27 July 2009

Out of context means a new context

Yoko Tawada hits it right on the head. She says: "You can give a word more depth by listening to its history. Then we can ask ourselves, within one culture, what a certain word meant for Goethe or for Schiller. Or we could ask, more generally, what a particular word meant in the eighteenth century, or, say, in the fifteenth century. That is one method of giving a word more depth. What I am doing now in my writing, however, is to ask what a particular word means when it is inserted in the context of a multicultural and multilingual world where words from different languages create purely poetic correspondences."

When a word is used in a context that is not exclusively mother-tongue, i.e., if one or both the writer and reader are not mother-tongue speakers of the language in which that word occurs, then the word carries meanings that the methods of the historical critics or even New Critics will not be able to uncover. Using insights developed by literary theory (such as those from Reader-Response theories), multilingual literary criticism can unlock many meanings previously unknown to readers even in what we thought were already-overread texts.

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