27 March 2009
Linguistic relativism 2
One reason it is difficult for critics to judge monolingual against multilingual works is that the critics themselves have to be multilingual or at least bilingual. A Western critic faced with the challenge of determining which of Oedipus Rex or Hamlet is a better play has to be able to read both Greek (even if learned only in school) and English (not our contemporary one, but that of Shakespeare). There are, of course, such critics, especially those that took classics in Oxford or similar universities. Reading Oedipus Rex in another language (which is what most critics do) will fail to catch some if not many of the crucial literary qualities of the work (the rhymes, the length of the syllables, the homophones, and so on, what structuralists would call the signifiers). That is, even if English speakers do not always acknowledge it, also the case with Shakespeare (I once heard a British actor read Shakespeare the way Shakespeare would have recited the lines, and no one in the English-speaking audience understood a word!). With macaronic poetry, a reader can at least catch the sounds and glimpse the rhyme scheme, but a literary critic has to go beyond merely glimpses. The literary critic has to be able to explain the relationship of sound to sense, and that is very hard (but not impossible, as in the case of Filipino critics that read English or in the case of many European critics that grew up with languages other than their own). Just like the multilingual writer, the multilingual critic has a distinct advantage over monolingual critics.