29 November 2009


When studying multilingual verse, it is important to know if the “foreign” words in the text are there because the poet wants to use a second language to enhance whatever s/he is trying to do or if the words are there because they are there to begin with in the ordinary speech of people on the street. A multilingual literary text, in other words, may merely mirror what is going on in real life, or it may be a conscious creation by the writer to harness the resources of two or more languages. Such a distinction was clear even in 1993, when Lars Johanson studied the poetry of Rūmī. Wrote Johanson: “There are in Rūmī’s work no clear signs of contact with a TE [East Oghuzic Turkic] literary tradition. It is, in this connection, irrelevant that his Persian texts contain a number of Turkic words, since these were common integrated borrowings in the Persian of the period in question. Turkish was was not yet a literary medium, elaborated as a functional dialect in the sense of a TW [Anatolian Turkish]+lit variety; it was no equivalent poetic tool which Rūmī or other poets could have used immediately and adequately for their purposes. This is why it is often considered ‘rough.’ European vernaculars in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance were characterized similarly in comparison with Latin. Poets often wrote Latin with greater ease than their mother tongue.”

Also brought out in this passage is the idea that, when a poet uses words from a second language, s/he imports not just words but the literary tradition in that language. This use of a second literary tradition, more than the use of a second language, is actually more important as far as literary criticism is concerned. A critic must know not just the second language but the literary tradition in that language. A multilingual poet lives not just in one literary tradition (or even one geographical country), but in two or more literary traditions, making her/him truly a global artist.

26 November 2009

Singapore and Hong Kong

Just off the press is an article about multilingual poetry in Singapore and Hong Kong: "Text messages: A tale of two songs: Singapore versus Hong Kong," by Kirkpatrick and Moody (2009). Unfortunately, reading it requires a subscription to ELT Journal (which I don't have). If you have or your library has a subscription to this journal, you might want to read the article and summarize its contents for us.

24 November 2009

Salvador Novo

Here's the last part of the poem "Noche" by Salvador Novo (1904-1974):

Tu novia y la mía
harán encajes y proyectos.
Todos duermen, pero
Voici ma douce amie
si méprisée ici car elle est sage
and numerical and temperamental.
Adiós, amigo, éxito
con Lady Gordiva.
Por mí, Vive la France
aunque mi amiga
no pueda ahora, materialmente,
agradecer el compliment.

Rafael Hernández-Rodríguez comments that "in order not to be confused with a follower of socialist realism, he [Novo] ends his poem in the most pretentious way with multilingual verses." It is inevitable that every literary technique has a political implication. Conversely though less obviously, every political message needs a particular (not necessarily unique) literary technique.

22 November 2009

Lawrence Rosenwald's Multilingual America

A book that I forgot to buy when I was in the US recently (on a book-buying spree) is Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature (2008), by Lawrence Alan Rosenwald. Have you read it? What do you think about it? The publisher-friendly blurbs from Amazon.com are promising, but of course they may not tell the real picture:

"'This is a splendid book, unlike any currently in the field, and setting a standard for literary scholarship the rest of us can only aspire to. Lawrence Rosenwald brings to the project an impressive range of languages and a different vision of what we might want to do with texts. His goal is to write a history of American literature showcasing languages as the key players. Multilingual America is an impressive achievement: all Americanists will sit up and pay attention.' Wai Chi Dimock, Yale University

"'This is a remarkable work. This book addresses an extremely important and timely subject. It combines high intelligence and lucidity with deep erudition and modesty. Every page is extremely interesting. Every scholar or teacher of American literature will learn much from it, and it will be greatly useful to many students of American literature and culture (around the world as well as domestically), as well as to students and scholars of comparative literature and of intercultural encounter more broadly.' Jonathan Arac, University of Pittsburgh

"Product Description: Throughout its history, America has been the scene of multiple encounters between communities speaking different languages. Literature has long sought to represent these encounters in various ways, from James Fenimore Cooper's frontier fictions to the Jewish-American writers who popularised Yiddish as a highly influential modern vernacular. While other studies have concentrated on isolated parts of this history, Lawrence Rosenwald's book is the first to consider the whole story of linguistic representation in American literature, and to consider as well how multilingual fictions can be translated and incorporated into a national literary history. He uses case studies to analyse the most important kinds of linguistic encounters, such as those between Europeans and Native Americans, those between slaveholders and African slaves, and those between immigrants and American citizens. This ambitious, engaging book is an important contribution to the study of American literature, history and culture."

18 November 2009

Pat Mora book

Here's a book notice:

"In My Own True Name, Pat Mora investigates the origin of identity through 62 poems, crafted to give the reader a more-than-cursory view of the Mexican-American's status in this country. . . Mora is careful to illustrate how important language can be. When words are combined with the spirit of the land, the poet reveals the secret of language's power. Because she is a native of the southwestern United States, Mora translates that area into a homeland that rises above borders and nationalities. There is an indomitability accompanying that region, and it gives its people the strength to survive." — "Mi Poema Es Tu Poema: Mora celebrates multiculturalism in multilingual verses," Home News Tribune

And here's an excerpt from the poem "Mango Juice":

Eating mangoes
on a stick
is tossing
fragile cascarones
on your love's hair,
confetti teasing him
to remove his shoes
his mouth open
and laughing
as you glide
more mango in,
cool rich flesh
of México
music teasing
you to strew
streamers on trees
and cactus

17 November 2009

Alina Troyano

One of the effects of the original macaronic verse was comic; writers used more than one language in a text to make their readers or audiences laugh. The comic impulse has not disappeared from multilingual literature. In the performing arts, for instance, there is Alina Troyano, described as "a Cuban lesbian performance artist whose work skewers racial, cultural, and sexual stereotypes." Here are typical verses from her:

"Hello people, you know me, I know you.
I am Carmelita Tropicana.

"I say Loisaida is the place to be. It is multicultural, multinational, multigenerational, mucho multi. And like myself , you've got to be multilingual.

"I am very good with the tongue."

Modern multilingual writing, however, is much more complex than macaronic verse. With the more subtle and more sophisticated tools now available to writers, modern writing is deadly serious, though it draws laughs. Here is how Lisa Alvarado writes about Troyano: "In the preface [of the book I, Carmelita Tropicana: Performing Between Cultures (2000)], there is a reference to Troyano's use of 'innuendo, bilingual puns, double entendre, burlesque, parody, political farce, biographical revisionism, and an irreverent appropriation and collaging of popular culture.' She draws text from popular movies, past stereotypical icons, and popular music. While the style is irreverent, her themes are hardly light. In placing expropriated material in another context, it becomes reinvented, with layers of new meaning and ultimately a critique of the original manifestation itself."

As in most cases of comic writing (or performing), we have to go beyond the smiles to appreciate the frowns.

14 November 2009

Rai music

There are lyrics that are written in two or more languages, as well as the more familiar lyrics adapted to the melody of a song originally written in another language (such as the delightful "New York, New York" in Hungarian of Ildy Lee). As far as music is concerned, however, that scratches only the surface of the art form. More important is the blending of different types of music from different cultures. This is most obvious in Rai, which blends Algerian, Spanish, French, African, and Arabic musical forms. The mass audience that loves Sting's Desert Rose (which uses Rai) has been primed to accept multilingual poetry (which, of course, blends words rather than rhythms). On a really deep critical level, a critic should understand how a particular poem blends not just words but poetic traditions from different cultures. We are not there yet, since we are still trying to mainstream the use of words from other languages in a poem.

13 November 2009

Multilingual popular music

Here's an old but still interesting account of singers and songwriters using more than one language in songs. The mass audience has awakened to multilingual writing! Vox populi, vox Dei?

Readers recommend: multilingual songs, by Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian, Friday 11 May 2007:

"Every year, media coverage of Eurovision reaffirms one of the fundamental assumptions underpinning British music's self-image, namely that pop in other languages is intrinsically inferior, not to mention hilarious. Even as music becomes more polyglot (at least half of this week's suggestions, including Air, CSS and Arcade Fire, were recorded in the past decade), the novelty factor lingers.

"Perhaps it's because so many lyricists struggle to make sense in their native argot, let alone anyone else's. Full marks for effort to the Clash (Spanish Bombs), despite doing to the Spanish language what Hitler's bombers did to Guernica, and the Fall (Bremen Nacht), apparently using German gleaned exclusively from Commando comics: 'Ich raus schnell mach von Bremen Nacht.' Achtung, schweinhund! Hande hoch! The most multilingual offering was Madonna's Sorry. It seems she can now apologise for Swept Away in 10 different languages.

"Predictably, French produced the richest pickings, though whether that's a tribute to the unrivalled sophistication of the Gallic tongue or the legacy of compulsory French lessons I cannot say. Faced with changing the gender of Randy and the Rainbows' Denise, and understandably averse to Dennis, Blondie invented a French casanova called Denis, and sang a verse accordingly. Amorous exchange students took notes.

"German industrial metal band Rammstein slip into English to make their point about US cultural dominance on Amerika. 'This is not a love song,' growls Till Lindemann. 'I don't sing my mother tongue.' Ukrainian-born New Yorker Eugene Hutz mixes Russian and English on Sally, a lusty manifesto for his gypsy-punk troupe. 'I ended up being walking United Nations,' he explains in an accent broader than the Dnieper.

"Pixies' Frank Black frequently amplified his alien quality with manic bursts of Spanish, but there's only room for one Anglo-Spanish entry - Venceremos (We Will Win), British jazzers Working Week's elegantly understated tribute to victims of the Chilean junta. Tracey Thorn, Robert Wyatt and Chile's Claudia Figueroa swap verses. Brazil's Jorge Ben mixes Portugese and English on the breezy Take it Easy My Brother Charles.

"Now for some less commonly heard languages. Along with Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci flew the flag for the Welsh vernacular in the early 90s. Patio Song does so with unforced charm. Sigur Ros went one better, inventing a lingo called Hopelandic. The ecstatic Hoppipolla, which you will recognise if you've seen any TV trailers in the past year or so, combines it with their native Icelandic. On Satta Massagana, reggae trio the Abyssinians prove their devotion to the Rastafarian homeland of Ethiopia with a refrain in Amharic.

"Bryan Ferry sang auf Deutsch on Roxy Music's Bitter-Sweet, but Ferry and Germany aren't such a happy match at the moment. Song for Europe is not only a better song with a fortuitous title; it has verses in French and Latin, the least pop language of them all. Enfin, Blur's ravishing To the End, reworked as a fully bilingual duet with Parisian icon Françoise Hardy. Et voilà, c'est tout."

10 November 2009

Jain narratives

I was traveling these past few days and could not post. I'm home now in Manila and here's something that would have been interesting to go to last December:

"Jain Narratives in multilingual early modern North India: Apabhramsa texts from the 15th-18th centuries
Dr Eva de Clerq (Ghent & AHRC project)
Date: 5 December 2008 Time: 4:00 PM
Finishes: 5 December 2008 Time: 6:00 PM
Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 4421
Type of Event: Seminar
Series: CSAS Seminar Programme
Jains were perhaps the most multilingual writers and readers in medieval and early modern India, but their literary contribution is often ignored in literary histories. Particularly striking is their continued used of Apabhramsa for literary texts. These two sessions will present two texts. One is the story of Candragupta, Canakya and the Jain saint Bhadrabahu by the most famous "late Apabhramsa" poet, Raydhu. The other, Bhagavatidas's Mrgankalekha (1700), considered the "last" Apabhramsa poem, is a strikingly multilingual work in that it contains verses in Prakrit and "Hindi"."

De Clerq's observation that multilingual texts are "often ignored in literary histories" is sadly too familiar to us. We really need to be more vocal about our discovery that multilingual texts are the norm, and monolingual texts are only a special case (following the analogy of the Special Theory of Relativity, where "normal" happenings that we can see with our eyes are only a special case of what is really going on in reality).

06 November 2009

How to write a multilingual script

Here's a good example of what to do if you are writing a screenplay and your characters need to speak in a language or languages other than the language of the script:

A corrugated-metal shack. We don’t see much of it.
A terrified Dagny is flanked by TWO KIDNAPPERS.
Their leader (the Voice) passes the phone to Dagny.

Papa? Papa!
(fast stream of Norwegian)
Give them what they want, please get me out of here, I’m scared! Papa!

Hospital! Where is hospital?

The old man scurries inside.


There are also comments on that blog from other screenwriters about what they do. Since multilingual screenwriting is relatively new (I presume that you have noticed how many recent films have dialogue in a language you cannot understand and is not subtitled), there are no real conventions yet. Multilingual creative writing is emergent, not dominant, so the rules will come later.

05 November 2009

Starting young

One recent technique in child language acquisition is very promising for developing the audience for multilingual writing. Here is an account of the way a second language is taught to kids:

"There are, of course, many different ways of telling a story to a group. One of the most powerful ways with a group of beginners is to tell the story in the way that follows: (In this case the target language is Modern Greek):

"There was this man and he seemed very agitated. This andras, this guy, he went round and round the kipo behind his house (kipo is a garden) looking for something. The andras got down on his hands and knees and started scrabbling around in the border underneath the traiandafila, the roses.

"Now the wife of the andra, his yineka, happened to be in one of the upstairs rooms of the house. The yineka looked out through the bedroom parathiro and saw her andra searching for something in the border under the traiandafila.

"She asked him what he was doing. 'I’m looking for my house keys,' her andras shouted back.

"'Did you lose your house klidia down there in the kipo, in the border under the traiandafila?'

"'No,' said her andras, 'I didn’t lose my klidia here under the traiandafila, but the light is so much better here!'"

"I hope the text construction was logical enough for you to understand all the Greek words without having to strain too much. Bi-lingual stories of this sort are magic with small kids and people at this stage of linguistic brilliance (3-8) lap up and ‘interiorize’ the new language without realizing what is happening in their minds. When the story has been told half a dozen times with more and more target language words being used in each telling the whole story is told in the target language and the learners have the giddying sensation that they have understood everything."

We always say that the youth is the hope of the future. In this case, this is literally correct: the bilingual or multilingual generation now growing up is going to make multilingual writing/reading the rule, rather than the exception.

03 November 2009

The London Skool

From poets reciting poems in different languages to poems written in different languages is a short journey, and events such as Risk of Poetry (June 2009) should hasten the development of multilingual writing. Check out the event on YouTube.

Here is the description of the event: "London Risk of Poetry delivers a collage of poetry, literary theory, imagery, fantasy, voices, music, exile, before and long after, by London Skool - an avant guarde band of multi-lingual poets and critics, who aim to create poetry and text from hybridisation of languages, genres and lifestyles in order to endanger the tranquillity of norms and shake up the standards of the literary genre, bringing together Ali Abdolrezaei, Parham Shahrjerdi, Abol Froushan, Mansor Pooyan, to propose the new directions in the Risk. Their aim is a globalisation of poetry through literary exchange between English, Persian, French, etc. (7 languages in the latest issue of www.POETRYMAG.ws) in a context of post exile, through translation and analysis. The event is on the occasion of the publication of Parham's multilingual book of the same title. Monday 1 June 2009 at 7:30pm Poetry Café 22 Betterton Street, London WC2 (Convent Garden tube)." Too bad I missed this event. I left London 22 May and was already in Budapest on 1 June.

01 November 2009

US multilingual ethnic literature

In her "Code-switching in US ethnic literature: multiple perspectives presented through multiple languages" (2005), Holly E. Martin writes:

"For the multilingual author, switching between two or more languages is not an arbitrary act, nor is it simply an attempt to mimic the speech of his or her community; code-switching results from a conscious decision to create a desired effect and to promote the validity of the author’s heritage language. This article looks at code-switching in literary texts between Spanish and English, English and Chinese, and English and Jemez, a Native American language. Incorporating native and heritage languages along with English within a literary work, usually through code-switching, creates a multiple perspective and enhances an author’s ability to express his or her subject matter."

Among the five elements of the literary experience (author, text, reader, world, tradition), the one with the least attention focused on it is that of the reader. The study of multilingual literature is no exception. We need to do a lot more, as the article does, to focus on the reader and how the act of reading is enriched by the use of more than one language in a text.