26 May 2009

Lisel Mueller

Pulitzer Prize winner Lisel Mueller's "English as a Second Language" gives us an explicit example of how second language speakers react to writing drastically differently from first language speakers:

The underpaid young teacher
prints the letters t, r, e, e
on the blackboard and imagines
forests and gardens springing up
in the tired heads of her students.

But they see only four letters.

Similarly, when a reader reads a work in his/her own mother tongue written by someone to whom the language is only a second or foreign language, the reader thinks that s/he is on the same wavelength as the writer. That is clearly not the case, even in ordinary speech, as illustrated by the poem. Since poetry is even more dependent on precise language (including connotations and word history), it follows that the reader is even more in danger of totally misunderstanding a second-language work. In the poem above, since Mueller is also writing in a second language, the monolingual reader will miss the German characteristic of the verse (e.g., precision in number of syllables and stresses, even visual length of lines).

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps, one should distinguish between understanding and appreciation of a text. One understands meaning but appreciates style, along with "connotation and word history." The latter requires special training and skill that the language majors and critics sharpen. Hence, the full understanding that the blog advocates may not be open to the cellphone texters among today's high school and college graduates.