15 June 2009

Famous elsewhere

Being appreciated by readers not sharing one's mother tongue is, of course, not new. A fairly recent example is Edgar Allan Poe, who was said to have been taken seriously first by the French before his fellow Americans. (This urban legend, of course, has already been debunked, but it still serves my purpose.) In translation or when read by non-"native speakers," a text loses its linguistic qualities (such as word-play) but gains focus (the non-language-based elements - such as characterization, plot, theme, ideas - are foregrounded). When we read a work written by a writer in a second or foreign language, on the other hand, the linguistic elements are enhanced, because the mother-tongue reader finds the language unfamiliar (literary critics like to say "defamiliar") and is forced to think about the words themselves. Like all new literary theories, multilingual literary criticism is a return to the old, the older tradition of criticism being that focused on words, not ideas.

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