “What presents the often insurmountable problem of the structural differences between languages is the ‘transcription’ of the emotive harmonics that form makes vibrate – because it is simply impossible. In translation, those harmonics (which will always be a function of a language’s idiosyncrasy, the translator’s sensitivity and prowess, and, ultimately, the readers’ hermeneutic sensitivity and ability), can but be recreated.”

He writes about translation (which basically deals with languages used in sequence or one at a time), but what he says can apply mutatis mutandi to interlingual writing (or languages being used at the same time).

12 September 2009

Chicano Movement

Interlingual literature has existed since macaronic poetry (if we take the weak version of Wikcriticism, which deals primarily with texts in two or more languages) or even earlier (if we take the strong version of Wikcriticism, which says that all writing is interlingual). In the 20th century, one high point of interlingual literature, in the sense that it gave rise to a conscious effort by literary critics to deal with it, had to be the so-called Chicano Movement of the 1960s in the United States of America. Wilson Neate, in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature (1997), describes the place of interlingual literature in the movement: “Literature derived from this politically-charged time was generally marked by its alignment with and articulation, at some level, of Movement ideology. Poetry in an innovative, interlingual format provided a popular vehicle for representations of a marginalized socio-cultural and historical experience with the aim of raising consciousness and encouraging self-empowerment. … Since the mid-1970s, poetry has moved away from the interlingual and the overtly political to become more introspective, displaying an increasing formal sophistication and a diversification of thematic concerns.” For literary criticism, we could say that we have to shift from the weak to the strong version of Wikcriticism as the literature moves from the clearly multilingual to the apparently monolingual.

11 September 2009

Azade Seyhan

Azade Seyhan writes in Writing Outside the Nation (2000):

"Chicano/a literary and cultural criticism has cast its critical vision on a diverse spectrum of theoretical and imaginative writings from Latin America and from other ethnic and minority cultures in the United States. By situating their literature in a more international and intercultural context, Chicano/a literary theorists subtly state their dissatisfaction with the relatively minor critical attention paid to their cultural production in mainstream academic criticism. Angie Chabram Dernersesian has been a leading advocate of reassessing Chicano/a writing in the context of new critical frameworks and of forging transnational linkages with underrepresented and/or emergent literary traditions. Castillo conceptualizes the new poetics of Xicanisma in a manner analogous to the reconfiguration of cultural legacies in contemporary ethnic and immigrant literatures. ‘We are looking at what has been handed down to us by previous generations of poets,’ she writes, ‘and, in effect, rejecting, reshaping, restructuring, reconstructing that legacy and making language and structure ours, suitable to our moment in history.”

I join Seyhan's advocacy of what I have called Wikcriticism, but I disagree on one major point. I hate the use of the words minor and underrepresented (and even the word emergent, which I am forced to use occasionally, being an admirer of Raymond Williams). We need to decolonize our minds (as the African writers put it). I think that multilingual or interlingual literature is the mainstream, but the so-called mainstream writers and critics just don't know it. In fact, in theory, all literary texts are dialogic or made up of two or more languages (we all learned that from Mikhail Bakhtin!). In the case of monolingual writers, the other language is what linguists would call the idiolect (or the unique kind of language that only one individual speaks or writes); it is the idiolect that interacts with the common or shared language. Again, I use the analogy of physics: the equations of relativity can be applied to everything, but in ordinary events, where we are far from approaching the speed of light, we just ignore the almost infinitesimal quantities involved, but almost infinitesimal does not mean zero. Many critics ignore the idiolect when reading monolingual texts, but the theoretical reality is still there: a writer writes in one language using words from another language. In a multilingual or interlingual text, the reality hits us straight in the face.

10 September 2009

The word "interlingual"

Interlingual is not a new word. It was used as early as 1854 to mean merely "of, relating to, or existing between two or more languages." The ordinary meaning of the word, however, assumes that meanings do not change when they move from one language to another, as in the definition of the phrase "interlingual rendition" ["A written communication in a second language having the same meaning as the written communication in a first language"]. Wikcritics know that meanings change when expressed in different languages. There is no such thing as an exact translation of anything. That is why, when a poet uses a word from another language in a work using mainly one language, new nuances are introduced that are not present in the main language. When wikcritics use the word interlingual, they refer to a negotiation between two or more languages, rather than just a relation between them.

09 September 2009

Multilingual children's poetry

An emergent subgenre of children's literature is interlingual children's poetry. Here, for example, is the first stanza of "Sun Song," a poem for children in Confetti: Poems for Children (1999), by Pat Mora:

Birds in the branches hear the sun’s first song.
Ranitas in the rocks hear the sun’s first song.
Bees in the bushes hear the sun’s first song.
Wind in the willows hears the sun’s first song.

Nancy L. Hadaway and Terrell A. Young, in their "Language Diversity in the United States and Issues of Linguistic Identity in a Global Society," call this kind of writing “global literature.” (Breaking Boundaries with Global Literature: Celebrating Diversity in K-12 Classrooms [2007])

08 September 2009

Heteroglot interzone

Jesse Alemán begins his article entitled "Chicano Novelistic Discourse: Dialogizing the Corrido Critical Paradigm" (1998) with this paragraph:

"The dialogic nature of language Mikhail Bakhtin describes in 'Discourse in the Novel' is nothing new to Chicano literary production, especially considering the 'interlingualism' that distinguishes it from North American literature in English and Mexican literature in Spanish. Numerous critics have already pointed out how Chicano literature straddles the borderlines of two national languages as it incorporates and combines each to create a hybrid discourse that registers the liminal cultural position Chicanos occupy between both linguistic world views. Examining Juan Felipe Herrera's poetry, for instance, Alfred Arteaga explains, 'Two nations are imagined in English and in Spanish and differentiate themselves at a common border, yet Chicano border space is a heteroglot interzone, a hybrid overlapping of the two,' and most critics agree that the interlingual peculiarity of Chicano literature arises from this 'heteroglot interzone.' So, as with Bakhtin's notion of language in general, Chicano literary discourse in particular is said to originate from a border space."

It is striking that what is being said here of Chicano literature can be said also of Philippine literature, which inhabits a similar "heteroglot interzone," except that with Filipinos, there are more than two languages to worry about. A novelist whose mother tongue is Bicolano, for example, but who lives in a Tagalog-speaking region and writes in English, negotiates three linguistic worlds, making life extremely difficult for the literary critic who wants to explore all the levels of meaning found in a work. Unlike the New Critics who had to spend a tremendous amount of time tracking down the Latin and Greek roots of English words in a 17th century British text, however, Wikcritics have only to be familiar with three or more modern languages (admittedly, already a formidable task) to catch at least the most basic interplay among discourses. Just as it is with other kinds of literary criticism, the critic has to do consciously what the creative writer does subconsciously or instinctively.