31 March 2009


I got a lesson in accents once when I was in Bacolod, a Southern city in the Philippines where people speak a language called Ilonggo (technically called Hiligaynon). I had just come from Cebu, a nearby Southern city where people (called Cebuanos) speak a language called Cebuano (Sugbuhanon in older books). Since I was in Bacolod for more than a week to teach an extension class, I learned some sentences to get me through buying dinner in the local food places. (It was cheaper, of course, to eat where the people eat, rather than where the tourists eat.) After I said my well-practised sentences in Ilonggo, the storekeeper said to me with a wide grin (of course, in Ilonggo), "You speak Ilonggo like a Cebuano!" I think the same thing happens when a writer writes in a second language. The second language sounds like the first language. (Btw, I know just a little bit more Cebuano than Ilonggo. My mother tongue is Filipino - not Tagalog. My second language is Tagalog. My third language is English. My other languages are mainly for tourist, research, lecturing, or bragging purposes.)

30 March 2009

Not just literature

Although this blog concerns itself mostly with literary matters, it is not just about literature. The issue of multilingual literature merely mirrors the bigger multilingual and multicultural issues of nations and the world. The rise of English as a dominant international language has caused the death of several languages. In the Philippines, for example, the continued use of English for all government, legal, and business transactions has been shown to be directly related to the deepening poverty, hunger, and helplessness of almost 80% of the population (only 20% more or less are functionally literate in English). The Philippines used to have many more than a hundred indigenous languages; it is now down to about a hundred. The use by a poet of only one language has similar disastrous consequences. By giving readers only a highly limited view of reality, the monolingual poet fails to catch the complexities of real life, thus oversimplifying our view of the world. Since literature is our best (some say our only) way to see the world as it really is, the monolingual poet sins against humanity. It is the responsibility of every real poet to have at least two languages - the mother tongue and a language as different as possible from the mother tongue. Poetry, needless to say, is a third language.

29 March 2009


Translation has been around since the beginning of literature. Various encyclopedias trace translation to the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 BCE), which was read in translation by writers of the Jewish Bible and the Iliad. Translation theory has also been around for quite a while, although of course not as long as translation itself (theory always comes only after practice!), being traced by historians of translation theory only to Quintus Horatius Flaccus [Horace] (65-8 BCE). From translation theory, we can pick up a concept that will help us in multilingual literary criticism, namely, the concept of biculturality. It is not enough, the translation theorists say, for a translator to be bilingual or fluent in both the source language and the target language; the translator must also be bicultural, meaning that the translator must have lived part of her/his life in the country where the source language is the native tongue. This is my biggest beef against most (not all, since some studied in English-speaking countries) Filipinos that write in English - they know English only from books or films but have never heard it spoken to them by ordinary British or American speakers. The poetry of these bilingual but not bicultural Filipinos sounds, well, terrible to the ears of someone that has lived part of her/his life in the US or UK. It would not be so bad if the non-bicultural Filipino writer would insist that s/he is using Philippine English, but no one I know will admit that but will on the contrary insist that her/his poetry is as good as that written in the US/UK. Since sound or music is at least half (I would say much more than half) of poetry, English poems written by non-bicultural Filipinos tend to violate the purity of one's poetic ears.

28 March 2009

Linguistic relativism 3

"All observers." wrote Benjamin Lee Whorf in Science and Linguistics (1940), "are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." Even if this controversial statement were true only a little bit (I know that most linguists today do not believe it completely), it would follow that a critic should share the same linguistic background as the writer. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case, partly because of the reality check of critics usually being professors under pressure to produce a long work every year or so in order to be retained or promoted. Critics then have to try to quickly understand works which took their writers a much longer time to create. Remember James Joyce saying of Ulysses, "I spent seven years writing it. People could at least spend seven years reading it." With multilingual texts or texts written in second languages, a critic must then know all the languages that the writer knows. How many critics have made fools of themselves writing about Oedipus Rex without knowing classical Greek? Anyone that has ever tried to translate a literary text knows that there are nuances of language that just cannot be recaptured in another language, even by the best of translators. When I had to learn Persian to teach in Iran, I found out, even with my very elementary Persian, that the version of Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that I read in school was, well, pretty distorted. FitzGerald did not share Omar Khayyam's linguistic background, even if he could understand individual words of Persian and even if he tried his best, through several editions, to revise the English to come as close as he could make it to the Persian.

27 March 2009

Linguistic relativism 2

One reason it is difficult for critics to judge monolingual against multilingual works is that the critics themselves have to be multilingual or at least bilingual. A Western critic faced with the challenge of determining which of Oedipus Rex or Hamlet is a better play has to be able to read both Greek (even if learned only in school) and English (not our contemporary one, but that of Shakespeare). There are, of course, such critics, especially those that took classics in Oxford or similar universities. Reading Oedipus Rex in another language (which is what most critics do) will fail to catch some if not many of the crucial literary qualities of the work (the rhymes, the length of the syllables, the homophones, and so on, what structuralists would call the signifiers). That is, even if English speakers do not always acknowledge it, also the case with Shakespeare (I once heard a British actor read Shakespeare the way Shakespeare would have recited the lines, and no one in the English-speaking audience understood a word!). With macaronic poetry, a reader can at least catch the sounds and glimpse the rhyme scheme, but a literary critic has to go beyond merely glimpses. The literary critic has to be able to explain the relationship of sound to sense, and that is very hard (but not impossible, as in the case of Filipino critics that read English or in the case of many European critics that grew up with languages other than their own). Just like the multilingual writer, the multilingual critic has a distinct advantage over monolingual critics.

26 March 2009

Linguistic relativism 1

Multilingual literary criticism can most probably contribute to the current debate about linguistic relativism, popularly but inaccurately known as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. If it is true in some way that language determines the way we see the world, then a writer using only one language, more precisely his/her own mother tongue, necessarily is able to mirror only a limited aspect of the real world (assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is indeed a real world, something some philosophers contest). If we want poetry to mirror (I am using the traditional word, which is a general synonym of the classic "imitate") reality, then poetry that mirrors only a small part of reality should surely be inferior to poetry that mirrors a greater part of reality. In theory, therefore, assuming that some version of Whorf-Sapir is correct, a multilingual or at least bilingual poet must enjoy an advantage over a monolingual poet, in that the multi-lingual or bilingual poet sees more of the world than the linguistically-challenged one does. One way to test this is to read a poem containing more than one language and to see how it compares with a monolingual poem. Of course, sampling will always be debatable, but if we take two poems considered classic or excellent by most critics and compare them, we might be on to something.

25 March 2009

Genoveva Edroza Matute

Let's shift a little bit to much too real life. Philippine novelist and short story writer Genoveva Edroza Matute, who wrote in Tagalog (her mother tongue), English (her second language), and Filipino (the language she learned late in life, because she wanted to relate to the new generation of urbanized young readers), died 20 March 2009 in her sleep. She was 94 years old. She received several honors for her writing, including a major one in 1992 from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which cited her for "her valuable contributions in elevating the standards of the Tagalog short story and in forging a national identity through the active promotion of Filipino." Her short stories are canonical and are read by millions of Filipino schoolchildren. She was a charming lady to the end, even when she was bedridden due to various illnesses. The world of multilingual writers has shrunk due to her demise. Ask not for whom the bell tolls - it tolls for us writers writing in two or more languages.

24 March 2009

Critics follow writers

That critics follow writers is fairly obvious from the history of criticism. Plato and Aristotle came after Sophocles and company. Cleanth Brooks and the New Critics came after T.S. Eliot and company. Even the Hungarian Marxist critics wrote only about previous works. The Australian postcolonial critics came after the Nigerian novelists and company. It is, of course, a tautology to say that a critic has to have a literary text to criticize, which means that the writer must necessarily come before the critic. In the few cases when critics (such as the early Russian Marxists) tried to tell writers what to write and how to write, the results have been either disastrous or insignificant. No one in China, not even the diehard Maoists, would now consider the works of the Cultural Revolution as superior in quality to those written before or after. No one in Russia even mentions the works done during the Stalinist period. In the Philippines, only the anti-Spanish (and anti-Spanish teachers) works of the late 19th century remain in the literary canon; those that presumably followed the Spanish critics of the time have been so forgotten that they are not even mentioned in footnotes.

23 March 2009

Practice vs. theory

That writers are producing literary texts in languages other than their own is obvious. The practice of multilingual literature has been going on for centuries. What has not been going on, except in bits and pieces here and there, is the theory of multilingual literature. The situation is similar to the disjunction between the theory and the practice of translation. In translation theory, translators should translate from a foreign language (source language) into their mother tongue (target language), but translators continue to translate into languages other than their own. Translators are also supposed to translate from the original language, but translators do excellent translations based on translations (source language to first target language to second target language). Btw, this is not the same thing as the old story that physics proves that bumblebees cannot fly; that is an urban legend (read the amusing essay by physicist Ken Zetie entitled "The strange case of the bumble-bee that flew"). The inability of literary critics to come to terms with multilingual literature is not an urban legend: it's a challenge to critics to wake up to a globalized literary culture.

22 March 2009

Writers vs. critics

“Why does the literature of so multilingual a world give so imperfect a portrait of that world’s linguistic complexity?” asks Lawrence Rosenwald in “American Anglophone Literature and Multilingual America” (in Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors, 1998, p. 327). The question applies not only to the United States (with its glaring denial that not all Americans write or even speak English), but to the rest of the world, which has become mostly multilingual or at least bilingual. In the area of literature, writers around the world have increasingly become multilingual, not only with macaronic texts, but with many mainly monolingual texts with other-language passages. It is in the area of literary criticism that intellectuals have lagged behind; literary critics still read poems as though they were written by linguistically-challenged poets. Why is this so? We can perhaps glean an answer from postcolonial theory: it is intellectuals that have always tried to maintain the status quo (we call that hegemony or ideology) by marginalizing or suppressing minority languages, texts, things, ideas, and persons. Another way of putting it is this: artists always try to go against the grain, critics always try to keep the artists in check. As a playwright and critic, I am as schizophrenic or hyphenated as can be: as a playwright, I hate it when a critic says I do not follow the Aristotelian structure or that my plays lack plot, conflict, character, etc., but as a critic, I love putting down playwrights that do not worry about Aristotelian structure and that ignore plot, conflict, character, etc. There is a moral lesson there somewhere, but I haven't learned it yet.

21 March 2009

Umberto Eco

One of the dangers of macaronic texts (and even of monolingual works in second languages) is that of not really understanding the words in the non-mother tongues. After all, as all writers know, dictionaries do not really contain all the meanings of a word; at most, dictionaries point you towards the strictly literal meaning, but do not give you the reverberations, the music, the feel, the shape, the taste of a word (which is what poets look for). Umberto Eco, in his Il nome della rosa (1980), translated into English as The Name of the Rose (1983), satirizes the lunatic fringe of multilingual writing, with the character of Salvatore, who "spoke not one, but all languages, none correctly, taking words sometimes from one and sometimes from another." As the old logicians used to say, however, abusus rei usum non tollit [the abuse of something does not mean that we should not use it]. Of course, there are multilingual texts that don't quite make literary standards, but if language is really central to the craft of writing, then surely the use of more than one language has to be an asset rather than a drawback. Everything else being equal (and admittedly they never are), a work using more than one language should be considered superior to a work using only one.

20 March 2009

Orlando de Rudder's recent post

From Orlando de Rudder's blog entry for 19 March 2009 comes this exquisite sonnet:

Une pulchra ragazza amabam dans ma vie
With des conciliabules, whispered et secrets
Et même du slappe lach savoureux et dadais
Voilà t-il pas that love made the things très jolies ?
Remember ces vieux jours, zoet et lait, mais horny
Mit lots of pur honey con savor y, c’est vrai,
Some grande droefgeestigheid as if il en pleuvait,
Ecce l’une des stagiones of liebens symphony!
Evohé, true liebchen, all that es du passé!
I wake up feeling alt, an headache très musclé,
Es il sadique witness of a sad gueule-de-bois.
In the estaminet, eating du kabeljauw
Really fried, je behold la poiscaille, c’est pas beau,
Tel corazon mihi, échaudé, haar au doigt!

To appreciate the poem, we must first read it aloud. The regular rhyme and the irregular iambic meter will then be obvious. Then, even without understanding every single word, we must grasp the general meaning (Everything was good when we were in love, but now everything is terrible) and try to catch some of the metaphors (e.g., love is like music; the food in the tavern scalds like my headache). Then, as we do or should do with every piece of literature, we should relate to it (and who is the reader that has not loved and lost?). Thanks to Orlando de Rudder for alerting me to his new post!

19 March 2009

Cassar on Guido Monte

On 11 July 2008, Antoine Cassar posted this comment on the blog of Orlando de Rudder, who had talked about the multilingual writer Guido Monte: "Merci mille fois de cet extrait sur Guido Monte. Je vois qu'il travaille sur un projet similaire à le mien. J'aimerais savoir si ses poèmes sont essentiellement des centons ou bien s'il contiennent des vers écrits par lui-même." [Rough English translation: Thank you a thousand times for this post about Guido Monte. I see him working on a project similar to mine. I wonder if his poems are made up only of quotes from other writers or if they contain verses originally written by him.]

Monte writes "found poems" (poems consisting of or based on lines taken from previously existing texts, whether literary or not). The lines are in many languages. I understand that he is not even fluent in some of these languages.

Yes, the community of writers that write literary texts in more than one language is slowly but surely growing. There is hope!

18 March 2009

Rhyming in five languages

I have to hand it to poets such as Antoine Cassar (the Maltese who studied in England, Italy, and Spain), who writes mużajki (mosaic poems) such as the following:

C’est la vie

Run, rabbit, run, run, run, from the womb to the tomb,
de cuatro a dos a tres, del río a la mar,
play the fool, suffer school, żunżana ddur iddur,
engage-toi, perds ta foi, le regole imparar,

kul u sum, aħra u bul, chase the moon, meet your doom,
walk on ice, roll your dice, col destino danzar,
métro, boulot, dodo, titla’ x-xemx, terġa’ tqum,
decir siempre mañana y nunca mañanar,

try to fly, touch the sky, hit the stone, break a bone,
sell your soul for a loan to call those bricks your home,
fall in love, rise above, fall apart, stitch your heart,

che sarà? ça ira! plus rien de nous sera,
minn sodda għal sodda niġru tiġrija kontra l-baħħ,
sakemm tinbela’ ruħna mill-ġuf mudlam ta’ l-art.

To be able to rhyme (not to mention, maintain the sonnet form) in five languages is quite a feat. Of course, one might argue that this is really just literature with the small l (say that with eyebrows firmly raised!), but where is the critic that can honestly say that s/he understands the five languages enough to make an informed critical judgement?

In The Chimaera (2008), where the poem appears, Cassar himself says that "the poems aspire beyond the immediate demands of recognition and consumption and look more to transcend the slavery imposed ipso facto by the regime of 'a single language' on the free spirit of the poet." Now that globalization in economics has come, can multilingual poetry be far behind?

17 March 2009

Maid of Athens

Here is the poem "Maid of Athens, Ere We Part" (1810) by George Gordon, Lord Byron:

Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh, give back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
Hear my vow before I go,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

By those tresses unconfined,
Wooed by each Aegean wind;
By those lids whose jetty fringe
Kiss thy soft cheeks' blooming tinge;
By those wild eyes like the roe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

By that lip I long to taste;
By that zone-encircled waist;
By all the token-flowers that tell
What words can never speak so well;
By love's alternate joy and woe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

Maid of Athens! I am gone:
Think of me, sweet! when alone.
Though I fly to Istambol,
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee? No!
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

The Greek refrain (which, of course, ends with a rhyme for go, roe, woe, and no) is meant to make the whole poem understandable to the Greek object of love. The use of Greek can be read in at least two ways. One, the poet wants the woman to know that he really loves her, so he uses her language rather than his; in fact, he takes the trouble to learn the language of the other (the most intimate action of love, next of course to sex). Second (and on the other hand), since Greek is not his first language, saying "I love you" in a second language is a subterfuge; he really does not love her and does not want to lie to himself by saying it in his own language. Which of these two contradictory meanings is true? That is the beauty of poetry: they are both true! Outside literature, the principle of non-contradiction holds true (or should hold true); within literature, contradictions rule. We call self-contradiction irony, paradox, ambiguity, shifting signifiers, or whatever. Btw, the woman (or girl) who was the maid of Athens was only 12 years old at the time Byron wanted to buy her (yes, buy, not marry); if we use biographical criticism, we could add a third meaning: the Greek line is obviously a device to seduce the girl, not an expression of a real emotion. Like a true literary text, this poem by Byron can be read a multitude of ways.

16 March 2009

Earlier forms of a language

Sometimes we think of second languages only in terms of other people's languages. In literary criticism, it is also possible to think of an archaic or earlier form of a language as a second language for a writer living in a later century. For example, 1905 Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trylogia (The Trilogy) - consisting of Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword, 1884), Potop (The Deluge, 1886), and Pan Wołodyjowski (Fire in the Steppe, 1888) - is noted for its use of medieval Polish in a text written in modern Polish. The study of such a literary technique could be a subcategory of multilingual criticism, perhaps known as dialectal criticism or something of that sort. In this case, the field of multilingual criticism would be very much enlarged, because we could conceivably include the use of dialect by, say, American writers such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner. As you can see, I am trying very hard to bring language back to the foreground of literary criticism, instead of the various aspects that stole center stage during the brief but exhilarating reign of 20th-century literary theory.

15 March 2009

Carlo Emilio Gadda

Since I finished an undergraduate degree but dropped out of graduate studies in physics, I keep an eye out for literary writers who are professionally in the world of science and technology. One such writer was the Italian engineer Carlo Emilio Gadda, who is of interest to this blog because of his experiments with language. (There is an Italian webliography on him.)

Here is a fascinating comment on Gadda that makes me wish I could read Italian:

"According to Gabriella Alfieri’s definition, expressivism moves in monolingual environments, adding colour to the text, whereas expressionism is found rather in a plurilingual textual environment, bringing together language from different spaces, times, and social spheres, and resulting in a pastiche or distorting mode. Without referring here to involuntary dialect use, natural in all bilingual authors, the conscious adoption of dialect ingredients can be traced with a more expressive function in a great number of texts in the short history of the Italian novel, Pasolini’s portrayal of Roman street urchins in his Ragazzi di vita being but one example. With the expressionistic function, as lingua sconciata (literally, ‘spoiled, marred language’), it has a long history from Vittorio Lambriani to Faldella and the master of them all, Carlo Emilio Gadda [emphasis mine]. Here again, mono- or plurilingual poetic choices are ultimately ideological in nature, and it may suffice to point to the debates around language in the 1960s, with the use of dialect labelled as ‘feticismo della parola’ by no less than Italo Calvino. (pp. 57-58 of The Other Italy: The Literary Canon in Dialect, by Hermann W. Haller, 1999)

14 March 2009

Persian and Hindi

Since I lived in Ahwaz, Iran, for a year (I was known as the Filipino teaching American literature in Iran!), I have always been fascinated by Persian poetry. Here is the first stanza of a poem, written about 1300, not by an Iranian but by an Indian, using the Persian language in macaronic style. The first and third lines are in Persian, the second and fourth lines in Brij Bhasha (a dialect of Hindi). The poet is Ab'ul Hasan Yamīn al-Dīn Khusrow (better known as Amīr Khusrow Dehlawī):

Zeehaal-e miskeen makun taghaful,
duraye naina banaye batiyan;
ki taab-e hijran nadaram ay jaan,
na leho kaahe lagaye chhatiyan.

Wikipedia translates the lines as:

Do not overlook my misery
Blandishing your eyes, and weaving tales;
My patience has over-brimmed, O sweetheart,
Why do you not take me to your bosom?

Since I do not know enough Persian (I had to learn to speak it, though not to write it, to teach my students) and I know absolutely no Hindi, I cannot say anything substantial about the original text, but the English translation appears to place it squarely within the Persian poetic tradition.

The poet, btw, was born to an Afghan father and an Indian mother and grew up in Delhi. I presume that his mother tongue was Brij Bhasha, though he wrote mostly in Persian in his early years. Later in life, like many second-language poets today, he deliberately set out to write in what was to become a national language, in his case Hindavi (the early form of Hindi and Urdu).

13 March 2009

Macaronea and Rizal

Here is a stanza from the poem "Carmen Macaronicum de Patavinisis" (1488?), better known as "Macaronea," by Michele di Bartolomeo degli Odasi [Tifi Odasi] and Niccolò Leonico Tomeo:

Mercurio fuerat lux illa sacrata, sed ille
ad strigariam zobiam spectaverat aptam.
Illa etiam nocte coniunx cavalcabat Herodis
et secum strige, secum caminat et Orcus;
Hanc expectavit tamen, oca tirante la gola.

The stanza (and the entire poem) uses broken or fractured Latin to make fun of the more-intelligent-than-thou scholars of that time. Jose Rizal, as Albert B. Casuga pointed out in a response to my March 5 post, did the same thing in his novels, when he used broken Spanish to show how silly the nouveau riche was in his days (and, may I add, even now).

Multilingual critics can quickly spot and should just as quickly explain such satiric intentions. Although the word "macaronic" (derived from the poem) is no longer a term of praise, the idea of satirizing inept second-language speakers has remained strong in literary writers and should be encouraged.

12 March 2009

Ladino poetry

In 17th century Philippines, Fernando Bagongbanta (a pseudonym) wrote poems with Tagalog and Spanish lines alternating. Here is a sample stanza:

Salamat nang walang hanga
gracias se den sempiternas,
sa nagpasilang ng tala
al que hizo salir la estrella:
macapagpanao nang dilim
que destierre las tinieblas
sa lahat na bayan natin
de toda esta nuestra tierra.

The Tagalog lines, unlike in European Macaronic verse, are simply translations of the Spanish lines. This is an example of what is known as ladino poetry, an early (in the Philippines) instance of code-switching or bilingual poetry. Ladino here is related but not identical to its present definition (i.e., Spanish-based creole language).

I am sure there are many countries where a similar literary phenomenon occurred. If you can share information about the history of bilingual literature in your country, that would increase awareness of the need for a literary critic to have more than one language.

11 March 2009

In dulci jubilo

Using "foreign" words in a mother-tongue work has a long tradition. One of the earliest known successful efforts is In Dulci Jubilo (ca. 1328), the popular Christmas carol, written at the time when Latin was the language of schools in most parts of Europe:

In dulci jubilo,
Nun singet und seid froh!
Alle unsre Wonne
Liegt in praesepio;
Sie leuchtet wie die Sonne
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O!

Usually called (and sometimes derided as) "macaronic verse," this precursor to Taglish (and other code-switching or pidgin varieties) assumes that readers (in this case, singers and audiences) know Latin, German, and Greek well enough to appreciate the rhyme, meter, allusions, and other poetic devices. In bilingual or multilingual societies (which inevitably develop when the languages of instruction are different from the language of the home), poets have a much larger well of words to dip in than their language-challenged counterparts in monolingual societies. "In dulci jubilo," when sung today in an all-English version, is a victim of linguistic imperialism, that is, of languages (in this case, Latin and classical Greek) dying because of the economic power of so-called international languages. Together with the languages dies the literary power of the original.

10 March 2009

Filipino English

Here's an interesting quote from American T. Inglis Moore, writing in 1930:

"The Filipino has to learn not only to write with English but to write against it. He has to write English without becoming an Englishman or American. This difficult task is necessary not because Filipino English is better than English, but because a Filipino literature must remain Filipino if it intends to be literature."

Filipino-American novelist Eric Gamalinda quotes this passage in his blog, as well as a similar statement in 1954 by Philippine National Artist Nick Joaquin:

"There are many young writers, and they are doing something to the English language: it is no longer simple English; not the English of America or England, but their English."

Writers have been using second languages for a long time, but literary critics are slow to realize that the use by a writer of a second language has major implications on how a literary text can and should be read.

09 March 2009

Example of Multilingual Criticism?

I don't have enough money to subscribe to online journals (not to mention that I am an advocate of Open Access), so I have read only the abstract and not the full article of "Bilingual creativity in Chinese English: Ha Jin's In the Pond" (2003) by Hang Zhang.

This is the abstract: "This paper addresses issues related to bilingual creativity in Chinese English and their implications for world Englishes in the Chinese context. The language examined in this paper is drawn from Ha Jin's novella, In the Pond, in which the author's use of English is 'nativized' to the Chinese context in order to recast the cultural meanings of the language. Rooted in social realism, cultural authenticity, and historical accuracy, Ha Jin describes the lives of ordinary people against the larger political backdrop of China. His skilful use of English successfully transcreates his native Chinese experience to form an indigenized narrative style. In this paper, I employ a theoretical framework derived from Kachru (1982, 1986, etc.) to show how Ha Jin's work expresses a distinct Chinese cultural identity. Ha Jin's use of creative innovations in English reflect the texture of Chinese ideological, political and socio–cultural representations. The linguistic exponents of such creativity range from the use of address terms, curse words, to metaphors, proverbs, political expressions, and other aspects of the contemporary Chinese lexicon. Despite a central concern with universal themes in his fiction, Ha Jin simultaneously conveys a distinct sense of 'Chineseness' through the use of nativized discourse patterns, rhetorical strategies, speech acts, and a range of other linguistic devices."

This looks like a promising step from purely linguistic analysis to real literary criticism.

08 March 2009

Marie Delgado Travis

Here's a poem entitled "Bilingue" by Marie Delgado Travis, from her book La Ventana / the Window: Collected Bilingual Poems (Lulu, 2007, pp. 2-3):

No sé por qué a veces
Las cosas me salen
En español
And sometimes in English.
Cuando te quiero besar,
Lo pienso (¡me sonrojo!)
En castellano . . .
But when I want to
Strangle you,
It’s definitely – yes,
In English.
Debe ser porque
At certain times,
I don’t want to be
Bothered with
Accent marks.

Here is her own translation, entitled "Bilingual":

I don’t know why
Sometimes things
Come out in Spanish
Y otras veces en inglés,
When I want to kiss you,
I think it (blush!)
In Castilian . . .
Pero cuando te
Quiero estrangular,
Es definitivamente – sí,
En inglés.
It must be because
Hay momentos
En que no quiero
Molestarme con

That is as good an explanation as any why we use a second language. There are certain emotions better or easier expressed in another language.

If we compare the two texts, we can see that the second text does not do as well as the first, because the accents in the words and inglés go against the idea of English being an easier language to express anger in. It should be clear from these twin texts from a single poet that the mother tongue works better for certain ideas. In the version that starts with Spanish, the anger is worked into the language. In the version that starts with English, that anger is dissipated.

07 March 2009

Rolando Tinio's Valediction sa Hillcrest

It's not exactly a hot topic on the Web (with only 134 entries on Google), but Rolando Tinio's poem "Valediction sa Hillcrest" (1958) has been baffling students when given as a standard text in literature classes in the Philippines. The poem is written in Taglish, the code-switching dialect of Tagalog that uses many words, phrases, and even sentences from English. (Taglish should not be confused with Philippine English, which is the object of much study by linguists). Most students find the work opaque because of (a) the situation, and (b) the language.

The situation is easy to understand if you studied outside your home country and deluded yourself during those years of study that you are a native of the foreign country. When you are forced to return home by your student visa restrictions, you don't quite know where your home is. Once pointed out to students, this situation (which students can relate to, since many of them live away from home to go to university even in their own country) becomes easier to appreciate.

The choice of language raises questions because hardly anyone wrote or writes poetry in Taglish. Considered subliterate by most university professors, Taglish (a pidgin, technically speaking) is used mostly in popular romance novels (which, btw, sells in the millions of copies in the Philippines) but not in Literature (with the capital L).

Tinio (posthumously declared a National Artist of the Philippines), with unimpeachable credentials earned in the USA and the UK, made Taglish respectable as a literary language in this one poem. (He later moved away from pidgin and into classic literary Tagalog.)

Taglish as a language neither here nor there is a perfect objective correlative or symbol of the identity crisis of the young man in the autobiographical poem. The shifts from English to Tagalog to something not quite English nor quite Tagalog mirror the conflict inside the young man as he easily recalls the happy recent moments spent in Iowa and tries valiantly to recall the happier earlier moments spent in his native Tondo (a district in the city of Manila in the Philippines). At the end of the poem, he sheds tears unabashedly, in a striking image of water falling from his eyes into snow melting on the ground as he walks towards the bus station.

For non-Tagalog readers, here is a taste of the linguistic beauty of the poem:

There’s a flurry, ang gentle-gentle.
Pagwhoosh-whoosh ng paa ko,
The snow melts right under.

Ang is a marker, like so; pag- is a marker for the onomatopeia; ng means of; paa means feet; ko means my.

06 March 2009

Alejandro Morales

Here is an English passage from the Spanish novel Reto en el Paraiso (1983), by Alejandro Morales, the American author who once wrote "Como autor chicano, espero que pronto llegue el día en que no me vea obligado a salir de mi proprio país para publicar una novela escrita en español" (Caras viejas y vino nuevo, published in Mexico, 1975):

"– I’m sorry, but I have an engagement.
– Fine. I understand. Too bad though, I would have liked to have been accompanied by a handsome man like you.
– Sure." (p. 104 of Bilingual Press edition)

We can see immediately the difference between mother-tongue writing and second-language writing. The very formal "I would have liked to have been accompanied by a handsome man like you," since it is in direct speech or a dialogue, would be an error had the author been a monolingual English writer. Because the passage appears in a predominantly Spanish text, however, readers make allowances for the quaint sentence construction. In fact, politically incorrect readers would find the English "exotic." The same Spanish-looking English has been observed in one of the top Philippine authors, Nick Joaquin, whose first language was Tagalog and whose second language was Spanish (English, in which he wrote his masterpieces, being only his third language).

This could lead to a tenet in multilingual criticism: in second-language texts, the author is not dead; the intentional fallacy does not hold; we have to know who the author is to appreciate what s/he is doing.

05 March 2009

English as today's French?

From the pro-English website antimoon.com comes this 14 February 2009 post by one of its followers:

"Do you believe that bilingual novels are coming back into fashion? I have seen quite a few foreign books with passages, often quite long, left in the original English, usually with a footnote translation but sometimes without. Are writers beginning to assume everyone knows English? I wonder if it will get to such an extreme point as, for example, War and Peace in which huge chunks of dialogue were written in French."

I think that the world is becoming at least bilingual. Even in the United States, Spanish is getting to make inroads in the monolingualism of most Americans. Outside the Commonwealth and the USA, English has become de facto a second or a third language. There is nothing wrong with that, since monolinguals, everything else being equal, surely know much less about the world than bilinguals or multilinguals (from the weak interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).

What should be examined, however, is how the use of a second language by a literary writer adds to or subtracts from the literariness of a work.

This is a question from my ignorance of scholarship on Russian literature: has anyone figured out if War and Peace (1869) would have achieved the same effect on Russian readers had the French passages been in Russian? I am told that, from the critical point of view, the French language is used as a metaphor for the decadence of Russian aristocracy. (See Orlando Figes' 2007 review in The New York Review of Books and the subsequent discussions on the Web, such as the one in the New York Times.)

Has any writer whose mother tongue is not English used English in the same way that Leo Tolstoy apparently used French, to condemn a country's elite as betraying their country by speaking a foreign language?

04 March 2009

Conrad's "exotic style"

In his Manchester Guardian review of Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes (1911), Richard Curle (called “Conrad’s greatest friend”), wrote: “One need expect no longer, save in occasional sentences, the exuberant and monotonous vocabulary, that sea-like and sonorous ebb and flow. No; for that exotic style he has exchanged one very distinguished, it is true, very expressive, very artistic, but altogether less striking.”

The phrase "exotic style" has been picked up by Wikipedia, which says, "In Conrad's time, literary critics, while usually commenting favourably on his works, often remarked that his exotic style, complex narration, profound themes and pessimistic ideas put many readers off."

Clearly, monolingual English-speaking British critics thought that Conrad's English (influenced heavily by his first language Polish and his second language French) was "exotic." The word has spawned, no small thanks to Edward Said, an entire publishing industry. Little has been done, however, to check if Conrad actually wrote in Polish and French using English words. For a critic to be able to say something like that, s/he would have to know Polish, French, and English intimately. That is the key problem in multi-lingual criticism, because the critic has to be, well, Conrad resurrected.

03 March 2009


To my comment on 19 December 2008 that "One of the most difficult aspects of English for those not born to the language is pronunciation," Albert B. Casuga replies, "Somewhere along the way, ineptitude in spoken language (corrupted intonations, pronunciations, accentuations etc.) killed the aural/oral tradition of poetry. Second languages as media for poets who have not mastered the 'adopted and adapted' language contributed to this aberration." (1 March 2009)

In reciting poetry, a key question is which variety of the language should be chosen? When reciting a poem written in English by a Filipino poet whose first language is Tagalog, for instance, should the reader (who may or may not be the poet) pronounce the words the way a British person or an American would pronounce them?

Cirilo F. Bautista is, if awards are to be believed, the foremost Filipino poet writing in English (he also writes in Tagalog). In one of my favorite poems of his, entitled "Pedagogic," he rhymes men with mien. Paulino Lim, commenting on my post of 20 December 2008 about that poem, asks, "Isn't there such a concept as 'visual rhyme' to account for men and mien?" (10 January 2009)

Yes, there is visual rhyme, but when we are talking of reciting a poem, visual rhyme doesn't figure in. Most Filipinos pronounce mien as mi-en, justifying Bautista's rhyme, but only if you recite the poem using Philippine English rather than British or American English. How can Bautista's choice of Philippine English when it comes to rhyme be an "aberration"? (Incidentally, before he had his heart bypass, Bautista was very visible in poetry readings and, in fact, co-founded the Philippine Literary Arts Council, one of the objectives of which was to return to pre-print poetry, that is, poetry recited rather than read. Bautista has always regarded print as something bad that happened to poetry.)

02 March 2009

Waiting for Godot

To my statement that "What this blog wants to investigate, among numerous other things, is whether a writer, learning another language at a later stage of her/his life, can actually produce literature in that language" (12 December 2008), Play Wright said, "Didn't Beckett originally write 'Waiting for Godot' in French? Did he also write the English version, or is it a translation? If he did, it might be interesting to compare the two versions." (14 December 2008)

Samuel Beckett, whose first language was English, wrote En attendant Godot (1949) in French, then translated it himself into English as Waiting for Godot (1955). The English text is not an exact translation but more of a revision, with Beckett getting better at his craft. In connection with yesterday's post about Shakespeare "plagiarizing," all playwrights get their ideas from earlier playwrights. Several sources have been identified by critics for Waiting for Godot: Jean Racine’s French Bérénice (1670), Honoré de Balzac's French Mercadet ou le faiseur (1851), Clifford Odets' English Waiting for Lefty (1935), as well as Beckett's own English novel Murphy (1938) (plagiarizing oneself, as authors sometimes do).

My own play The Lovely Bienvenido N. Santos (2004) clearly owes much to Waiting for Godot, though I got over my obsession with Beckett when I discovered Eugène Ionesco.

01 March 2009

Comment on Romeo and Juliet

Comments in blogs are supposed to start discussion threads, but since some comments have not been responded to, allow me to use comments in my main blog.

To my question, "Could Shakespeare, for instance, have written what he wrote had he been born in France, speaking French?" (12 December 2008), Play Wright responded, "It's an interesting question. Perhaps he would've written 'Les Miserables Wives of Windsor' or 'Cyrano de Venice.' But seriously, didn't he crib a lot of stuff from other writers? I remember reading somewhere that the original 'Romeo and Juliet' is by some Italian writer. So in a sense Shakespeare in this case was writing Italian!" (14 December 2008)

Indeed, Shakespeare borrowed (today, we would say "plagiarized") much of his Romeo and Juliet (1591-1595) from the English prose collection Palace of Pleasure (1582) by William Painter and the English narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562) by Arthur Brooke. These latter two in turn borrowed (today, we would say "adapted") from an Italian tale by Matteo Bandello. It is extremely unlikely that Shakespeare, who according to Ben Jonson "hadst small Latin and less Greek," would have read Bandello. More likely, Shakespeare was monolingual, though that did not stop him from writing, in my opinion both as a critic and a playwright, the greatest plays ever written.

On the other hand, maybe it was not Shakespeare of Stratford at all who wrote Romeo and Juliet. See, for example, the site Absolute Shakespeare. I am a signatory, in fact, to the statement "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare" of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition. I love the plays, but would not for a moment feel bad if the real Shakespeare turned out to be someone else.