15 May 2009

Not just languages

One of the most difficult challenges facing a multilingual literary critic is that s/he has to be knowledgeable not only about languages, but about entire cultures or literary traditions. The same challenge faces, of course, not just the multilingual literary critic but all readers of all hybrid literatures (even those that appear monocultural, like British literature, which has deep roots in the literatures of other linguistic communities!).

Here is a typical observation by a critic about one type of literature (Urdu):

"While it is true that Persian and Arabic literary models are still very much
in use in Urdu, particularly in poetry, and, hence, a student possessing
knowledge of Arabic or Persian poetry can be instructed in Urdu poetic
literature with relative ease, it would be wrong to neglect the Pakistani
and Indian aspects of Urdu literature, especially in modern Urdu fiction
and drama — these narrative genres which, though borrowed from the
West, nevertheless portray the social reality of India and Pakistan. Even if
this social reality may prove difficult for a beginning student to
apprehend fully, neglecting it would result in missing out on some
important aspects of literary creativity in modern Urdu."

Similarly, a reader of Philippine literature in English that does not know Philippine literary traditions in Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, and other vernacular languages runs the great risk of completely misreading a work.

We just cannot avoid being aware of other [sub]cultures and other languages. If we are not aware of them, we are like that favorite whipping-person of literary theorists - the reader that thinks that s/he has no theory.

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