30 April 2009

Ilocano writers

The most internationally visible of Filipino writers writing in a vernacular language are those writing in Ilokano (variously called Iluko or Ilocano). Representative websites are Bilingual Pen, which hosts a number of major Ilocano writers in English and Ilokano, and Dadapilan, which has news items of interest to Ilocano writers. Unless I am mistaken, the very first website (now no longer existing?) focusing on Philippine literature was that of GUMIL, an international organization of Ilocano writers.

One of the followers of my blog is Ilocano and has his own blog. I once translated an Ilokano poem (by 19th century writer Leona Florentino), using a dictionary and an Ilocano informant, but otherwise, my knowledge of Ilokano is zilch. If I were given another lifetime, I would certainly learn it, since it is the language of many Filipinos living abroad, particularly in Hawaii.

Every time I am asked to be a nominator for the Philippine National Artist award, I nominate Juan S. P. Hidalgo Jr., who writes in Ilokano. Unfortunately, he never makes it, for the simple reason that the judges (who usually are English or Tagalog-dominant) cannot read Ilokano and, therefore, cannot say if his writing is of high quality or not. I know his writing is excellent, because I have asked quite a number of people who read Ilokano and they all say he's one of the best, if not the best, of living Ilocano writers.

29 April 2009

Too specialized?

Is multilingual literary criticism too specialized? We have to think about this as the idea of over-specialization gets hammered, as a side result of the worldwide economic crisis. (Read the New York Times article by Columbia professor Mark Taylor.)

My initial answer is yes and no.

Yes, because there are very few of us looking at the polyglot aspect of literature. Even in our own specialized field, we cannot even claim that we are in so-called mainstream literature courses. (In the Philippines, even if Philippine Literature in English is usually taught in undergraduate courses, it is taught as though English were not a second or a foreign language to Filipino writers.)

No, because bilinguality or multilinguality is most likely the rule rather than the exception for creative writers. Since they are very curious and very literate, even monolingual writers usually take the trouble to be able to read another language. If we are able to convince more critics to think about the relationship of mother tongues to languages of literary creation, we might be able to establish what could be the kind of truly multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary area that Taylor is looking for.

28 April 2009

Kindred spirits in anthropology

Little by little, the academic world is waking up to the reality that monolingualism severely limits the way we think. Take anthropology, for instance. Here is a 20 January 2009 blog entry about the journal Anthropological Quarterly:

"In Polyglot Perspectives, scholars will present essays on books written in languages other than English. Such languages may include those in which there is a long tradition of anthropological scholarship, but we hope to give particular emphasis to less widely used languages in which a nascent anthropology is already making important contributions that may be invisible to the larger international community.

"In launching this new section, we acknowledge that, in many ways, the English language has been allowed to define the anthropological mainstream. We also acknowledge that, in many disciplines, English has become the language of scholarship in countries where English is not the locally dominant language. Anthropology, however, is both a cosmopolitan discipline and one that seeks to recognize and study politically less powerful cultures and languages."

English has become the language of scholarship in the Philippines, where I live, even if English is spoken by less than 50% of the adult population and read by less than 20%. Creative writing, however, is mostly in various vernacular languages, though criticism (like this blog) remains mostly in English. The linguistic schizophrenia takes its creative and critical toll.

Oh, for a gadget like the Universal Translator in Star Trek, through which beings from anywhere in the universe communicate with each other! (Of course, I strongly disagree with the tempocentric view that, in the future, the Federation Standard will be Standard American English!)

27 April 2009

A course on multilingual literature?

Doris Sommer writes in her Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education (2004) why she started blazing the trail of multilingual criticism:

“At the School for Criticism and Theory during the summer of 2002, I graduated to a veritable United Nations of interlocutors interpellated by a call unfamiliar to aesthetics but commonplace in each of their fascinating lives. Josiane Peltier, for example, writes about detective fiction in her native French and elegant English when she is not reading in Spanish and Chinese literatures; historian Olga Dror’s original Russian and acquired Hebrew added Vietnamese, Latin, and Chinese to study popular religion in Vietnam; Laura Ceia-Minjares reveals Tristan Tzara’s private Romanian reveries between his public antics in French.” (pp. vii-viii)

Is it time to offer a course on Multilingual Literature? I would be interested in team teaching the course, if it is offered simultaneously across universities (using Skype or its equivalent). It would be paradoxical if the course were offered only in one language, so it would be ideal if the course could be offered in various languages to students speaking and reading in different languages. If not a course, then perhaps a lecture or two, by the leading critics in the field (Sommer would be one of them, and others I have named in this blog before). Or at the very least, a podcasted lecture. Anyone interested?

26 April 2009

Maghrebi writers

The book Bilingual Games: Some Literary Investigations (2003), edited by Doris Sommer, is described in Amazon.com this way:

"These essays bring home the most challenging observations of postmodernism — multiple identities, the fragility of meaning, the risks of communication. Sommer asserts that many people normally live — that is, think, feel, create, reason, persuade, laugh — in more than one language. She claims that traditional scholarship (aesthetics; language and philosophy; psychoanalysis, and politics) cannot see or hear more than one language at a time. The goal of these essays is to create a new field: bilingual arts & aesthetics which examine the aesthetic product produced by bilingual diasporic communities. The focus of this volume is the Americas, but examples and theoretical proposals come from Europe as well. In both areas, the issue offers another level of complexity to the migrant and cosmopolitan character of local societies in a global economy."

In his contribution to the book, Réda Bensmaïa, in “Introduction to Tetraglossia: The Situation of Maghrebi Writers,” writes (pages 88-89):

“What language should one write in? In what language should one make films? In what language should people be allowed to speak and write? In what places? At what time? Or still, in French? Arabic? In Berber? In Kabyle? In literary Arabic? Problems as concrete and vital as these explain the acuity of tensions, contradictions and difficulties facing every artist in Algeria. For the writers to write, for filmmakers to make films, is a question of life and death, as each one of their gestures, each of their choices is a foundation. In every case it is a matter of delineating a ‘terrain’ and to find, at any cost, one way out of the labyrinth of tongues and languages.”

In some countries, multilingual literature is not just a harmless and pleasurable intellectual exercise that writers engage in. It could be as crucial to life as one's choice of religion, ideology, spouse, or physician.

25 April 2009

Rosario Ferré

Poet and fictionist Rosario Ferré Ramírez, in a 2001 event entitled "Writing In Between," is quoted as saying, "I write in Spanish like I speak it -- fast. It is impossible for me to write in English like I write in Spanish. I can't be trigger-happy in English. Writing in English is like looking at the world through a different set of binoculars."

Here is one type of bilingual writer -- the type that has an unequal command of two languages (despite writing well in both). There are other types that we have already discussed in this blog. It might be time to do a typology or classification of bilingual/multilingual writers.

24 April 2009

Esmeralda Santiago 2

Esmeralda Santiago's self-description of speaking in Spanish while typing in English is another way of putting N.V.M. Gonzalez's statement that he writes in Tagalog using English words (which is practically identical to the statement of Bienvenido N. Santos that he writes in Capampangan using English words). We might be able to make a generalization about multilingual writing: Multilingual writers write in their mother tongues using words of other languages. Since this formulation, however, makes it appear that the writers do not think in but are merely translating into the non-mother tongues, we have to qualify it a bit: Multilingual writers think and write in their mother tongues while thinking in and using the words of other languages. That's still a rather clumsy formulation in terms of style, but as we go along, we should be able to put it in a more literary way.

23 April 2009

Esmeralda Santiago 1

"Many times, when writing, I was surprised to hear myself speaking in Spanish while my fingers were typing the same sentence in English," writes Esmeralda Santiago in the introduction to her Cuando era puertorriquena (1994, p. xv, translated by Catherine E. Wall).

This is one of the greatest joys of a bilingual writer - to be able to use two languages at the same time. Most monolingual persons think that bilinguals (or polyglots or multilinguals) think in one language and translate, whether consciously or unconsciously, into other languages. Here is a bilingual author testifying that this is not true. Translation is not the key to bilingual writing. The key is adding to, not replacing, the mother tongue in the creative act.

22 April 2009

Vladimir Nabokov

"Very few bilingual writers attempt perfect equality in their two languages," remarks Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour in her Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the "First" Emigration (1989, p. 51). Vladimir Nabokov, justly famous for his English novels, has received some multilingual criticism, but certainly not enough. The sentence "Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their nature, which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets'" sounds vaguely like the English of an earlier century, but it is, in fact, as critics that can read Russian have said in so many words, an attempt by Nabokov (in Lolita) to write in Russian using English words.

21 April 2009

Looking for overseas Cubans

"I am looking for stories of Cubans who have left Cuba," wrote bilingual novelist Teresa Bevin in her blog last March 25. "I invite you all to share with other Cubans and the world your experiences and struggles. It does not matter when or how you left the island. All of our experiences deserve to be shared." If you are an overseas Cuban reading this blog, please reply to her (Teresabevin@teresabevin.com). For everyone: if you know of any blogs that, like hers, is bilingual, please alert me, so I can cross-reference.

20 April 2009

Lin Yutang

Multilinguality cannot be separated from multiculturality. One of the advantages of having a mother tongue different from the language you write in is your bringing into the new culture the best of your original culture.

Take the example of Lin Yutang (mother tongue Chinese, second language English). The following famous passages from his English works show a distinctly Chinese character in terms of the content (ancient wisdom) and form (proverb-like):

A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.

Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.

If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.

Where there are too many policemen, there is no liberty. Where there are too many soldiers, there is no peace. Where there are too many lawyers, there is no justice.

19 April 2009


"When an individual adapts to a new culture at the expense of his primary culture we speak of a process of deculturation," write Josiane F. Hamers and Michel Blanc in their Bilinguality and Bilingualism (2nd ed., 2000, pp. 205-206). "Deculturation," they add, "is associated with psychological distress. Extreme deculturation leads to assimilation, which may be accompanied by first-language loss. If no assimilation into the host culture occurs, deculturation leads to anomie, a complex psychological state implying feelings of alienation and isolation vis-à-vis the society one lives in. Acculturation models disagree, however, on the extent to which acculturation processes lead necessarily to a form of deculturation."

Psycholinguists studying bilinguality would benefit greatly from looking at second-language literature (especially since writers are stereotypically alienated anyway). When a work is in a second language, does alienation occur because of language? I am talking not about the writer (although psychologists obviously are more interested in human beings than words on the page), but about the text as it compares with texts by monolingual writers. Are Villa's poems, for example, powerful because he is writing in a second language? Could a monolingual poet have arranged the words this way in a line: "I clothed myself in fire"? (Clearly, unlike psychologists, I do not regard alienation as negative, since it leads to marvelous works of art, no matter what the personal cost is to the artist!)

18 April 2009

Jose Garcia Villa & Hilario S. Francia

When Hilario S. Francia translated some of the poems of Jose Garcia Villa into Tagalog, we got a clue to the way a multilingual critic could approach Villa's work. (For those not familiar with Villa: Villa is considered a minor American poet and a major Philippine poet - minor defined the way American literary historians define the term, namely, in terms of quantity, not quality, and major defined the way Philippine literary historians define the term, namely, in terms of quality, not quantity. Villa lived most of his life in New York. He was considered by his contemporaries, such as Marianne Moore and E. E. Cummings, as equal to if not better than them.)

Here are two lines from one of Villa's poems:

In my desire to be Nude
I clothed myself in fire:-

Here is Francia's Tagalog translation:

Sa aking paghangad na maging Hubad
Dinamitan Ko ang aking sarili sa apoy:-

The translation works as a translation, but what is interesting to me is to speculate on what Villa was thinking as he was writing the poem. In Tagalog, the thought would have gone this way:

Nais kong maghubad
Kaya ako nasunog.

Literally, that means "I wanted to be naked so (1) I burned myself because society does not approve of me being naked, and/or (2) I was burning with the desire to be naked." The ambiguity (I use the word the way the New Critics used it, namely, as a poetic virtue) is inherent in the Tagalog. What Villa managed to do was to say the same thing, more or less, in English. What the English adds are the rhyme (desire / fire) and the second line's iambic meter, which situate the reader solidly in poetic tradition. These attributes based on the sounds of English might explain the power of Villa's lines.

17 April 2009

Subtitling music

To serious poets, subtitling or dubbing music is a serious matter. One of the leading writers of the Philippines, Jose Lacaba, for example, has translated more than fifty English songs into Filipino. To people not in the arts, however, it is a joke. Here is a blog entry that evoked both serious and silly reactions: "Somebody with too much time on his hands has been taking up music videos in languages he does not understand, and adding subtitles in a language he does, and evidently people find the result hilarious. So, this idea is for a genre of music, which makes sense in two languages simultaneously. The meaning could be different, of course." One reaction goes this way: "Q: why do the French have only one egg for breakfast? A: because one egg is un oeuf." Here is an area of profit (since writers rarely make money from serious creative writing) for multilingual writers. Music companies might be willing to pay zillions for writers that can subtitle music, with the second-language lyrics matching the original score note for note, of course (in other words, you can sing the subtitles to the music).

16 April 2009

"A Flea" by Anne Tardos

On her website (as of today), Anne Tardos presents seven poems, all of which except for one are in English. Reading the English poems, one can easily grasp her sensibility (an exquisite one). The exception in terms of language is "A Flea," a poem made up of lines in various languages. I have to admit that I do not know most of the languages used and, therefore, can enjoy only the music of the lines when I read them as spelled (hopefully, some of the languages do not behave like French, where spelling and pronunciation are not exactly identical twins!). In the manner of New Critics focusing only on a line instead of tackling a whole work, let me write a little bit about the following stanza:

When we exit a room we make room
Walking distance après-vous resistance

The first line is straightforward: by leaving a room, we cause space to be created inside the room, since we vacate the space that we used to occupy. The second line takes us a few minutes later, when some distance (walking distance) away from the room, resistance (a French word here, not an English word) appears in the room, because the space created both expands and contracts, not knowing what to do because we are no longer there. Of course, there is an allusion to "apres moi, le deluge," or more precisely, this is a commentary on that well-known quote (which, btw, is itself poetically ambiguous, since people still wonder if it was King Louis XV or his lover Madame de Pompadour who said it first). The sense (we don't know if our leaving makes any difference or not) complements the sound (internal rhyme, both aural and visual), since the clash between aural rhyme (room / room) and visual rhyme (distance / French resistance which has a different sound) mirrors the indecision of those we left behind. Truly, apres nous, le deluge. (Let's not forget that the poem is entitled "A Flea," with an undertone of the same sound flee, as in flee the scene.)

15 April 2009

Anne Tardos

In her essay, "How Not To Teach Multilingual Writing" (2002), Anne Tardos writes: "I grew up learning one language after another, like many Europeans born during the Second World War, moving from country to country, learning language after language by necessity, being equally comfortable in all of them. I don’t much care whether we’re conversing in French, Hungarian, German, or English. When I’m going from site to site on the Internet, I often don’t realize what language I’m reading, until I make a conscious effort to identify it. Similarly, when writing poetry, I don’t necessarily make a point of noticing the language I’m writing in."

Here is an important ingredient in the writing of successful multilingual poems: the writer must think in all the languages being used. Thinking in one language and writing in another adds another remove (to use Plato's classic word) to the relationship between the creative work and Creation.

The multilingual critic does not have to think in those many languages. I can read Spanish, French, Cebuano, and even a little German fairly accurately, if laboriously, though I can't speak in those languages except to say "That's overpriced" or something like that. With reading knowledge, however, I think I do a passable job of judging if a work is worth my time or not.

14 April 2009

Is there such a thing as national literature?

One reader asks, "Do national paradigms cross languages or not? Will a trilingual Swiss writer write the same story the same way in French, German, and Italian?"

I am not an expert on Swiss literature. Let me give what must be a similar example from Philippine literature.

There is Philippine literature in Tagalog, Philippine literature in Cebuano, Philippine literature in Iluko or Ilokano, Philippine literature in Chinese, Philippine literature in English, Philippine literature in Spanish, and so on. There are more than a hundred languages spoken in the Philippines, about twenty or so of them with living literatures.

Philippine literature in English is clearly very different from Philippine literature in Tagalog. It is not just the language. The themes are different, the poetic forms are different, the rhyme schemes are different (Tagalog does not rhyme only in terms of sounds, but of equivalent consonants), the sensibility is different. Even the quantity is different (Tagalog has thousands of novels, English has only a couple of hundred).

Although there have been a few English translations of Tagalog novels, it is clearly the novels originally written in English that have caught international attention. (One such novel, Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado, won last year's Man Booker Prize.) We cannot argue that this is due to the huge number of English-speaking literary critics around the world; such critics do not necessarily take time to study English novels from Singapore, Hong Kong, and so on (postcolonial literary theory harps on such marginalization).

13 April 2009

Writing is teaching

All writing is teaching. All writers know this. Even without stepping into a classroom, a writer becomes the key player in education because it is the writer's text that is read by teachers and students. The case for multilingual literary criticism becomes stronger in the context of the current pedagogical situation in the United States, where multicultural education is an expressed need. American teachers are looking for multicultural literary texts to help them educate American children. Since it is impossible to remove language from culture, we are really talking here of multilingual literature. Here, for example, is a typical comment on multicultural education: "Experts in multicultural education frequently emphasize the importance of using literature to increase cultural awareness (Piper, 1986; Tway, 1989). The literature used should accurately portray the history, customs, values, and language of a particular cultural group (Sims, 1982). Through sharing carefully selected literature, students can learn to understand and to appreciate a literary heritage that comes from many diverse backgrounds (Norton, 1990)." While writers have enough to think about when they put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), they should feel good that what they write will help generations of previously monolingual, monocultural children get ready for the new century of borderless cultures and languages. Multilingual and multicultural literary criticism, on the other hand, will help teachers "carefully select" quality literary texts.

12 April 2009

Amy Tan 2

Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong's critique of Amy Tan revolves around the novelist's mistake in translating the term tang jie. Wong cites a passage from The Kitchen God's Wife: “We called each other tang jie, ‘sugar sister,’ the friendly way to refer to a girl cousin.”

“The phrase ‘sugar sister,’" writes Wong, "is an egregious mistranslation based on Amy Tan’s confusing two Chinese homophones, while the accompanying explanation of how the two young women come to address each other by that term betrays a profound ignorance of the Chinese kinship system. What is most remarkable about this passage is its very existence: that Amy Tan has seen fit to include and elaborate on such a ‘gratuitous’ detail – gratuitous in the sense of not functioning to advance the plot or deepen the characterization – on something of which she has little knowledge. Furthermore, this putative clarification issues from the mouth of Winnie, a native Chinese-speaker born and raised in China for whom it should be impossible to make such mistakes.”

This "mistake" is typical of second-language speakers where the second language has become the mother tongue. Filipinos writing in English, for example, that now think in English rather than in their original language (and, therefore, no longer translate into but actually create in English), make similar "mistakes." I put the word mistakes in quotes because not everybody agrees with Wong, but I agree with her. I think that Amy Tan actually does a disservice to the Chinese-American community by turning it, in the eyes of the non-Chinese but American reader, into a non-threatening, easily-assimilatable American-Chinese one. (A similar debate happened earlier in the Philippines before Chinese-Filipino writers agreed to drop the label "Filipino-Chinese.")

On the theoretical level, it is not correct to simply say that, in a literary text, the original language influences the second language; we also have to say that the second language influences the original language. (Influence may be a more polite way to say mistake.)

11 April 2009

Amy Tan 1

The debate about Amy Tan's use of Chinese in her English novels reveals a paradox in bilingual writing. Tan, who once said, "I grew up, thankfully, with a love of language. That may have happened because I was bilingual at an early age. I stopped speaking Chinese when I was five, but I loved words," now clearly thinks in English and her Chinese has become, in effect, her second language. It is her Chinese that has been the object of unfavorable criticism (see, for example, pages 60-61 of Amy Tan (2005), by Bella Adams, referring to the widely-cited article "'Sugar Sisterhood': The Amy Tan Phenomenon," by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong [starting on page 174 of The Ethnic Canon (1995), edited by David Palumbo-Liu]). When the mother tongue becomes a second language, is the mother tongue falsified? Or does the writer who in effect forgets her/his mother tongue now become more Chinese than the Chinese (substitute any other people or language for "Chinese")? I know Tagalog writers who speak and apparently now think in English, whose Tagalog has been fixated to an earlier stage of the language (that is, it is no longer standard Tagalog nor is it comprehensible to young readers).

10 April 2009


A reader asks if multilingual literary criticism is postmodern. First of all, although I used the term postmodern to classify certain kinds of literary criticism in my book Beyond Futility: The Filipino as Critic (1984) (I shudder just thinking that I actually wrote that book!), I now am very uncomfortable with the term. First of all, the term itself was used to describe certain types of art pieces in the 1870s, which was more than 130 years ago! When the term is used not to refer to the movement called postmodernism but merely to indicate a time period (roughly, anything after the First World War), it becomes even more of a misnomer, because surely something must have changed in the last hundred years.

Once, I taught a graduate course where I told the students that I would not accept any critical paper that did not use a theory labeled "post-" (postmodernism, postmarxism, postfeminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, etc.). I've quickly gone beyond that cruel joke on students. Now, I make my requirements even more cruel: I tell my graduate students that they have to use a theory that started (note: started, not flourished) in our own century, namely the 21st century. They get stumped, of course, but the point is to make them realize that theory is dead (and they, therefore, now have to make it on their own).

Multilingual criticism (for lack of a better name) would be postmodern in the sense that it comes as a conscious effort only after the 20th century, which used to be pretty modern when we were living in it. It would not be postmodern in the sense that it reacts to what is or was modern, because writers have been multilingual from the beginning of literature, and so have some critics (even Plato might have read some Chinese or at least translations from Chinese, because some of his ideas on literature are suspiciously like those of much earlier Chinese literary critics). Modernism, as it is defined in most dictionaries of literature, is a fairly recent concept or movement, but multilingual writing of or about literature predates it, so multilingual criticism cannot be post-modernism.

Oh, if you wanted to be cute but not quite accurate, you could say that postmodernism, like any other post- theory or movement, is like a Post-it® (self-stick marker): the label arbitrarily sticks to one thing but can be removed very easily and made to stick to something very different.

09 April 2009

Poetry by bilingual children

Sometimes, we so-called professional writers take a more-literary-than-thou attitude towards attempts by beginning language learners to write poetry. We think that poetry classes in schools and communities are well and good, as classes, but they should not be taken seriously as contributions to the grand tradition of world-class poetry (whatever that means). It might be instructive to look at what's happening in Georgia, where Latinos are being taught to write poetry in English. Melissa Cahmann-Taylor and Dorine Preston argue this way: "We debunk a key misconception about poetry, that it is an elite craft reserved for those who have both talent and Standard English proficiency. We argue that poetry is a powerful genre for developing students’ love of language, especially students in the early stages of Standard English language acquisition. Building upon Hornberger’s (1989, 2003) biliteracy framework, we analyse bilingual and bidialectal poetry by contemporary published poets as well as work by bilingual writers in our one-year poetry workshop."

They give an example of multilingual criticism in their brief mention of two famous lines from a poem by Lucille Clifton:

the grayer she do get, good God,
the Blacker she do be!

"Rhythm," they write, "is one of the dependable delights of Clifton’s poetry, and all any reader need do to appreciate vernacular music is ‘translate’ Clifton’s last two lines into ‘standard’ English, something like: ‘the grayer she gets, good God, / the blacker she gets.’ No comparison." Exactly! Certain poetic effects (in this case, rhythm) can only be achieved through a bilingual poem (here, a bidialectal poem).

08 April 2009

The Lord is my mom

Some of the issues being discussed by translators of the Bible can be helpful to multilingual literary critics. Mark L. Strauss, in Distorting Scripture?: The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy (1998), argues that: "Study of Egyptian papyri over the past one hundred years has demonstrated conclusively that New Testament Greek is actually an example of Koine (or 'common') Greek, the everyday language of the people that spread throughout the Mediterranean region following the conquests of Alexander the Great (late fourth century B.C.). There is nothing archaic, solemn or mystical about the kind of language used by the inspired authors of the New Testament. It is the Greek of the street."

It is not just the language, of course, but the culture that is so important in Bible translation. For example, I feel very uncomfortable saying the line "The Lord is my shepherd," since there are no sheep where I live (urbanized, polluted, overpopulated Metro Manila) and I have no idea how to feel like a sheep. I know what the psalmist is driving at: God protects me and feeds me, the way shepherds (from what I've heard about them) take care of their sheep. In the English translation, however, the metaphor fails because the English word "shepherd" just does not have the cultural wealth that the original Hebrew word must have had. Using the theory that the Bible uses street language, is it possible (or theologically acceptable) to translate the phrase as "The Lord is my mom (or dad)"?

Perhaps multilingual literary critics can weigh in and join the Biblical debates on language.

07 April 2009

Lesson from translation theory

"The translator is typically faced with the question of whether to modify the world of the text in order to make it accessible to the target culture or whether to attempt to bring the readers toward the culture that produced the text," writes Jeffrey Angles in his description of his course on translation theory at Western Michigan University. We can look at the same question from the point of view of the multilingual writer. The multilingual, multicultural writer is typically faced with the question of whether to dilute the meaning of a word in her/his mother tongue to make it accessible to the target readers (presumed to be monolingual and, sad to say, monocultural) or whether to attempt to bring the readers toward the mother-tongue culture that produced the word. Just as translators have an aesthetic, perhaps even ethical problem every time they face a word without an exact equivalent in the target language, other-language writers, too, have to decide, consciously or subconsciously, whether to distort the mirror to nature that they hold just to make the mother-tongue word comprehensible to the second-language audience. Case in point: Does Bobis' "smothered with coconut milk" capture the way Bicolanos regard coconut milk? In Australian English, even in other varieties of English, "smothered with coconut milk" is a description with no reference to taste or touch but only to sight. Is this a failure of descriptive skill on the part of Bobis or a failure of the English language to achieve unification of sensibility within a word (or words)?

06 April 2009

Varieties within languages

When multicultural criticism becomes more advanced, we can start to analyze texts where two or more varieties of a language are used. Playwrights have been working with dialects for a long time, but only recently have playwrights been using varieties. (For those not familiar with the distinction between dialect and variety: Bronx English and Texas English are dialects of American English; American English and British English are varieties of English.) How helpful it would be to, for example, Filipino-Australian playwright and novelist Merlinda Bobis, if there were a critic that could speak Bicolano (her first language), Filipino (her second language), and English (her third language, in which she has won a major European prize), and could also understand the differences between Philippine English (the variety spoken in Manila, where Bobis used to live) and Australian English. I can't speak Bicolano and really wish I could fully appreciate Bobis' short stories. Here is a sentence from one of them: "Gingered chicken in green papayas, smothered with coconut milk, never fails to keep the tongue moist long after the meal is over." It is not just the biculturality that attracts here, but also the mixture of two varieties of English, not to mention the Bicolano or Filipino substructure.

05 April 2009

Deciding on which language to write in

"You've written creatively in both English and Tagalog," a friend emailed me. "When you sit down to write, how do you decide which language to write in?"

That's a question that readers of this blog surely have different answers to.

My own answer is simple: I use the language of whoever is going to read what I write.

When I was still joining literary contests (I got "kicked upstairs" when I was named to the Hall of Fame of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards in Literature, which then made it awkward for me to join future national literary competitions), I would look for categories where I had more of a chance of winning (where there were fewer good writers). As I hoped, I won in less-explored areas, such as the one-act play in English (theatre groups in the Philippines prefer to stage full-length plays in vernacular languages), the formal essay in English (most literary writers would rather write personal essays), the full-length play in Filipino (most dramatists would rather make money with screenplays), the musical in Filipino (though I can't write genuine poetry if my life depended on it, I can spew out rhymed and metered lyrics on demand).

I earn quite a bit by being commissioned to do books. I write biographies and company histories, which clients prefer to be in English. I write for newspapers and magazines, which can be in either Filipino or English. The play I love to boast about is Josephine, which I wrote for over three years for my own pleasure (I used Filipino, Spanish, and English extensively and a few more languages in isolated lines); it never won anything nor made me any real money, though it's been staged several times by various professional and amateur theatre groups.

04 April 2009


One of the objectives of multilingual literature is to mirror more of the world than any one language can or, negatively, not to be blind to elements of reality that any one language is necessarily blind to. Why not, then, one could ask, use Esperanto, as one reactor to this blog suggests?

This is Wikipedia's account of how the debate about Esperanto has moved as far as literature is concerned: "Esperanto is intended to be an ethnically neutral auxiliary language. The lack of an inherent culture is one of the things that makes Esperanto so much easier to learn and to use than other languages. In an ethnic language like English or Chinese, the student has to learn innumerable arbitrary expressions. It's not enough to learn the grammar and vocabulary; many perfectly grammatical expressions are unacceptable because people simply don't speak that way. In Esperanto, such considerations are much less important. Speakers can say what they'd say in their native tongue, or whatever makes sense at the moment, and Esperantists from other language backgrounds aren't likely to notice the difference."

Whatever we think of Esperanto, the insight of Esperantists that using a language is not only knowing grammar and vocabulary but culture is accurate. One of the silliest defenses of English as an international language is that it is culture-free. Of course not! It is as British as the British or as American as the Americans! (Substitute for the proper nouns any people or place that speaks any of the Englishes.) A Filipino that writes in English is more British or American than Filipino. This may sound nativist or essentialist, but read a novel originally in Cebuano or Ilocano or Tagalog and read it again in its English translation. If you know both languages well (as many bilingual Filipinos do), you will immediately sense the difference (provided, of course, that you have literary competence as defined by the structuralists). The language itself imposes a different sensibility quite apart from plot, structure, character, imagery, theme, and other literary elements.

03 April 2009

Rizal and Spanish

Ante Radaic, the Yugoslavian who wrote in Spanish about Philippine novelist Jose P. Rizal, was the first (and, as far as I know, the only) one to point out that Rizal wrote so much because of inferiority complex. Is it possible that what was obvious to Radaic (but not to all other critics that read Rizal in translation) is obvious only because of language? Radaic, unlike most readers today, read Rizal in the original Spanish (as did Rizal's Spanish biographer Jose Baron Fernandez, who also holds the singular view that Rizal's Spanish was pretty bad). Not reading Rizal in Spanish has made many literary critics say silly things, ranging from Rizal being a coward (provoking Spanish-speaking Nick Joaquin's spirited defense of Rizal against Radaic) to Rizal being a superhero (see the surprising defense of Rizal by leading Filipino-American critic E. San Juan Jr.). Multilingual critics have their work cut out for them: since they are the only ones capable of reading authors in the authors' original languages, they are the only ones that can truly appreciate what the authors are able to do. After all, as all writers know, a lot of effort goes into making words sound alike, have double meanings, fit into a musical rhythm, and so on, and translations, no matter how skilled the translators, do not capture this wrestle with words. What is lost in translation is also lost in criticism.

02 April 2009

Nick Joaquin's Spanish-English

That Nick Joaquin is a major Philippine writer writing in English cannot be doubted. He was even named a Philippine National Artist for his writings in English. Even if many Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have been published in the US or UK, however, Joaquin has never been published in those countries, except in anthologies edited by fellow Filipinos, who held him and still hold him after his death in very high regard.

What is his English like? Many readers have already remarked that his English sounds very Spanish. In one of his most famous short stories, May Day Eve, he deliberately tried to sound Spanish even when writing in English. The story happens during the time that Spanish was spoken by the upper-classes in Manila (the characters are upper-class, with some characters even having studied in Spain) and when English was still unknown in the islands. In fact, Joaquin cleverly clues in the reader by ending the story with a Spanish sentence.

Take the second sentence from the story (the first one is kilometric and defies quick analysis): "And it was May again, said the old Anastasia." The name Anastasia, for one, cannot be pronounced the American or British way, because it makes sense only if pronounced the Spanish or Tagalog way (with a short second a). It is not just the name, however. There is the beginning of the sentence (most native English writers would not begin with the conjunction, but it is normal in Spanish, as in Y tu mamá también. The article "the" before "old" is also problematic if "native" English were used ("old Anastasia" would have been enough). In such a short sentence, Joaquin deliberately (skeptics would say carelessly) writes English to sound like Spanish; in multilingual criticism, it would be just as accurate to say that Joaquin's English is heavily influenced by his Spanish (he spoke Spanish at home).

We, of course, would not have time to do each sentence of the story (we would not even get through the first one!), but the language is not isolatable from the story itself. The story has to do with the new replacing the old, or with the inevitability of change. At the time Joaquin was composing the story, English, which entered the Philippines only towards the end of the 19th century, was quickly replacing Spanish, which had been the language of government for 300 years. In his essays, Joaquin did not hide his contempt for the language of the new American imperialists, for like most Spanish-speaking upper-class persons, he regarded Spanish as God's language and English as the language of the marketplace. The irony, which exists for many second-language writers, is that he said all of that in English!

01 April 2009

A different Farsi (Persian)

One of the reasons I am aware of the need to be sensitive to the peculiarities of a language is my experience with Farsi (Persian). Although English was allowed as a medium of instruction in "foreign literature" classes, I felt I had to learn Persian to effectively teach undergraduate classes in American Literature in Iran in 1976. I took formal lessons in a classroom, taught by a male Iranian professor. Since I did not feel confident even after I had finished the short course, I engaged the tutoring services of a female Iranian professor (who, btw, following the custom in that country, was always accompanied by her husband, who quietly and patiently sat through our sessions). After a couple of months of daily tutorial sessions, I felt ready to give my first lecture in Persian. My students appeared appreciative of my lecture. After the class, however, one of the male students stayed to talk to me. "Sir," he said in English, "you speak like a woman."