30 March 2009

Not just literature

Although this blog concerns itself mostly with literary matters, it is not just about literature. The issue of multilingual literature merely mirrors the bigger multilingual and multicultural issues of nations and the world. The rise of English as a dominant international language has caused the death of several languages. In the Philippines, for example, the continued use of English for all government, legal, and business transactions has been shown to be directly related to the deepening poverty, hunger, and helplessness of almost 80% of the population (only 20% more or less are functionally literate in English). The Philippines used to have many more than a hundred indigenous languages; it is now down to about a hundred. The use by a poet of only one language has similar disastrous consequences. By giving readers only a highly limited view of reality, the monolingual poet fails to catch the complexities of real life, thus oversimplifying our view of the world. Since literature is our best (some say our only) way to see the world as it really is, the monolingual poet sins against humanity. It is the responsibility of every real poet to have at least two languages - the mother tongue and a language as different as possible from the mother tongue. Poetry, needless to say, is a third language.


  1. When literature as art is referred to as a humanistic discipline, its role as a definer of reality, knowledge, and truth is presumed pre-eminent.

    Since literature's main equipment is language, it is easy enough to see that the more languages a writer has, the better equipped he is as a definer of reality, knowledge , and truth.

    Shall we require all writers then to command as many languages as possible to fulfill this function? That would be an onerous responsibility, but it could be done. In the interest of competence, why not, indeed, have as many ways of expressing reality as its richness demands?

    Will a multi-faceted view of reality engender a broader and farther "reach beyond the human's grasp"? It appears to do that.

    Dr. Cruz's minimum requirement is for a writer to be "at least bicultural". It might be difficult for a second-language writer to claim that he has a competent grasp of linguistic and cultural nuances of his literary material without having been acculturised in the first language. This has particular reference to a Filipino writing in English -- if he has not been exposed to native speakers and culture, will his use of the English sound system be authentic?

    My appreciation of the sound system of English developed through my having taught Speech and Public Speaking at the Benidictine's San Beda College in Manila. My grasp of the linguistic nuances was, of course, validated when I came to live, write, and teach in North America. In fact, I considered myself a better-equipped user of the English language vis-a-vis even academic colleagues who had English as their first language.

    I learned from writers like Gerald Sanders in his "A Poetry Primer" that certain sounds in English suggest meanings which may (or even can) stand on their own. The different sounds in English offer a wide range of significance which, when recognised by the sensitive writer, would enhance the tonal quality--the melody--of his poetry. Sounds, no doubt, should make sense in the poem. Of course, non-native speakers--unless they have mastered the language--may find it difficult to assign these phonemes with the significance they want. Consequently, therefore, this may delimit his view and expression of a "reality" he must define through his work.

    Thus, even Fitzgerald's popular translation of "Rubaiyat" from the native Persian, suffered serious flaws, as Dr. Cruz found out in his Iranian sojourn. Verily, "the moving finger writes...and having writ, moves on...Neither piety nor wit can cancel half a line."

    There is no way I could have enhanced the fervency of my recitation of the Khayyam lines that were useful for my "landing dates" in those profligate university days:

    "A book of verses underneath the bough,
    A loaf of bread, a jug wine,
    And thou beside me sitting in the wilderness/
    O wilderness where Paradise enow."


    "Ah Love, could you and I with Him conspire
    To make this sorry scheme of things entire,
    Would we not shatter it to bits and then
    Remold it nearer to our heart's desire?"*

    *(Quoted from now weakened memory, I might have missed some lines or words.)

    What did I miss in the native Persian? It would certainly have been an advantage literary-wise.

    Multilingual literary men as cosmopolitan artists would certainly breed "writers without boundaries". If poets were "legislators of the world", can a truly unified world be far behind? -- ALBERT B. CASUGA

  2. The attempted dominance of English, and increasingly Mandarin Chinese as an international language, is certainly a threat to minority languages.

    With reference to endangered languages, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign on behalf of the protection of endangered languages.

    The following declaration was made on behalf of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2009. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html