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.

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