19 July 2009

Principles 1

This is the first principle of multilingual literary criticism:

(1) If a literary work is written in a language other than the mother tongue, the mother tongue has to be taken into account when reading the work.

This principle applies to a whole work or to part of a work (such as a word, a line, a verse, a phrase, a sentence, or a passage).

For example, when reading T. S. Eliot's "hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!," the critic has to ask questions of this sort:

Why does the poet shift to French?

What is gained or lost by using the French original instead of an English translation of Charles Baudelaire's phrase?

Would a translation of the phrase into a third language be more effective or less? (This question would be inevitable if we were reading a translation into a third language of the whole poem.)

If the English translation and the French original were read or spoken aloud simultaneously (which could be done by two readers or by one reader using imagination), would one serve as a counterpoint to the other in terms of meaning and/or music?

These are just questions that would arise from a purely formalistic reading. A more context-oriented reading would ask questions about the poet's intention, education, audience, and so on.

Clearly, despite the enormous scholarship already devoted to Eliot's line, not to mention his entire poem, there is still a wide open area for students of literature to explore.

1 comment:

  1. I recommend to read this interview with a Japanese poet living and writing in German but also still writing in Japanese:

    Brand, Bettina (2006): Ein Wort, ein Ort, or how words create places. Interview with Yoko Tawada. In: Helga W. Kraft (ed.): Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture. University of Nebraska Press, pp. 1-15

    It is available on google books.