31 January 2009

Powell's question # 4

Here is my unsolicited answer to the fourth question raised by Adam Donaldson Powell:

"What are the literary career risks if one 'fails miserably' -- how forgiving and how understanding is the literary community (other writers, readers of poetry, editors and critics)? Is it perhaps acceptable to write some bad bilingual poetry, inevitable to perform some bilingual poetry badly but 'unforgivable' to publish bad bilingual poetry?"

At the moment, sad to say, there is no risk at all. It should be unforgivable to publish bad bilingual (or monolingual) poetry, but we always forgive the bad people anyway. At least, bad poetry is still poetry, but what really bothers me is that much of what is published as poetry is not even poetry at all, but prose cut up into lines, sometimes even bad prose that wouldn't be able to stand up as prose. The writing community is so small that it suffers from a siege mentality: everyone not against us must be for us. So we politely forgive people with no idea about what poetry is but that publish what they think is poetry anyway. We feel that anyone that at least pretends to be a poet must be with us; we think that we should not shoot down our friends, there being so few of them. But in the end, if we do not start insisting on quality, we will ultimately be the ones to suffer (assuming that we are the good guys that can write real poetry).

30 January 2009

Powell's question # 3

Here is my unsolicited answer to the third question raised by Adam Donaldson Powell:

"It must be quite a sensational achievement to publish poetry in a language other than one's mother tongue, or to have the freedom and dexterity to choose which language a poem or part of a poem or an entire collection of poetry will be in -- without having to employ a translator. Can you comment on this 'virtue', and the exhilaration experienced when one succeeds?"

Definitely sensational. Every language has its unique advantages (as well as disadvantages, of course). To be able to use another language is to expand the poetic reservoir into which one can dip to get exactly the nuance that one wants. Sensational, although I am not sure about exhilaration. One can never tell if one is fully exploiting the second or third language because, by definition, that language is not what one thinks in or grew up in. We have enough testimonies from readers reading works written in their languages by people that just learned it in school or as adults; these "native speakers" invariably find the second-language writers a bit odd, to say the least.

29 January 2009

Powell's question # 2

Here is my unsolicited answer to the second question raised by Adam Donaldson Powell:

"Much modern-day poetry is self-published or published by altruistic small press enterprises, many of which do not have the resources or capacity for multilingual editing. This puts quite a bit of responsibility on the author himself/herself. What are the most common indiscretions or literary problems you have observed in poetry written in another language other than one's mother tongue, and how might they be solved by the author/publisher? Are editors/proof readers/translators usually sensitive enough to the intended artistry of poetry, or do they sometimes tend to suggest changes which 'flatten out' the intended meanings?"

If multilingual writers are rare, multilingual copyreaders and proofreaders are rarer. Writers have no choice but to do proofreading themselves, but don't writers love rereading their own works a thousand times anyway? In fact, if writers cannot stand rereading their own works, they should not expect a reader to read a work even once. As for publishers (I am both a writer and publisher), writers know that they have a love-hate relationship with them. Publishers are less literate or sensitive than writers (otherwise they would be writers), so writers have to take copyreading matters into their own hands.

28 January 2009

Powell's question # 1

Adam Donaldson Powell asked five bilingual writers ten questions about writing in languages other than your own. I want to be an uninvited interviewee. Here is the first of my unsolicited answers to his questions:

"In an age of increasing bilingualism/multilingualism in written, performed and published poetry one might wonder what the drive or impetus is. Would you say it is: a) a need/desire to reach a global market; b) a need/desire to stand out from poets who are only writing in their mother tongue; c) a personal ego-trip or a form of literary "extreme sport"; d) an awareness that many things simply must be expressed in a foreign language; or e) all four of the/some of the preceding; or f) something else?"

E, or all of the first four. (a) I write primarily in Filipino, and there are not too many readers in that language, compared with readers in English (in which I also write). (b) I have an arrogant, condescending, patronizing, holier-than-thou attitude towards monolingual or linguistically-challenged writers. (c) Of course, writing is an ego trip; why else would a writer put his or her thoughts out there on the pretty egoistic assumption that other people will want to spend time reading them? Writing in another language is also a game I play with myself, and since I cheat by having a dictionary at my side, I always win. (d) I love Filipino, but there are things I cannot say in it (such as what I have been saying in this paragraph). Oh, and there's (f) something else: everybody I know in the Philippines writes in English, even if nobody in the Philippines has English as her/his mother tongue, so I'm merely exercising my herd mentality.

27 January 2009

Adam Donaldson Powell

Adam Donaldson Powell, who writes poems in Spanish, English, and Norwegian, writes in his blog entry "The Dilemma of Modern Bilingual Poetry: Virtues & Indiscretions", "The fact is that many poets are currently writing in languages other than their native tongues – for a variety of reasons, and with varied success." He adds, "Learning to discern between oversight/inaccuracy, poetic doodling and literary genius is not always so simple (neither for poet nor audience) in a discipline where most every type of expression is accepted – from poetic and rapturous prose to closely designed feminine rhyme. Creative doodling and oversight can – in fact – open up for new forms of expression, understanding and linguistic permutations in literature, and inaccuracies can sometimes provide valuable learning about writing and one’s own levels of tolerance/intolerance." He speaks as a creator of literature. What we need are comments on the same topic from readers or consumers of literature. How do we, readers, distinguish between "poetic doodling" and "literary genius"? How do we distinguish between what Andrew Gonzalez described as a "feature" from what most teachers label as a "mistake"? Questions, questions!

26 January 2009

Children's Bilingual Theater

Theater is a natural place for writers to write in languages other than their own. Even children can do that well, as evidenced by the Children's Bilingual Theater, founded by (at that time) a 10th grader in Atlanta. Of course, one can argue that, in theater, communication depends strongly on non-verbal cues (stage movement, stage business, voice elements, etc.) and there is less need for the language itself to be "literary" or "artistic." Even if the words are not comprehensible because they are in a language they do not understand, audiences can still follow storylines. (That has been proven again and again in international theater festivals, not to mention opera, where singers themselves often do not speak the language of the lyrics.) What would be interesting to me, however, is how the writers (in this case, children) are able to express themselves in languages that they clearly do not have full command of.

25 January 2009

Casuga on literariness

Canada-based poet and critic Albert Casuga posted a comment on my entry on "Literariness" (8 January 2009). He asked, not necessarily rhetorically, "When I wrote my earliest poems in Ilocano, were they 'more literary' than when I used Spanish or English in my later works?" This is the core issue of interest to this blog. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Albert. Not being competent in Ilocano, I cannot answer the question myself as far as your own works are concerned, but on a theoretical (perhaps, meta-theoretical) plane, I have to say that there must be some way to tell if a work is "more literary" than another, and if language is crucial to literariness, then there must be a general principle that can apply to the literariness of works in non-mother tongues. What that general principle is, I do not know, but I hope that readers, writers, and philosophers around the world will start trying to discover or to formulate it.

24 January 2009


Did you watch Zapatista, the 2008 production by Teatro Milagro of The Miracle Theater Group in the USA? It was billed as a bilingual production. Does that mean that one performance was completely in Spanish and another completely in English? Or does it mean that, in the same performance, the actors spoke alternately in Spanish and English? In the Philippines, it is fairly common to have both types. One group will put up, say, a Shakespeare play in English, then the same cast (or a slightly changed cast) will do the same production (with the same blocking, production design, etc.) in Filipino. More common, though, are performances where the actors speak in different languages, depending on the characters they are playing. Since most audiences in the Philippines are multilingual, there is rarely a problem of being understood. (Of course, worldwide, theater tends to be multilingual. We see this all the time in international theater festivals.)

23 January 2009

Finding Liz

Does anyone know the owner of the blog on Bilingual Poetry? Her name is Liz and she lives in the U.S.A. (perhaps in San Francisco), but that's all I can get from the blog. On 21 April 2004 she had an interesting comment on her attempts to write in a second language (Spanish): "For me to write poetry partly in Spanish will result in Spanglish that is amateurish but that is no reason not to try any more than a recent immigrant to the U.S. shouldn't try writing poetry in English. Also when I am reading a lot of poetry in Spanish and studying grammar, etc., though I am not fluent, I am partly thinking in Spanish and so it naturally comes out in poetry that I'm writing." I would like to know how one can think in a language other than one's own, particularly if the language is new to the writer.

22 January 2009

The new West Side Story

Can someone who has or will watch the Broadway revival of West Side Story tell me if the Spanish lyrics work as well as the original English lyrics? I live too far from New York City to get there (I don't have the money to pay for the trip). The musical is one of my favorites (I collect DVDs of musicals); I once directed a stage production of it in Davao City, Philippines, when I was much younger and could understudy for the role of Tony (I could sing and dance then!). From this excerpt quoted in the NPR review, I'm not sure the Spanish works:
Hoy me siento
tan hermosa
tan preciosa que puedo volar
y no hay diosa en el mundo que me va a alcanzar.

The English lyrics go this way:
I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright!
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me tonight.

I'm not talking about the meaning of the lines (obviously, when translating or rethinking lyrics, you have to change meanings because the melody forces you to). I'm talking about the rhyme. The English lyrics have a lot of rhyming sounds, inside the lines, at the end of lines, everywhere, but the Spanish, well, restricts itself pretty much to -sa and -ar. Maybe, just maybe, if this excerpt is representative, West Side Story itself is really a Caucasian view of Puerto Ricans and can't be made politically correct. I could be wrong and, in fact, hope I'm very wrong.

21 January 2009

Scholarly articles on African second-language literature

Studies of literatures in other languages surface now and then in scholarly journals, but there are still too few of them. There are two examples in Goatskin Bags and Wisdom: New Critical Perspectives on African Literature (2000). Ako Essien writes on "Communicative Competence and Dialogue in Bilingual Novels: Three Nigerian Novels as Case Study" and Dele Orisawayi writes on "Artistic Progression in Chinua Achebe's Experiment with the English Language in Two Novels." The three novels in Essien's study are Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God, Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters, and Ibrahim Tahir's The Last Imam. The two novels in Orisawayi's article are Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. These studies, however, tend to use linguistics rather than literary theory. I have nothing against linguistics, but literary theory has a rather different view of the world, both the literary world and the everyday world. Graduate students, if you are looking for a thesis topic, try the area of literatures in other languages. It's an open field, and you will be one of the pioneers.

20 January 2009

Bilingual novels

Simon Ager wrote in his blog on 24 May 2007 that "In regions where two or more languages are a part of everyday life, you'd think that some writers might use a mixture of those languages in their stories. However, apart from a few Welsh and Irish novels which include bits of English dialogue, I haven’t come across any bilingual novels. Have you?" He got several responses, mentioning works by Jose Maria Arguedas, Carlos Fuentes, Avi Wortis, Giannina Braschi, Rolando Hinojosa, Anne Frank, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, as well as some films. Had I read the entry then, I would have posted hundreds of names of authors from the Philippines (all Filipinos are at least bilingual; most are multilingual or polyglots).

18 January 2009

Basanta Kumar Kar

Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal interviewed Basanta Kumar Kar for the latest issue of the Houston Literary Review. Here is an excerpt:

"NKA: Why did you choose English as the medium of your poetic expression? Any special reasons for this choice?

BKK: I am a student of English literature apart from having degrees in Law and Management from a premier rural management institute. Hence writing in English comes easily to me. It is an international language and has large diverse readership. Moreover the overwhelming response from these diverse readers have reinforced and encouraged me to write in this language.

NKA: Have you also written something in your native language? Which mode of poetic expression do you prefer—native or alien? Please make an argument.

BKK: I have published poems in English language. Yes, I have plans to write in my mother tongue, Oriya. I am of the view that both the modes of poetic expression are important and that each one has its own uniqueness."

Basanta Kumar Kar is a very interesting fellow. Like some other poets, he is heavily involved in development work, but unlike even those poets, he uses poetry to do development work. His latest collection of poems, The Unfold Pinnacle, has been well-received.

17 January 2009

Mahendra Bhatnagar

Mahendra Bhatnagar was interviewed by Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal. Here is a portion of the interview:

"NKA: You have written poetry both in Hindi and English languages. Out of the two, which one is closer to your heart?

MB: It's obvious that writing poetry in Hindi — my mother tongue — is closer to my heart

NKA: Did you feel comfortable in creating poems in English? My personal belief is that poetry is a spontaneous activity, which cannot easily come out in an alien language. So your English poetry may not be directly from the heart. What do you say?

MB: Expression of the heart and mind is more natural in one's mother-tongue. There is not much need of efforts in it. Expression in mother-tongue is an inherent element. That's why writing poetry in mother-tongue is also easier. As everyone is not a master of English or of any other language other than one's mother-tongue, it is absolutely necessary to understand and grasp the peculiar specialties of that language. Otherwise, writing poetry will prove totally un-poetic. Language accomplishment is possible only if you are familiar to that language. As I never went to England nor remained in touch with English speaking society, hence my expression in English will only be bookish. Of course, I learned English. I read several poems in English. The medium of my higher education was English. English language and literature remained compulsory subjects up to graduation level for me. I have no hesitation to say that I want to see my existence in the history of Indian English Poetry. I am happy to see that through English I got global wide readership. Internet too is a powerful medium of spreading my poetry."

We need more of these interviews. We need to know from poets themselves how they handle writing in another language. What happens when language becomes a barrier to expressing what is in one's heart? Or is it a barrier?

16 January 2009

Teresa Bevin

Here is a sentence from the short story "Envasado al vacío" ("Vacuum Packed") by Teresa Bevin (first language, Spanish; second language, English), author of the novel Havana Split: "Se derrite, se derrite, se derrite" which she herself translated into "She's melting, melting, melting." Bevin has won literary prizes for her writing in Spanish and English, so there is no doubt that she writes well. The two sentences, however, are miles apart in terms of literariness. The Spanish has a rhythm that the English does not have. The meanings are almost the same, although a more severe critic might point out that the Spanish has an ambiguity that is too obvious in the English (the ice cream is physically what is melting, but it is really the main character that is). Bevin herself realizes that there is a crucial difference. She is quoted as saying this: "At one time I might have said 'I have two hearts -- one the U.S. and the other Cuba.' That was before I understood my own nature and being," she explains. "Now I know that I have one heart and that both countries are a part of it -- one I chose and the other chose me." She could have been speaking of the two languages, rather than just the two countries. When a language chooses a writer, the writer is enveloped by it, becomes a slave to it, remains unable to break free from it, but when the writer chooses a language, s/he (in the words of Philippine poet and critic Gemino H. Abad) "colonizes" it, makes it her/his own, makes it her/his slave, and breaks away from it at will.

15 January 2009

Bilingual poets

Is the organization Bilingual MCA: Bilingual Poets & Writers for Peace, with membership from several countries (Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, France, Ghana, Greece, India, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Malta, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Romania, Russia, Switzerland, USA, Venezuela) still active? It would be good to ask the members how their writing in other languages differs from their writing in their mother tongues. Do they put on another writing hat? Do they translate from their mother tongue into the second language? Do they try to think in the second language? Is that possible at all? Questions, questions!

14 January 2009

Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In Woody Allen's film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), there is a scene where the main male character Juan Antonio explains why his father, a poet, refuses to learn another language aside from his mother tongue: "He's a poet and he writes the most beautiful sentences in the Spanish language and he doesn't believe that a poet should pollute his works by any other tongue." Allen is known to use his characters either as spokespersons or foils; either way, the idea of sticking to only one language to keep one's literary art pure is worth exploring. Using whatever literary standards we believe in, can we say that a monolingual poet is more "pure" than a poet that writes in a second language?

13 January 2009

Children writing in a second language

Although I am quite old-fashioned when it comes to defining literature, I have to admire the efforts of classroom teachers to encourage writing in second languages. After all, the young students may eventually end up being adult poets in the real sense. An excellent example of such classroom efforts can be found in the site of the children's book author Susan Katz. Here's a classroom method she describes: "If you or some of your students are fluent in a second language, you might want to use words from that language in a poem. Have the students write poems about colors, for instance, but instead of using the English words for each color, put color words from another language and their English translations on the board, and have the students use the nonEnglish words. Each line of the poem should contain a nonEnglish word. Read these poems aloud and listen to their music." I like the part about listening to the music. One of the distinct advantages for a poet of having a second language is the ability to go beyond the music available to linguistically-challenged poets who speak only their mother tongue.

12 January 2009

Rizal's third novel

Jose Rizal, the most prolific and most accomplished Filipino writer of the 19th century, wrote most of his works in Spanish, his second language. He also wrote some texts in English and German (he was a polyglot). Towards the end of his life, he started writing his third novel in Tagalog, his mother tongue. By his own account, he could not finish the novel in Tagalog and had to shift back to Spanish. There is a lesson to be learned from this, though that lesson has been repeatedly repudiated by writers such as Muhammed Haji Salleh, who wrote most of his early works in English, his second language, then returned to writing in Bahasa Melayu, his mother tongue, later in life.

11 January 2009

Conrad's English

Wikipedia summarizes the current view of the way Joseph Conrad wrote in English: "Conrad's third language remained inescapably under the influence of his first two — Polish and French. This makes his English seem unusual. It was perhaps from Polish and French prose styles that he adopted a fondness for triple parallelism, especially in his early works ('all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men'), as well as for rhetorical abstraction ('It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention')." This is a good example of the way literary critics should approach the issue of non-mother-tongue literature. The non-mother tongue should be compared with the mother tongue. Of course, this places a tremendous burden on the literary critic, who has to know a lot of languages intimately (in this case, Polish, French, and English), but if a writer can handle two or three (or more) languages with ease, so should a critic. Frankly, one of the things I can't stand is reading an essay on Conrad by someone who knows only English and is clueless about where the rhetorical devices are coming from.

10 January 2009

En attendant Godot

Called by Wikipedia as "the most significant English language play of the 20th century," Waiting for Godot (1954) is only a translation, albeit by the playwright himself, of the French play En attendant Godot (1952). That a translation can be called more significant than all other plays originally written in a language is a sign that there might be a lot more to second-language literature than meets the casual critical eye. Of course, this question is speculative: Could Samuel Beckett have written it originally in English? A critic will ordinarily compare the two versions and see what the English or French offers that the text in the other language does not. My take is as a playwright: I think Beckett had to write it in French because the French language did not impose on him the same compulsion to make sense that English does. I don't mean this as a slur on the French language, but I mean, in fact, the opposite, though I admit I laugh every time I hear the words of Professor Doolittle ("The French never care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly"). It is no accident that the classic works of existentialism, the Theater of the Absurd, and deconstruction are in French and not in English. When we say in English, "Language makes no sense" or "Words are all there are," we have to go into explanations of what we mean, which contradicts what we want to say. My impression is that the French language hosts such thoughts quite naturally. For a playwright to have to struggle with a language struggling against what he wants to say is too much; Beckett chose to focus not on the words but on the silences. I think that is why he had to write it originally in French.

09 January 2009

Is language crucial to literariness?

One question always raised by writers in second languages is this: if I can read Homer in a language other than Greek and get all the "literary" qualities of his epics, why can't I write in a language other than mine and still keep all the "literary" qualities of the works I write in my own language? Is language really that crucial to literariness? Does literariness reside in other things, such as plot, character, theme, etc.? For the New Critics (admittedly now unfashionable), literature is a particular use of language, which means that the moment you shift language, you shift literariness. For one thing (if you follow the New Critics, which is not necessarily a bad thing), the sound of the word, especially in poetry, has much to do with the sense of the word. That relationship between sound and sense is lost when the sound is different, as happens with a second language.

08 January 2009


Philosophers get away with answering the question "What is philosophy?" with the serious answer "Philosophy is what philosophers do." Similarly, literary theorists define literariness as "what makes literature literature." The term is usually attributed to the Russian Formalists, who were early 20th century critics, but the concept can be traced all the way back to Aristotle and even to the earlier Chinese literary theorists. Like all ideas, literariness has had its share of detractors, the most common insisting that it does not exist, i.e., that there is nothing particularly unique about literature. Some critics claim that everything written is literature (as in "Review of the Literature" in a scientific journal article). Some claim that even everything not written is literature (as in saying that we can read a silent film or read a person or read the traffic in a city). Some scientists have countered by experimentally proving that it exists (see, for example, Miall and Kuiken 1999). I welcome such empirical moves to defend the notion of literariness, but I prefer to take the logically circular route: literariness is what makes a literary text literary. You cannot argue against a circular definition because there is no way to break into the circle. It is like what the Structuralists used to say about language: take any dictionary of any language and you will realize that a dictionary is always self-referring (if you look up every word in any definition and follow it through every word defining it in turn, you will eventually end up with the original word being defined). What seems clear is that, if there is such a thing as literariness, it must have something to do with language, and if it has to do with language, then using a second language must have something to do with literariness.

07 January 2009

A diary in a second language

Can a writer write his/her journal in a second language? By definition, a writer's journal contains the writer's intimate thoughts (personal or writing-wise). Judge for yourself, with an Italian short story writer (who writes his stories in Italian) writing his online diary in English.

05 January 2009

Canadian second language poetry contest

Can someone tell me if the "Second Language Poetry Contest" held in 2005 in Canada was ever repeated? It was a great idea. Canadian secondary school students were invited "to use their second language to create a work inspired by the richness of Canada’s geological, biological and/or cultural heritage."

04 January 2009

Shipwrights & Conrad-Nabokov Prize

If you write in English as a second language and you live in a "non-Anglophone" territory, you can compete for the Conrad-Nabokov Prize, offered by Shipwrights magazine. This is how the magazine describes itself: "Shipwrights is the online magazine of de-centered English: a review of new writing from beyond the Anglosphere. The magazine’s goal is to publish the best new short fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction coming out of the global second- and foreign-language English writing communities."

Prizes for second-language authors

The Adelbert von Chamisso Prize of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, started in 1985, carrying a cash award of €15,000, and won recently by Artur Becker (first language Polish, second language German), according to its website, "is open to authors whose mother tongue and cultural background are non-German and whose works make an important contribution to German literature." In effect, the Man Asian Literary Prize, carrying a cash award of USD 10,000, is also an award for second-language authors, since many of the entries come from countries where English is not a first language. The Premio Internacional de Poesía Ciudad de Granada Federico García Lorca, carrying a cash award of €50,000, is a bit more difficult for second-language authors, because first-language authors compete. Does anyone know of other such literary contests?

03 January 2009

Giorgio Pressburger

The report on the conference cited in earlier posts relates that, "for Giorgio Pressburger, ... his first language [Hungarian], the language of his childhood, for him can effect a stimulating linguistic enrichment for his writing in Italian." This is a promising avenue of investigation. How does the mother tongue enrich writing in a second language? I don't know Italian and cannot answer this question personally. I imagine that Italian literary critics have studied the language of Pressburger to find out how exactly it differs from the Italian used by writers born to the language. If they haven't yet, they should.

02 January 2009

Francesco Micielli

The report on the conference mentioned in earlier posts refers to Francesco Micieli, "who as a member of an Albanian minority in Italy spoke Italo-Albanian until the age of five, ... had to speak Italian in kindergarten, and after emigrating to German-speaking Switzerland had to learn Swiss-German and German, ... chose ... German [as] his 'literary language', and in this language he noticed a hidden multilingualism 'which starts something new, but in the end articulates itself in German'." If something can articulate itself only in German, then that something cannot be articulated in Italian or English. That means that English is not as powerful a language as its adherents claim it to be. There are clearly certain things that writers want to express that cannot be expressed in English, but in German or some other language.

01 January 2009

Hubert Spiegel

In the conference cited in earlier posts, Hubert Spiegel, editor of the literary section of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is reported to have "raised the question of whether there is a kind of 'division of labour between languages' for these [second-language] authors: one is for writing, and one for everyday life." This sounds suspiciously like the old issue about poetic diction not being like ordinary language, raised by, among others, William Wordsworth. If a poet is a person speaking to other persons (the original formulation "He is a man speaking to men" was sexist, so forgive the editorial revision), then there should not be two languages. More important, writing in a second language automatically changes the readership of the work: now, the author is writing not for her/his co-language speakers, but for a different group of persons altogether.