31 May 2009

Hungarian literature

I am now in Budapest. My tour guide says that Hungarian is spoken only by Hungarians. That sounds pretty much like Filipino, which is spoken only by Filipinos (and, of course, non-Filipinos that study it for various reasons, usually academic). But Hungarian literature, unlike literature in Filipino, has a worldwide readership through translations. Witness, for example, Magda Szabo. What are writers in Filipino not doing that Hungarian writers appear to be doing? Why are translators taking time to study and translate Hungarian and not taking time to do the same thing with writers in Filipino (or Tagalog or Cebuano or Ilocano)? The Philippines has been colonized or conquered several times in the past, just like Hungary. Where lies the difference?

28 May 2009

Wikinovel attempt

Multilingual writers keep trying to join the Web 2.0 generation, though so far unfortunately with not consistently sterling success. Witness this candid admission by a group of such writers:

"Seeing how few collaborative multilingual literary projects exist in any form, this [disappointing] result is not particularly surprising. The Congress moved towards a similar goal but language exchange in conversation about shared texts is a bit less daunting than collaborative multilingual literary creation. No doubt, as automated translation becomes better and as interaction increases across linguistic boundaries in the world of electronic literature, more interlaced multilingual works will be possible."

In fact, despite the "failure" of this particular 2006 project, the idea of a wikinovel is an excellent one, since the Web offers writers from various linguistic traditions a way to work together without having to pay enormous airfares and hotel bills or getting a grant from usually fairly conservative writing retreats. I hope the writers of the Wikinovela: a project of hypertextual, collaborative, and multilingual creation on the Internet will come together again in virtual space to create their second work.

26 May 2009

Lisel Mueller

Pulitzer Prize winner Lisel Mueller's "English as a Second Language" gives us an explicit example of how second language speakers react to writing drastically differently from first language speakers:

The underpaid young teacher
prints the letters t, r, e, e
on the blackboard and imagines
forests and gardens springing up
in the tired heads of her students.

But they see only four letters.

Similarly, when a reader reads a work in his/her own mother tongue written by someone to whom the language is only a second or foreign language, the reader thinks that s/he is on the same wavelength as the writer. That is clearly not the case, even in ordinary speech, as illustrated by the poem. Since poetry is even more dependent on precise language (including connotations and word history), it follows that the reader is even more in danger of totally misunderstanding a second-language work. In the poem above, since Mueller is also writing in a second language, the monolingual reader will miss the German characteristic of the verse (e.g., precision in number of syllables and stresses, even visual length of lines).

25 May 2009

Puthi literature

For a good introduction to Puthi literature ("Puthi Literature is a special genre of literature written in a mixed vocabulary drawn from Bangla, Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Hindi. It was current during the 18th and the 19th centuries and its composers as well as readers were Muslims."), visit Banglapedia.

Sometimes, one-third of an entire work in Bangla would consist of words taken from other languages. Apparently, at that time, readers understood the poems because the mixed language was their own, not that deliberately propagated by schools or state.

Today, in the Philippines, many schools are trying to propagate a language (either English or a vernacular language) that is not the language that ordinary Filipinos speak at home or in the workplace. Derisively labeled "Taglish," the language that almost everybody speaks is used by novelists that specialize in romance. These novelists sell books in the thousands of copies per week. In contrast, books written in English or in one of the vernaculars rarely sell more than a couple of hundred copies a month. Let us hope that the experience of the Puthi writers is not repeated in the Philippines.

23 May 2009

Javanese and Indonesian in a novel

Here is a longish (edited) excerpt from an analysis of a multilingual work:

"Bintang Berpijar di Langit Majapahit was written by Taufiq Saptoto Rohadi, also known by his pen name Tasaro. He is a talented writer who started his career in the journalistic and media world. The historical fiction is his first book.

"The setting in this novel is near the end of the Majapahit Golden Era. This novel is about a girl’s adventure. Hui Sing comes from China, and then she chooses to stay in Indonesia. She is one of the Cheng Ho admiral’s pupils, but he considers Hui Sing as his own daughter. She comes from the Ming Kingdom and accompanies Cheng Ho to go to Java to give a tranquility message to the King of Majapahit. Then she meets Respati, a brave Majapahit commander. Despite the ordeals, they finally get married and have a baby boy. Many murderers try to kill them. Hui Sing is saved but not her husband. Her enemies kidnap her son. Finally, Hui Sing takes revenge for her husband’s death and tries to find her son.

"There is a lot of code mixing in this novel. The code mixing could be in different word classes. To illustrate: 'Romo, Kartiwa hanya seorang nelayan, bukan prajurit yang siap berperang.' ('Father, Kartiwa is a fisherman, not a soldier who is ready for a battle.') Romo means father. In that particular sentence, the speaker is mixing two codes or languages, which are Javanese and Indonesian. The Javanese word is Romo and the rest are Indonesian.

"Another example is 'Aku rasa akan sangat mudah untuk menggebuk tubuh Hui Sing dalam posisi itu.' ('I think it will be easy to punch Hui Sing’s body from that position.') Menggebuk means to punch. In that, utterance the speaker has mixed Indonesian and Javanese codes. Furthermore, in the first example, the code mixing deals with the word class Noun; however, the code mixing in the second example deals with another word class - Verb."

I have nothing against linguistic analyses of literary works. In fact, much insight has been generated by linguists reading literature that has not been available to literary critics that do not have that deep a knowledge of linguistics. But it is important for literary critics to go beyond questions of language into questions of literature. In this example, it would be good to ask, for instance, how Indonesian and Javanese cultures differ and how the differences (as signaled by the code-mixing) illuminate the situation of the characters or move the plot forward.

22 May 2009

Multilingual drama as dominant culture

In Raymond Williams's often-used classification of types of culture (residual, dominant, emergent), multilingual literature is clearly the emergent and (at least in the genre of drama) may already be the dominant form that literary writing is taking. Here is an observation that, from my own experience of watching plays from all over the world, is accurate:

"In the post-colonial world, creative writing for multilingual audiences flourished where readers (or viewers) could appreciate it. In Anglophone communities where many languages are in widespread use, dramatic performances for stage or television have achieved sophisticated effects through the use of several languages. Some plays offer the option of scenes not in English (for instance, Kee Thuan Chye’s Malaysian play, We Could *** You, Mr. Birch). Others employ scripts with a mixture of languages (for instance, Stella Koh’s monologue for a Singaporean audience, Emily of Emerald Hill, employs fragments in Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay, Hindi, and even African-American English of the American south). Such works make local use of global English." (p. 355 of Richard W. Bailey’s “English among the Languages,” in The Oxford History of English [2006], edited by Lynda Mugglestone).

21 May 2009


I've been traveling these past few days and will be back in Manila only in the second week of June. (As I write this, I am in London.) This should explain why I most likely cannot blog regularly until I get home. When I do have quiet time in a hotel, however, I read, for my own enjoyment, multilingual literature, such as these lines from Antoine Cassar's "Gonbidapena":

Edan, erdaldunak, hau da zuen herria,
f’kull ħamrija l-għeruq, f’nifs ir-riħ kull żerriegħa,
et avant tout vignoble ce vin du mot nomade.

Cassar used to be a voice crying in the wilderness. With the increasing incidence of mixed-language poetry, he should no longer feel so alone.

19 May 2009

Not Chaucer

I was taught in school that Chaucer was the first to mix languages among writers in English. That turns out, like many things I learned in school, not to be exactly correct.

In The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, the mixing of languages in literary English is traced to the entire period and not to Chaucer as an individual:

"In the writings of the end of the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth, the proportion of Romanic words is so great that we may correctly say that the literary English of the period was a mixed language. The interesting group of poems, perhaps all by one author, consisting of Alisaunder, Arthur and Merlin and Cœur de Lion, contain many long passages in which nearly every important verb, noun, and adjective is French. Nor is this mixed vocabulary at all peculiar to works written in the south of England. In Cursor Mundi, and even in the prose of Richard Rolle, which are in the northern dialect, there is, on the average, at least one French word in every two lines. The alliterative poetry of the west midland and northern dialects from about 1350 onwards has an extraordinary abundance of words of French origin, many of which are common to several of the poets of this school, and do not occur elsewhere. The notion prevalent among writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Chaucer corrupted the English language by the copious introduction of French words, was curiously wide of the mark. In reality, his language is certainly less marked by Gallicisms than that of most of the other poets of his time, and even than that of some poets of the early years of the fourteenth century. It cannot be absolutely proved that he ever, even in his translations, made use of any foreign word that had not already gained a recognised place in the English vocabulary."

There are still the unenlightened that think that English is a "pure" language. Scholarship has shown that English was, from the very beginning, a mixed language. Works written in English are, therefore, inherently mixed-language works, even if the writers themselves think that they are monolingual. Multilingual literary criticism need not restrict itself merely to obviously mixed-language texts, but can say quite a bit about seemingly monolingual works.

18 May 2009

Medieval English

Literary critics are not the only ones to neglect multilingual texts. Here is an account of the current state of linguistic study about medieval English:

"Mainstream historical linguistics has completely neglected the analysis of mixed-language texts, i.e. of texts which show alternation and mixing of languages in various forms. ... While historical linguists are often unaware of the large number of such texts, philologists, medievalists, and literary scholars have tended to hold them in low esteem and not worthy of serious examination. These so-called ‘macaronic’ literary texts were frequently regarded as instances of artificial, sometimes highly artistic language-play or as exercises of clerics and students." (“Mixed-language texts as data and evidence in English historical linguistics,” by Herbert Schendl, in Studies in the History of the English Language: A Millennial Perspective [2002]).

"Macaronic" literary texts, as this blog has shown, have not disappeared, but have evolved into an even higher form of literature - multilingual literature.

17 May 2009


A snippet from the novel Loosing My Espanish (2004), by Herman G. Carrillo:

“a mi me gusto mucho, been so good to all of mis hijos, I’ve overheard mothers say when they were certain that I was within earshot.”

This combination of Spanish and English (or Spanglish) is not unique to the Cuban-American community in Chicago. In the Philippines, Taglish (a code-switching variety of Philippine English, mixing Tagalog and English) is the rule rather than the exception in bestselling novels (which are, incidentally, romances). Linguists theorize that mixing languages is a way of identifying oneself with one's community. Literary critics have a much harder task: they must justify (or not justify) the sudden shifts to the mother tongue from the point of view of literariness. The shifts should not occur haphazardly or idiosyncratically; they must be demanded by the literary situation (character, plot, structure, whatever).

15 May 2009

Not just languages

One of the most difficult challenges facing a multilingual literary critic is that s/he has to be knowledgeable not only about languages, but about entire cultures or literary traditions. The same challenge faces, of course, not just the multilingual literary critic but all readers of all hybrid literatures (even those that appear monocultural, like British literature, which has deep roots in the literatures of other linguistic communities!).

Here is a typical observation by a critic about one type of literature (Urdu):

"While it is true that Persian and Arabic literary models are still very much
in use in Urdu, particularly in poetry, and, hence, a student possessing
knowledge of Arabic or Persian poetry can be instructed in Urdu poetic
literature with relative ease, it would be wrong to neglect the Pakistani
and Indian aspects of Urdu literature, especially in modern Urdu fiction
and drama — these narrative genres which, though borrowed from the
West, nevertheless portray the social reality of India and Pakistan. Even if
this social reality may prove difficult for a beginning student to
apprehend fully, neglecting it would result in missing out on some
important aspects of literary creativity in modern Urdu."

Similarly, a reader of Philippine literature in English that does not know Philippine literary traditions in Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, and other vernacular languages runs the great risk of completely misreading a work.

We just cannot avoid being aware of other [sub]cultures and other languages. If we are not aware of them, we are like that favorite whipping-person of literary theorists - the reader that thinks that s/he has no theory.

14 May 2009

Multilingual in one language

To restrict multilinguality to the idea of using two or more languages in the same literary text will deprive critics of a powerful tool to deal with texts in one language. Think of the debates about Greek in the early 20th century, when students led a movement to translate classical Greek texts into modern Greek. The scholarly arguments sometimes became a matter of life and death, as in the Oresteiaka riots of 1903, when three people were killed during protests for and against the staging in modern Greek of Aeschylus's masterpiece.

In the Philippines, until about a decade ago, Tagalog purists wanted to retain Tagalog as the national language and to reject the constitutionally-mandated Filipino, leading to legal and academic battles with writers in Cebuano and Ilocano. The conflict has been partially resolved by the country's leading university, the University of the Philippines, which came out with a dictionary of Filipino (rather than Tagalog). The dictionary was the work of literary giants, led by National Artist Virgilio S. Almario, who had proven his worth writing poetry in Tagalog and could never be accused of being anti-Tagalog (though some misguided non-Tagalog writers continue to regard him as a purist). Unfortunately, the dictionary has not led to a growth in the number of writers writing in Filipino, but it highlights the multilinguality of Philippine literature, where writers can make very fine distinctions between closely related languages. Russian critics of Philippine literature, like most readers based in other countries, do not appreciate the intensity of the linguistic conflict: to them, all Philippine literature is written in Russian.

13 May 2009

Mixed language poetry contest

Last year's Mixed Language Poetry Contest drew a number of entries. Diehard, oldfashioned literary critics might snob such a popular attempt to draw out multilingual writers and the entries may not pass equally oldfashioned formalistic criteria, but the contest shows that some kind of emergent (to use Raymond Williams's word) literary culture is at hand.

Here are the first lines of one of the winners, "La Emoción no sabe Ninguna Lengua" by Carpe Noctem (a penname):

L'émotion ne sait aucune langue

Every day smiles go unnoticed, even more so the tears;
some people have no one to confide in, joyous rhapsody or fears.

El amor es dicho cada día sin el significado, y los corazones se rasgan en pedazos
las almas amargas funcionan salvaje y lo liberan, no dejando ninguna ocasión para cualquier clase de lanzamientos.

While the desire to use several languages in the same text is commendable, the technique in this particular poem is not particularly to be desired, because the poet uses the languages one at a time, instead of together. The poem is multilingual rather than interlingual. I think that, for a multilingual poem to achieve greatness, it should (as in T. S. Eliot's) shift to a different language because the mother tongue just does not have the capability to express whatever the poet is trying to express at that point. There is no way in English to say what Baudelaire said so well in French (hypocrite lecteur), so Eliot had to write his line in French. The lines above could be written in any of the three languages; the choice appears to be idiosyncratic rather than organic.

12 May 2009

Albert Sbragia

I love it when a literary critic moves from critique to creation, as in this sentence from Albert Sbragia's "The Modern Macaronic": "Language tilts from its centripetal pole to the extremes of centrifugality."

I say to myself when I read a sentence like this, I wish I had written that!

Many times, creative writers think of critics as, well, second-class citizens of the literary world, because critics are always one step behind creative writers. When I advocated critic Bienvenido Lumbera during the deliberations to choose the Philippine National Artists in 2006, I argued not just for Lumbera (who eventually made it to the honor list) but for literary criticism itself as a genre of creative writing. Of course, it is true that there are plenty of literary critics that cannot write, but there are plenty of poets whose so-called poems are, well, garbage, and plenty of novelists that deserve to remain unread. There are a few literary critics that are as good, if not better than the creative writers they write about. At least in that one sentence, Sbragia rocks!

11 May 2009

Contini and Philippine writing

Is multilingual literary criticism new? No. We can trace it to at least as early as the Italian Renaissance. In the last century, one big name in multilingual literary criticism was the Italian critic Gianfranco Contini, who analyzed the way Italian writers used other languages.

A recent article on Contini, "The Modern Macaronic" by Albert Sbragia, in The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies, yields an insight that could very well apply to the Philippines, as well as to other multilingual countries:

"To understand the linguistic peculiarities of the Italian literary tradition, it is necessary to recur to the plurilinguistic anomaly of the Italian peninsula. This plurilingualism is largely the consequence of the precocious unification of a national literary language contrasted by the comparatively late social and political unification of the Italian nation."

Substitute Tagalog for Italian and you get a clue to the extremely complex linguistic situation in the Philippines, and why writings by Filipinos in English or Tagalog (or any other language) are very difficult to analyze, unless the critic is multilingual.

10 May 2009


Twice I enrolled in a Mandarin Chinese language class and twice I dropped out, because for the life of me I could not and still cannot distinguish among the four tones. I can recognize some Chinese characters (一 for 1, 二 for 2, 三 for 3, 四 for 4, 伍 for 5, 六 for 6, 七 for 7, 八 for 8, 九 for 9, which of course I know from playing Mandarin Mahjong!), but that's about it. Yet Chinese is the language most spoken in the world (okay, mainly by Chinese persons, but overseas Chinese happen to be all over the globe). If some predictions about the world economy in the 21st century will come true (and since linguistic power follows economic power), Mandarin Chinese will be the world's international language. I might be illiterate for the rest of this century or that portion of it when I will still be alive. It could be neurosis or even psychosis, but as a literary critic wanting to know world literature and knowing full well that I cannot read the literature of the world's next superpower, I am frightened by the possibility of being left out. Maybe I will enroll again and force myself not to drop out.

09 May 2009

Wolof and Hausa

Something I would never have known B.G. (Before Google):

"The use of a second language is to be found in some Senegalese poetry where poems sometimes have Wolof phrases inserted and in Nigeria where Hausa words serve the same function. . . . An example of the use of Hausa in an Arabic poem is the rhyming word tunkwiyau [influenza] in a poem by al-Hājj Umar b. Abī Bakr al-Şalghawī (c. 1858-1934), a Kano merchant/scholar who emigrated to the Gold Coast."

This passage is from Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa: Classical Traditions and Modern Meaning (1996), by Stefan Sperl, C. Shackle, and Nicholas Awde, pp. 88-89.

Those of us in the English-speaking world are often ignorant of what is going on in literary communities that do not write in English. Using Mao Zedong's image of women holding up half of heaven, we could say that we (English writers) see only our small bit of heaven and do not realize that most of heaven is held up by poets not speaking the languages we speak.

Of course, Senegalese poets also write in French (English writers that do not read French or Francophone poetry are even worse, because there is no reason not to learn another great Western literary language); it is Wolof that is marginalized. Similarly, Nigerian poets also write in English, as well as Arabic; it is Hausa that is marginalized. The marginalization of languages is not just a political or a linguistic issue; it is a literary issue.

08 May 2009


I thought I'd post something I can't read:

«Hу, — думают, — команда!
Здесь ногу сломит чёрт,
Es ist ja eine Schande,
Wir müssen wieder fort».

This stanza is from a poem written by Lev Nikolayevich, Count Tolstoy or, as someone claims, by the other Tolstoi, playwright and novelist Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi.

If anyone knows a translation into English, I would be very grateful. It is frustrating that I cannot read what most likely is a masterpiece by an acknowledged great writer or, if it was Aleksei, then at least an example of macaronic verse, by a similarly famous writer. Albert Casuga says that we might have to wait for our grandchildren to start a generation of truly multilingual readers. I guess I was born too early!

07 May 2009

Eminem and Hatima

It seems that ordinary readers (i.e., non-literary critics) enjoy multilingual poetry. Here's a reaction to a blog entry on macaronic verse:

"Hey, I never knew where the term 'macaronic' came from! Thanks! The zajal and an earlier strophic verse-form called the muwashshaha were erudite Arabic compositions based on a demotic refrain, sometimes in Romance vernacular or colloquial Arabic with Romance words mixed in. They probably emerged from poetic dueling, in which poets would be challenged to compose extemporaneously upon a set theme and melody. Kind of like Eminem in 'Six [sic] Mile.' My favorite is a poem of ibn Hatima of Almeria, with the refrain, 'My language is good Arabic (fasih) but my beloved's is foreign ('ajam)!' Can someone translate?"

Maybe, it's just me that isn't quite into Eminem, but that someone can be into him and into multilingual poetry makes me feel that there is hope for humanity!

06 May 2009

Classifying multilingual writers

Let's do a preliminary classification of multilingual writers.

1. Some multilingual writers think in two or more languages, taking advantage of vocabulary and figures of speech available only in one language but not in the other/s.

2. Some multilingual writers think in one language and write in another (or others), unconsciously and instantaneously translating from their mother tongue to the other language/s.

3. Some multilingual writers deliberately or consciously translate from their mother tongue to other languages.

4. Some multilingual writers deliberately borrow words, phrases, or figures of speech from other languages which they speak fluently.

5. Some multilingual writers deliberately borrow words, phrases, or figures of speech from other languages which they do not speak fluently.

6. Some (we really can't call them) multilingual writers borrow isolated words, phrases, or figures of speech from other languages using a dictionary, an informant, or some other linguistic device.

Think of any more?

05 May 2009

Victor Ordonez (+)

When it rains, it pours. Augusto Boal died 2 May, as did Al Robles. Yesterday (4 May), multilingual writer Victor Ordonez died in Makati, Philippines, of a lingering illness. He was not primarily a writer, having written only one novel (in English), but his work at UNESCO in Paris was crucial to the development of writing in many countries. He spoke several languages (I don't know exactly how many, but I saw him talking to delegates in a UN conference in their own languages) and most likely read several more. He spearheaded a number of innovative movements in education, not just in the world (he spent much of his later life in international circles), but in the Philippines, where he served in various capacities in government and the private sector. He was my friend, as he was a friend to countless others, especially writers.

04 May 2009

Al Robles (+)

Sad news for poets: Alfred "Al" Robles, a bilingual poet based in San Francisco, died 2 May. Here is an excerpt from an interview by Darlene Rodrigues, where Robles talked about one of his most popular poems:

I wrote this poem called “Soon the White Snow Will Melt.” I was thinking about snow, and I was thinking of oppression and white people. And I was thinking of this one guy whose name is Richard Oaks. One day I saw him sitting at the Precita Bar, where all of us guys were just waiting to go up to Sacramento to read. He was just sitting there alone, drinking beer. He saw us and said, “What are you guys going to do?” We said, “We are gonna read.” He was a Mohawk Indian who later died near the Eel River. He felt deeply about the plight of his people as they were taking over Alcatraz. He said, “You guys are poets? What do you guys do?” I said, “We read.” He said, “You guys organize?” Cause he had some problems up north. He later got killed up there. We said, “Well, we gonna read. Would you like to?” He said, “Could I?” At that moment he became a poet. In one of his lines he was talking about oppression, and 99 percent of the people there were white. And he said, “Oppression, you know who you are.” And he wasn’t looking at us, right. He just kept on repeating that. He was very strong, very heavy. So I wrote these lines, “Soon the white snow will melt and underneath the black, brown, yellow, red earth will come to life.”

Allow me to change the words of John Donne to fit our situation: "No poet is an island, entire of itself; every poet is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Luzon [the island where I live in the Philippines] is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any poet's death diminishes me, because I am involved in poetry, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

03 May 2009

Tato Laviera

These are lines from "For Richie" by Tato Laviera:

for we scrambled
our intentions
not to be
ever defined
by the united states

but he knew …
but he knew
in his philosophical
community gatherings

that the united states
lives in ultimate
(me esta saliendo)
in ultimate hell

From the point of view of multilingual criticism, there are at least two noteworthy things about these lines.

First, the use of Spanish between "lives in ultimate" and "in ultimate hell" highlights the ultimacy of the hell that a Puerto Rican experiences, living in lingeringly racist USA (at least, that part of the USA that Laviera lives in).

Laviera, of course, is the author of the famous lines:

i think in spanish
i write in english.

The second interesting aspect of the lines from "For Richie" is the English itself, which is not "Standard American English" (I've often wondered who exactly proclaimed as "standard" one particular dialect of American English!).

Incidentally, Laviera strikes a chord in Filipino readers. Many Filipino literary scholars regard the Philippines as the last colony of the USA (they call it a "neo-colony"), in the same way that Puerto Ricans see Puerto Rico, as in these lines from "For Richie":

that we were
the last colony

for he knew that
puerto rico last
will be first.

Both the Philippines and Puerto Rico are scrambling (to use Laviera's word) to have the dishonor of being the last US colony. Postcolonial literary critics will have a field day with this one!

02 May 2009

Adan Baca

In the hands of a poet, code-switching becomes a powerful device for symbolizing problems with identity. For example, here are the first lines of Adan Baca's "El Hijo":

My jito is the culmination of years spent searching
for heritage
Geological ancestry
Yo soy Joaquin
With invisibility
Incomprehensible understanding
Looking for meaning
And greedily
Dispelling the erasing of my history.

By inserting the Spanish line "Yo soy Joaquin," the poet signifies how his Spanish ancestry makes him "invisible." Had he written "I am Joaquin," then he would be visible, because he would have been understood by his English-speaking neighbors. The poem works on the idea of language being one of the key markers of invisibility or alienation (as we used to put it in the 1960s).

The poem works on another level: readers that can understand the Spanish line are also invisible, because American and British literature teachers and readers, in general, focus on monolingual English poetry and marginalize poems that contain "foreign" words. Think of how a monolingual English reader of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland differs from a bilingual French-English reader: the monolingual reader cannot get the full impact of "You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!"

01 May 2009


Here is the abstract of a paper entitled "Writing Germany in Exile - the Bilingual Author as Cultural Mediator: Klaus Mann, Stefan Heym, Rudolf Arnheim and Hannah Arendt" (2004) by Verena Jung:

"This paper examines the process of self-translation undertaken by German exile writers who translated their own works, written in English, the language of their host country, back into their mother tongue, German. It postulates that the necessary precondition for self-translation is not just bilinguality but also biculturality and that it is this bicultural status of the self-translators as cultural mediators and not their poetic licence that leads to the significant changes and restructurings that the self-translators make in their German version. The awareness of the heteroskopic nature of the translation, that is, differences in knowledge base between the readerships of the English original version and the German version with regard to the German intertext are the motivation for restructuring their original version. In this process, self-translators differ from other translators and cultural mediators only in their access to the pre-stage of composition, access to the intertext, the intention and the inner language that preceded the original English version. Thus the self-translators act as editors of their own text and take their decisions to expand or reduce an aspect of their text based on the familiarity of their readership with the German cultural environment or intertext that informs the text."

I'm too cheap to buy and read the full text of the article, but the abstract points to a good area of investigation for multilingual critics - self-translation. Jung mentions biculturality - now a familiar concept for readers of this blog - but one apparent conclusion of the paper (that self-translation can be reduced to privileged editing) seems dubious (at least, until I get to read the entire paper). I've tried to translate myself from Filipino to English and the other way around, and believe me, it's much harder than translating other people's works either way (which I get paid to do now and then). In fact, I was asked once to translate a full-length play that I had written in Filipino into English for a publication in Hawaii and I gave up. I did manage to translate another, shorter play, Kuwadro (in Filipino), into Portrait (in English), but the English text is not really the same as the Filipino text, as anyone that has read or seen the play in both languages will tell me for sure (no one has really seen both, since Philippine audiences watch only the Filipino version and foreign audiences watch only the English one).