31 July 2009

Multilingual education in the Philippines

You might be interested to know what's going on in the Philippines that touches on multilingual criticism. I wrote two columns on the latest major reform in the educational system. Here are the opening paragraphs of the columns:

One of the most significant and far-reaching contributions of Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Jesli Lapus to the history of Philippine education is DepEd Order No. 74, series of 2009, entitled “Institutionalizing Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MLE).” The change in languages of instruction is probably the most radically new thing in the 2010 curriculum for elementary school. The Order will change the mediums or languages of instruction in basic education from the present bilingual system (Filipino and English) to a trilingual one (mother tongue, Filipino, and English). (Philippine Star, 23 July 2009)

DepEd Order No. 74, series of 2009, entitled “Institutionalizing Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MLE),” is the latest in a series of attempts since 1863 by the government to improve basic education by mandating the mediums or languages of instruction. Last week, I listed the efforts from 1863 to 1970. Let me continue the list. (Philippine Star, 30 July 2009)

You have to register with Philippine Star to read old columns, but registration is free anyway.

30 July 2009

English as a Multi-Language

Those afflicted with what I call tempocentricism (the tendency to think that our times are the best of all times or even that there are no other times at all except ours) think of those that speak only English as monolingual. That would be true of most of humanity, but certainly not of serious literary writers. Serious writers know the history of every word they use in their works (of course, poets are more deliberate than prose writers, because they have fewer words to worry about).

An account of how a serious writer deliberately uses the multilingual character of the English language can be found in the Introduction by Gavin Alexander to the Penguin edition of Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism (2004):

"[George] Puttenham’s prose style merits some consideration. ... One stylistic habit is seen everywhere: like many of his contemporaries he is fond of proceeding by twos. To take an example: ‘implying thereby how, by his discreet and wholesome lessons uttered in harmony and with melodious instruments, he brought the rude and savage people to a more civil and orderly life, nothing, as it seemeth, more prevailing or fit to redress and edify the cruel and sturdy courage of man than it.’ Many of the words which face each other across Puttenham’s conjunctions are synonyms. The technique belonged in the mixed language which Puttenham had written a history of. For most things English had an Anglo-Saxon term and an Anglo-Norman one; and the Latinate element represented by the influence of French was being fortified by the many borrowings from Latin which expanded the English lexicon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." (p. lxvi)

In 20th-century and 21st-century English texts written by writers whose mother tongue is English, we can find the same mixing of British (or American) English with some other variety of English (Philippine, Indian, Singaporean, or others). It will take a thorough literary critic to go through even a short poem and show how the poet (assuming that the poet knows what s/he is doing) mixes different varieties of English for some aesthetic effect. Of course, as a theoretician, I can say that quite easily, but to put that in practice is an altogether different matter. A practical way to help both writers and readers is Alexander's: take only one sentence as an example to show how a writer uses various varieties (or registers or dialects) of the same language.

29 July 2009

Yoko Tawada on a word

In an interview by Bettina Brandt in April, 2005, talking about her novel Das Nackte Auge, Yoko Tawada showed why even a single word is important for writers:

"BB: Can you tell us something about your work method?

"YT: A single word can inspire me. When this happens, I want to create a whole text out of that one word, which seems to contain the entire microcosm. That is my dream, and it is how I often start writing. I use variations of this word, place associations next to each other, create word chains like branches of a tree, and play with different forms and shapes. Finally, I realize that I have to create an ending, but I don't find an ending because I don't want to and cannot have a result. A text is a weird and wonderful plant that has grown in all directions out of a single word knot."

When that single word knot comes from a language other than the writer's mother tongue (which most likely happens with Tawada, since she is multilingual), literary critics have the obligation to recreate or to retrace the journey of that word through various languages. That is the least that readers of literary criticism expect.

28 July 2009

Forum Play

Can multilingual literary criticism be interdisciplinary? It should be, and yes, it can be.

First, it should be, because the boundaries of disciplines disappeared with critical theory: intellectuals such as Michel Foucault are routinely cited not just by literary critics (Foucault was not even a literary critic) but by just about everyone else in academe. With the world going global, intellectual life has also gone global, in the sense that one can no longer stay within a very small specialized field.

Second, it can be, because there are many areas where it obviously benefits from other fields of human interest. Take the Forum Play, for example. Katrin Byreus's role-playing teaching exercise (derived from Augusto Boal), meant to make students directly involved in solving real-life problems, works with mixed-language groups, where the role players can speak in different languages to each other, even if the other players do not speak these other languages. Multilingual literary critics can help illuminate the dynamics of the Forum Play and help teachers use it more effectively. Listening to someone speaking in a language you don't understand is like reading a literary text with words from a language we don't read. The theoretical insights will be the same, even if the practical applications are clearly different. The Forum Play is interdisciplinary, involving theater, education, psychology, and so on; we cannot do multilingual literary criticism on the Forum Play without invoking or using these other fields.

27 July 2009

Out of context means a new context

Yoko Tawada hits it right on the head. She says: "You can give a word more depth by listening to its history. Then we can ask ourselves, within one culture, what a certain word meant for Goethe or for Schiller. Or we could ask, more generally, what a particular word meant in the eighteenth century, or, say, in the fifteenth century. That is one method of giving a word more depth. What I am doing now in my writing, however, is to ask what a particular word means when it is inserted in the context of a multicultural and multilingual world where words from different languages create purely poetic correspondences."

When a word is used in a context that is not exclusively mother-tongue, i.e., if one or both the writer and reader are not mother-tongue speakers of the language in which that word occurs, then the word carries meanings that the methods of the historical critics or even New Critics will not be able to uncover. Using insights developed by literary theory (such as those from Reader-Response theories), multilingual literary criticism can unlock many meanings previously unknown to readers even in what we thought were already-overread texts.

26 July 2009


Very useful is the insight of Mikhail Bakhtin that all literary texts have multiple speakers or voices (the technical terms are dialogics and heteroglossia). A single line of poetry, contrary to the view of critics earlier than him, has more than one voice that we the readers can hear. A single line of second-language poetry, then, can be said to have the voice of the second language plus the voice of the mother tongue, in addition to the voices that Bakhtin identified. If we are to fully understand and appreciate the single line of poetry (and, of course, entire poems and works of literature), we must listen and hear these two voices, as well as all the other voices identified by dialogics.

25 July 2009

Syntactic and lexical competence

The Statement on Second-Language Writing and Writers of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) has implications for multilingual literary criticism:

"Second-language writers include international visa students, refugees, and permanent residents as well as naturalized and native-born citizens of the United States and Canada. Many of them have grown up speaking languages other than English at home, in their communities, and in schools; others began to acquire English at a very young age and have used it alongside their native language. To many, English may be the third, fourth or fifth language. Many second-language writers are highly literate in their first language, while others have never learned to write in their mother tongue. Some are even native speakers of languages without a written form."

Here is what CCCC says about these second-language writers: "Most second-language writers are still in the process of acquiring syntactic and lexical competence — a process that will take a lifetime."

Does this apply to second-language literary writers? Is it possible that the "peculiarities" we find in second-language literary texts are due to syntactic and lexical incompetence? That would be indeed a disturbing possibility.

23 July 2009

Principles 4

This is the fourth principle of multilingual literary criticism:

(4) The multilingual work is the general case; the apparently monolingual work is the special case.

I use the analogy of the relationship between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics. In treating things that we encounter every day, we do very well just using Newtonian physics, because the quantities that make a difference are pretty small. But these small, seemingly insignificant quantities are there; they are just ignored. The multilingual literary critic focuses on these seemingly insignificant items and shows why they are not insignificant after all. Still pursuing the analogy with physics, we could say that multilingual literary criticism is the Theory of Everything. It is primarily of theoretical interest. We cannot use it all the time because we would never do anything else nor read much more than what we are reading at the moment. Nevertheless, as we know from the enormous amount of work the critics used to do in the first half of the last century, there is a place in the intellectual world for such dedication to detail. By highlighting (or foregrounding, as literary critics like to say) the linguistic elements that are normally ignored, we help the reader appreciate more deeply the writer's craft.

22 July 2009

Principles 3

This is the third principle of multilingual literary criticism:

(3) A work in a mother tongue should not be assumed to be monolingual.

This seems counterintuitive, but in fact, since many (all?) languages are made up of older languages, these earlier languages should be taken into account when reading a work, particularly if the writer is such a good writer (someone like James Joyce) that s/he has taken pains to research on these earlier languages. In fact, if we use the late lamented New Criticism, we have to say that a word contains within itself all the meanings ever attributed to that word, including the meanings in the language of origin. Within New Criticism, it is not necessary (nor is it even required) that the writer was/is aware of the origins of the word in the earlier languages; the word itself contains its own history.

21 July 2009

Principles 2 revised

Let me rephrase the second principle to avoid ambiguity:

(2) A work not in the mother tongue cannot be read as though it were in a mother tongue.

By changing the article the to a, I have made it clearer that the text should not be read or judged purely in the context of mother-tongue texts.

20 July 2009

Principles 2

This is the second principle of multilingual literary criticism:

(2) A work not in the mother tongue cannot be read as though it were in the mother tongue.

Extremely common, for example, is the mistake of reading Joseph Conrad (or anyone else writing in a language other than the mother tongue) as though he were Ernest Hemingway (or anyone else writing in the mother tongue). Most literary critics do not ignore the distinctive linguistic qualities of passages not in the mother tongue or passages that clearly echo the mother tongue, but the whole work, not just parts of it, should be read with the mother tongue in mind. Passages that appear to be in the second (or third) language are really in the mother tongue, using words in the second (or third) language. Criticism that would be valid were the work in the mother tongue might not be applicable to a work in a non-mother tongue.

An example that I often use is that of Cirilo Bautista's rhyming of men with mien in "Pedagogic." Since all the other end rhymes are correct from the point of view of an American or British speaker, there is no reason to think that the two words are not meant to rhyme. They rhyme only if you hear Bautista reciting the poem in public (which he has done on occasion); he himself pronounces mien to rhyme with men. Since his mother tongue is Tagalog (in which he has written his novels) and English is his second language, it is the Tagalog vowel sound that dominates, rather than the English vowel sound. The inexact rhyme is not a mistake but a deliberate way to alert the reader to the ethnicity of the speaker in the poem - an added dimension to the situation of a Filipino teacher teaching American students in a country with four seasons (the Philippines has no fall season).

19 July 2009

Principles 1

This is the first principle of multilingual literary criticism:

(1) If a literary work is written in a language other than the mother tongue, the mother tongue has to be taken into account when reading the work.

This principle applies to a whole work or to part of a work (such as a word, a line, a verse, a phrase, a sentence, or a passage).

For example, when reading T. S. Eliot's "hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!," the critic has to ask questions of this sort:

Why does the poet shift to French?

What is gained or lost by using the French original instead of an English translation of Charles Baudelaire's phrase?

Would a translation of the phrase into a third language be more effective or less? (This question would be inevitable if we were reading a translation into a third language of the whole poem.)

If the English translation and the French original were read or spoken aloud simultaneously (which could be done by two readers or by one reader using imagination), would one serve as a counterpoint to the other in terms of meaning and/or music?

These are just questions that would arise from a purely formalistic reading. A more context-oriented reading would ask questions about the poet's intention, education, audience, and so on.

Clearly, despite the enormous scholarship already devoted to Eliot's line, not to mention his entire poem, there is still a wide open area for students of literature to explore.

18 July 2009

Seamus Heaney

Although Thomas O'Grady focuses on place names in the following excerpt from his reading (2006) of Seamus Heaney's "Broagh" (1972), he exhibits the kind of mother tongue awareness that a multilingual critic needs to make full sense of a poem. This poem has been read several times by various critics, but O'Grady introduces a language element that illuminates not just the place names but the linguistic complexity of the poem:

"The most subtle of Heaney’s territorial claims on place — on place made word and on word made place — may be the poem 'Broagh,' the first word of which translates the title, a contracted variant of the Irish phrase bruach abhana:

Riverbank, the long rigs
ending in broad docken
and a canopied pad
down to the ford.

The garden mould
bruised easily, the shower
gathering in your heelmark
was the black O

in Broagh,
its low tattoo
among the windy boortrees
and rhubarb-blades

ended almost
suddenly, like that last
gh the strangers found
difficult to manage.

"Understandably, this poem has received a measure of critical attention, as well as a measure of readerly appreciation, for its obvious focus on the challenge that 'strangers' (plausibly, but not exclusively, the British) face in pronouncing correctly not only that lightly guttural gh but also that first vowel, the clipped o, which makes this seemingly simple word into a sort of two-syllable tongue-twister. Tellingly, however, 'Broagh' begins to operate as 'a verbal contraption' (W. H. Auden’s fine phrase) fueled by local specifics long before that tricky vowel. In fact, each line of the first stanza concludes with a word that, almost as much as the name Broagh itself, grounds the poem in Heaney’s particular world: 'rigs' is a regional term for ploughed furrows; 'docken' is a local variation on the deep-rooted weed known elsewhere as burdock; 'pad' approximates the local pronunciation of 'path'; and 'ford,' deriving from the Old Norse word fjord (found as a suffix in Irish placenames like Waterford and Wexford) and referring to a shallow point in the river that would allow one to wade across, has clearly been retained in the vernacular from the time of the Viking invasions of Ireland in the 9th and 10th centuries. (The Viking legacy would of course be Heaney’s central fascination in his 1975 volume North.) In a similar fashion, the word 'boortrees' in the third stanza resonates as the local pronunciation of 'bower trees' — that is, elderberry trees.

"Obviously, then, 'Broagh' — on the surface a mere two sentences, readable in one breath — is deceptively simple. And in a way that is Heaney’s point: no less than the language of poetry, the language of the everyday world can be loaded with implication — sometimes political implication."

There are three languages at work here - Irish, English, and the language of poetry. To navigate all three languages is a tough job, but O'Grady does it well.

17 July 2009

Crystallizing mixed language in poetry?

Says Sarah Grey Thomson on p. 215 of Language Contact (2001):

"Some groups of Dutch teenagers – all of whom know at least some English – lard their Dutch sentences with English words, to such an extent that many sentences will have more English words than Dutch words. This is not a mixed language, or any language; it almost surely is not crystallized into a speech form with set rules of combination that must be learned, but is rather produced in an ad-hoc way, sentence by sentence and speaker by speaker, without any consistency in the choice of particular English inserts. ... The fact that the teenagers can do this deliberately, for reasons of fashion, provides further evidence that speakers can combine the lexicon of one language with the grammar of another whenever they wish to. All they need is a motive; and all that’s needed to produce a fully crystallized bilingual mixed language by this means is a strong motive that is shared by a group of people. "

Two thoughts arise related to poetry: first, since poetry is an artificial language in the sense that it does not naturally spring from normal conversations, perhaps we can formulate a set of rules that will govern or explain the use of words in another language in a poem; second, since there is a group of people that read and write poetry (the poetry community or the poetry-competent community), perhaps we can produce the fully crystallized "language" of poetry.

16 July 2009

The South African scene

Kagablog reports about what is happening in South African poetry:

"sometimes poets write mainly in english and bring in either jazz\ blues\soul aspects, or rasta-speak, ragga rhythms or dub beats, or slam poetry and hip hop beats, or ghetto lingo and kwaito sounds, or traditional african oral, or all of these influences. though some poets choose to specialize in one of the genres and are quite comfortable with being classified as ‘page’ poet or ‘performance poet’, spoken word artist, ‘slam poet’ oral poet, ‘praise -poet’, etc many poets including those who are referred in the media by some of these labels choose not to confine themselves to any template or label. therefore you find a significant number of poets who write for both the page and the stage and who also have collection of poems that are a mixture of poems written in english, and poems written in hybrid language, rasta-speak and hip hop register, african languages, iscamtho\tsotsi-taal and a mix of these."

The field is wide open for readers not just of multilingual poetry but of multigenre poetry.

15 July 2009

E. E. Cummings

We know that E. E. Cummings grew up studying Latin and Greek (all the way to a graduate degree from Harvard). We know that he used Latin for the title of his longest poem ("Puella Mea"), a poem that we could consider juvenile because of its parodies, but it is, after all, by Cummings, whose juvenilia is a lesser poet's mature work. Have we investigated how his poetry in English is informed by Latin?

Here are two lines from "Puella Mea":

If she a little turn her head
I know that I am wholly dead:

Does the structure strike you as Latin? Unlike English, Latin syntax depends on the words themselves and not the arrangement of words. Hence "she a little."

How about these lines from a "mature" work?

she being Brand

-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her

The absolute ablative ("she being Brand / -new") is clearly derived from Latin and not quite "standard" English (even allowing for the fact that English in general is derived from Latin).

Multilingual literary criticism can open up new avenues of understanding even in the case of clearly monolingual poetry.

14 July 2009

Global literature

Adam Donaldson Powell writes:

"Many authors throughout history have played with using different languages in dialogues within the same work; and bilingual and multilingual adaptations in all possible forms is as popular today as ever before (especially in the international haiku network). However, the intent to use this literary form to reflect a modern globalized and mixed up cultural and linguistic world is a fairly new concept. We are moving from national literature in translation to multicultural/multilingual literature and 'global literature.' ... It is my hope that more 'global literature' will be written and published in the near future - including the employment of international cyberpunk and international urban dialects as language forms. Language is changing daily, and authors need to keep up ... and stay ahead artistically. This is just the beginning of a whole new world of literature."

I share Powell's hope that more writers will join the growing contemporary multilingual literary community. Globalization is a dirty word for some intellectuals, but like it or not, we have been globalized not only by McDonalds but by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and other excellent writers that are read by everybody, not just their linguistic community). To be deliberate in being globalized is merely to be honest. What we need now (and I keep saying it, I know) is a parallel community of literary critics that will help us read globalized writers.

13 July 2009

Read non-European languages

Steven G. Kellman, clearly the leading scholar in the field that this blog focuses on, writes that "Translingual transactions have occurred frequently throughout literary history, and they are wonderfully instructive to anyone interested in literature, language, and the connections between the two. Yet, though studies of individual translingual authors and of bilingualism in society abound, it is astonishing that almost nothing has been written about the general phenomenon of literary translingualism. Useful exceptions include Leonard Forster’s The Poet’s Tongues, Jane Miller’s essay “Writing in a Second Language,” and Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues. ... However, much still remains to be learned about other languages, other groups, and other countries beyond the United States." (p. xi of The Translingual Imagination)

I salute Kellman's dedication to our shared mission of foregrounding the second-language issue in the reading of monolingual texts, but I should point out to him the need not just for him but for other American scholars to read books published outside the USA and in languages other than European ones. There has been, for a long time now, in books and articles written in Filipino, for example, a lively discussion about non-mother-tongue literature. One of the items in my bucket list is to formulate a theory out of the varied, sometimes disparate attempts to read literary texts from the point of view of two or more languages.

12 July 2009

Ha Jin

Steven G. Kellman once asked Ha Jin, “In your fiction, do you consciously try to create an English style that simulates the Chinese spoken by your characters?”

Ha Jin answered, "Yes. I want to make the language sound authentic and purposely avoid standard English. Also, this is an opportunity to see how much English can absorb the distortion. In this respect, English is pliantly robust."

The role of the multilingual critic is to answer the question: Does the English [of Ha Jin and other similarly-situated writers] simulate the Chinese? To answer this question, the critic has to be fairly competent in both English and Chinese. That, needless to say, is extremely difficult, though not impossible: it is hard enough being competent in one of these complex languages. Perhaps this is the reason we don't really get literary criticism that addresses this question.

11 July 2009

Saving languages

Jules Feller said it succintly in Notes de philologie wallone (1912): "Political necessity, material interest, constraint, and the moral superiority of the conqueror and his [sic] language can create within a single century the troubling phenomenon of a tongue being entirely forgotten by its nation. The first generation does its best to gabble the idiom of the foreign invaders. The second generation, if it be to its advantage, already knows the new language better than the old. The third generation for all practical purposes knows and employs only the new."

Writers have the ability, nay the duty, to keep alive the old language by deliberately using it in literary texts. Everything else may disappear within a century, but literary texts (if they are well-written) do not. As William Shakespeare said of words and poems:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Multilingual writers are heroes not only in the realm of literature, but in the realms of language, culture, national identity, and even humanity itself.

10 July 2009

Theater of the Absurd

I did my MA in Literature thesis on the Theater of the Absurd and many of my early plays were clearly heavily influenced by the Absurdists, particularly Eugène Ionesco. This partly explains why, very early in life, I became fascinated by multilingual writing. As Steven G. Kellman, on p. 7 of his The Translingual Imagination, writes, "It seems no mere coincidence that leading figures in the Theater of the Absurd, drama that foregrounds language and subverts communication, were translingual or from multilingual backgrounds – Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Fernando Arrabal, Eugène Ionesco, and Michel de Ghelderode." Kellman gives the Absurdists as examples of "authors who, sometimes even without relocating, have excelled in a second, third, or even fourth language."

Of course, there is a paradox in the phenomenon of writers not believing in language using several languages anyway, but that inherent self-contradiction of the Absurdist movement in theater (which most likely led to its death after so brief a hold on theatrical fashion) does not negate the need for critics to read multilingually the apparently monolingual works of these playwrights. Even with such a blatantly multilingual word like Godot in Waiting for Godot and En attendant Godot, critics appear hesitant to read both French and English texts simultaneously, to see how the two languages interact with each other in both versions.

09 July 2009

Gustavo Pérez Firmat

In his introduction to his book Tongue Ties (2003), Gustavo Pérez Firmat writes: "Even in writers who write in only one language, the other language (be it their ‘second’ or their ‘first’) exerts a determining if often tacit pressure. This type of writing incorporates a ‘latent bilingualism,’ to use Claudio Guillén’s phrase, that manifests itself in deeper, often more disturbing ways than code-switching or interlingual play. In several chapters of the book, my effort will be to read bilingually in seemingly monolingual contexts, to examine how the absent or lost language shapes the writer’s transactions with his vehicular tongue." (p. 8)

This is the kind of reading that I wish more literary critics would do. Pérez Firmat has some debatable ideas about what mother tongues are like, but his method is clearly important. Because many (if not most) writers today do not know only one language, it is increasingly important to develop a literary method of analysis, if not a literary theory, that will allow us to explore the multilinguistic dimensions of a literary text.

08 July 2009

True bilinguals

Many linguists doubt if there is such a thing as a "true bilingual," defined as a native speaker of two languages. Sarah Shin explains why the doubt exists: "There are many myths surrounding bilingualism that are particularly damaging to HL [Heritage Language] development. One such myth is that a bilingual is two monolinguals in one person. It is often assumed that ‘true bilinguals’ are those who are equally fluent in their two languages, with competence in both languages comparable to those of monolinguals of those languages. In reality, however, bilinguals will rarely have balanced proficiency in their two languages. Terms such as ‘full bilingual’ and ‘balanced bilingual’ represent idealized concepts that do not characterize the great majority of the world’s bilinguals. Rarely will any bilingual be equally proficient in speaking, listening, reading or writing both languages across all different situations and domains." ("The Role of Parents' Knowledge about Bilingualism in the Transmission of Heritage Languages," 2003).

The non-linguist Thomas Jefferson's remark that "No instance exists of a person’s writing two languages perfectly" simply points to the prevalence of this myth.

For a literary critic, the question of true bilingualism (or true multilingualism) is irrelevant. A writer does not have to know how to speak or listen to a language to write it, or more precisely, to use words or sentences from it. What the writer has to know, however, are the sounds of the words (idealized sounds, not necessarily the sounds that native speakers make, since native speakers have dialects or idiolects like everybody else in any language), especially when writing poetry. Literary critics, then, do not have to get entangled in the debates about true bilingualism. Writers can be multilingual without being "true bilinguals" or "true multilinguals" in the linguistic sense. (Linguists do not even talk about "true multilinguals.")

07 July 2009

The question of audiences

"Who writes for whom, in what genres, and which languages? How do writers translate ‘native cultures’ for their varied audiences – whether domestic or global? How and why do writers claim specific readers? How do authors’ locational history and language choices affect their audience, their popularity with non-native reading groups, and ultimately, their inclusion in academic literary canons?" asks Lavina Dhingra Shankar in “Not Too Spicy: Exotic Mistresses of Cultural Translation in the Fiction of Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri” (Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India, edited by Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare, 2009, pp. 24-25).

These questions are crucial to any study of multilingual literary texts. Who, for example, is the audience of Jessica Hagedorn's bestselling novel Dogeaters (1990), which has Filipino words and sentences liberally included in the English prose? (The bilinguality of the novel led John Updike to wish that he knew Filipino.) That so many bought and read this novel that did not know Filipino means that the novel can still be understood without knowing Filipino. Yet even the name of one of the key characters (Pucha) can be fully appreciated only with a knowledge of Filipino (it's a curse).

It is not only the text that the multilingual critic has to worry about; s/he has to explore also the question of audiences.

06 July 2009

Idiotic geniuses

Being a genius does not exempt one from being an idiot. Take the case of William Butler Yeats, undoubtedly a genius in the field of writing. It was Yeats who said the following idiotic statements:

“Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.”

"We should write out our thoughts in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend."

As Steven G. Kellman has demonstrated again and again in his books and anthologies, there are literally hundreds (perhaps thousands) of writers that were born into one language, think in one language, and write in another (or another or another). It is not just Rabindranath Tagore (Yeats was talking about him) that proves the falsity of the claim, but so many others in so many countries. Of course, one does not have to go the other extreme, represented by Salman Rushdie, who thinks that one cannot write in the language one was born into (Rushie, another literary genius, holds the idiotic opinion that Indians should write only in English).

05 July 2009

Andre Brink

In his essay "English and the Afrikaans Writer" (1983), Andre Brink compares Afrikaans with English (two languages he has written in): "It is remarkable, for example, what difference there exists between the ‘loads’ of emotional content the two languages can carry. Afrikaans, like French, appears to offer a much higher resistance to overstatement; it is much more at ease with superlatives and emotions. In English the threshold of overstatement is reached much more easily; ‘valid’ emotionalism in Afrikaans soon becomes unbearable in English. And this is but one, obvious, illustration of how one is forced to ‘refeel’ a novel in a new medium."

Although Brink's essay has elicited rather vehement negative reactions (see, for example, "The White South African Writer in Our National Situation" [1988] by Ntongela Masilela), it has nevertheless called attention to the importance of the medium to the literary quality of the work. It cannot be said that a novel works equally well in any language. Translators know this both instinctively and professionally. Writers know this through experience. But literary critics appear to be language-blind in this respect. There are certain things one cannot say in one language but can say very well in another language, in terms of literariness.

04 July 2009

Henry Roth

In Switching Languages, Steven G. Kellman writes: "For his masterpiece of immigration fiction, Call It Sleep (1934), Henry Roth, whose first language was Yiddish, managed to create English prose supple enough to carry echoes of Yiddish, Polish, German, and Italian. Switching tongues is the natural way to negotiate a motley universe." (p. xvi)

To foreground or make explicit those "echoes" is the main task of a multilingual literary critic. We can see from Kellman's example how difficult the task is: a critic of Roth's novel would have to know English, Yiddish, Polish, German, and Italian. Critics might find that too demanding, but Roth clearly did not.

Multilingual authors have the right to demand that their critics know as much as, if not more than, they know.

03 July 2009

Writing in a second language is unsettling

In his preface to his definitive anthology of multilingual writers, Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (2003), Steven G. Kellman (the acknowledged authority on translingual literature) writes: "As much as flesh and blood, we are composed of and by words. If Homo sapiens is a species defined by language, then switching the language entails transforming the self. While it can be liberating, discarding one’s native tongue is also profoundly unsettling; it means constructing a new identity syllable by syllable." (p. xiv)

This is a great insight! Multilingual literature (I hesitate to call it "translingual" because that term appears to exclude the mixed-language texts that are becoming more common nowadays and also appears to prioritize authors that try to write in the second language on the same terms as "native speakers" of that language) challenges not just the literary community in general but, more importantly, the writers themselves. Multilingual literature is not just a literary exercise nor a literary phenomenon; it is a matter of life and death for writers, since writing is life or death for writers.

02 July 2009

Language of poetry

Giulio C. Lepschy ends his lecture on "Mother Tongues and Literary Languages" with a brief discussion about what he calls "the language of poetry": "I am not convinced that an Italian native speaker is better qualified than an English Dantist to understand The Divine Comedy or that a native speaker of English is better suited than an Italian Shakespeare scholar to understand Hamlet. The real difficulty seems to lie not in the native language nor in the control we have of the idiom we use for everyday communication (be it a first or a second language) but rather in the nature of poetry. Here, we are touching something that concerns an essential quality of language, but in a sense that escapes the technical tools we employ as linguists. From this viewpoint no one is a native speaker of the language of poetry." (p. 27)

Here is the point where literary critics can start where linguists stop. First of all, there is no question that one does not have to be a native speaker of the natural language/s of a poem in order to read or analyze it, because that would lead to a situation were only Italians can read Dante or the British (or other native English speakers) can read Shakespeare. (Professional literary critics do not read Dante or Shakespeare in translation.)

What is a problem here is the question of the existence of a language of poetry. Those that believe in literary competence clearly also believe in the existence of such a language: the whole point of a literary education is to learn the language of literature. There are those that say, however, that poetry is for everyone, educated or not, literarily competent or not: poetry, after all, antedated literary criticism or even literary education. Nobody today wants to return to the days of Literature (with the capital L) and literature (not capitalized); nobody wants to talk about High Culture and Low Culture. There is an undeniable difference, however, between Dante or Shakespeare and the writers of poems printed on greeting cards or included in blogs. Are we talking about two different languages of poetry, or are these dialects or varieties of the same language? Intriguing question.

01 July 2009

Growing interest in second-language literature

Giulio C. Lepschy, in the book I cited yesterday, says, "In recent years people have looked with growing interest at writers who use in their works ‘another’ language, different from their mother tongue."

One of the best bodies of work to study as far as non-mother tongue literature is concerned is Philippine literature in English. English is not the mother tongue of any of the writers in the Philippines, including those that have gained international recognition or emigrated to other countries. Despite having more than a hundred natural languages and over a dozen living literary vernacular languages, the Philippines has produced quite a number of novels, poems, and plays in the language of one of its former colonizers (the United States of America). The variety of English known as Philippine English has even received quite a bit of attention from linguists around the world. Yet there is little literary criticism done on Philippine texts written in English that takes into account the relationship of English to the mother tongue. This is a field wide open for students looking for graduate theses or even for young PhDs looking for a niche in the academic marketplace.