27 June 2009

"National" literary language

For many countries today, there is or should be no such thing as a "national language" as far as literature is concerned. Take Austria. Here is a description of what is happening there today:

"When we talk about Austria we are talking about 12 languages at least. This is, of course, less than the number of languages in Cameroon or India, but it was more than one language. It was not possible to establish German as the sole language of the Habsburg Monarchy. For every 'ethnic' group it was important to have their own language for university use. Within the Habsburg Monarchy some of these languages were indeed created for that purpose (like Ukrainian at the University of Czerniwzi/Czernowitz). During this time a lot of the writers or poets wrote in different languages like Franz Grillparzer or Karl Emil Franzos. And in this sense the literature of the Habsburg Monarchy was a multinational literature. In the present, too, Austrian literature is not only writing in German, as some of the German nationalists want us to believe. It is written not only in German but also in Slovenian, Croatian or Turkish, and when we think of the writers in exile, they use English, French or Spanish (just to mention a few languages)." [Herbert Arlt, "Multilingual Austrian Literature" (2002)]

Monolingual literary criticism, or criticism that ignores the mother tongue of a writer writing in a second or foreign language, perpetuates the oppressive notion of a "national literary language."

1 comment:

  1. Tangential to issues raised by this blog is an advice given to W.S. Merwin by Ezra Pound, that I'd like to share. Merwin, whose latest poetry collection "Shadow of Sirius" is this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, was interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS last night, June 26, 2009. To paraphrase Pound's advice, translate a foreign language book to your own language, and try to write 75 lines of poetry each day. Translating presumably heightens your understanding of your own language, and the daily regimen sharpens your craft.