07 July 2009

The question of audiences

"Who writes for whom, in what genres, and which languages? How do writers translate ‘native cultures’ for their varied audiences – whether domestic or global? How and why do writers claim specific readers? How do authors’ locational history and language choices affect their audience, their popularity with non-native reading groups, and ultimately, their inclusion in academic literary canons?" asks Lavina Dhingra Shankar in “Not Too Spicy: Exotic Mistresses of Cultural Translation in the Fiction of Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri” (Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India, edited by Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare, 2009, pp. 24-25).

These questions are crucial to any study of multilingual literary texts. Who, for example, is the audience of Jessica Hagedorn's bestselling novel Dogeaters (1990), which has Filipino words and sentences liberally included in the English prose? (The bilinguality of the novel led John Updike to wish that he knew Filipino.) That so many bought and read this novel that did not know Filipino means that the novel can still be understood without knowing Filipino. Yet even the name of one of the key characters (Pucha) can be fully appreciated only with a knowledge of Filipino (it's a curse).

It is not only the text that the multilingual critic has to worry about; s/he has to explore also the question of audiences.

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