20 June 2009

Literary vs. linguistic competence

Followers of this blog having some difficulty distinguishing literary from linguistic competence might want to read Raman Selden, who was a fairly accurate and eminently readable interpreter of literary theories. Here is how Selden, writing about Michael Riffaterre, distinguished the two:

“It requires only ordinary linguistic competence to understand the poem’s ‘meaning,’ but the reader requires ‘literary competence’ to deal with the frequent ‘ungrammaticalities’ encountered in reading a poem. Faced with the stumbling-block of ungrammaticalness, the reader is forced, during the process of reading, to uncover a second (higher) level of significance which will explain the ungrammatical features of the text." (page 60 of A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory)

First, a reader has to understand (or have competence in) the language. Then, the reader has to understand (or have competence in) the literariness or the language of poetry (or literature in general) or the conventions that writers follow.

This is where one big difficulty arises when we are dealing either with a mixed language text or with a text written by a writer in a language other than the mother tongue. We have to have competence in the two or more languages involved before we have competence in literariness. Most literary critics have competence in literariness (they would not be literary critics if they did not!), but not all have competence in more than one language.

Linguistic competence (which, of course, includes familiarity with the culture, not only the grammar and vocabulary of the language) comes before literary competence. Otherwise, one falls into the trap that otherwise excellent translator Harold Augenbraum falls into when he translates the Spanish "el Ateneo" as "the atheneum" in the Penguin English translation of Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere.

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