29 October 2009

Multilingual poem by Albert B. Casuga

There are all kinds of variations to the saying that "we use German (or English) to talk to dogs, Italian to talk to lovers, French to talk to cooks (or soldiers), and Spanish to talk to God." For example, some old folks in the Philippines say that we use Tagalog to talk to maids, English to talk to foreigners, and Spanish to talk to God. While sayings of that sort today sound racist, they do point to a genuine theological problem: what language does God use to think (assuming that divine beings think in the way we understand the word)? The answer, of course, is that God thinks in all languages. The best way to reach God then is to write in as many languages as you know at the same time.

Albert B. Casuga's most recent poem, "Basura Days," takes the theme of Christianity as T. S. Eliot understood it and applies it to today's most universal phenomenon, namely, garbage (trash, junk, shit, or whatever you want to call it) and builds a modern parable taking off from the Biblical insight that whatever we do to the least of God's creations (animate or inanimate), we do to God.

Here's a taste:

Prophylactics and sanitary napkins, masticated fries vomited
With the arrant fish bones, newsprint-wrapped pet faeces,
Faded pictures of grandmere leering at grandpere glancing
At some tightly dungareed wench flaunting palpable haunches
Sans underpants that was last millennium’s acceptance of taste
If not coyness or even breeding in vaulted manors of delicadeza ---
Are picked up by the City Dump Meister on an antiseptic mission
To rid these fallen-leaves-strewn paseos of accidental memories,
Recuerdos de faltas pasadas, putrid waste of body functions
And memento mori gone past their memorial usefulness.

For more, turn to Casuga's blog.

27 October 2009


Multilingual literary criticism (or Wikcrit, as I prefer to call it) will never fall into the trap I have called elsewhere as "tempocentrism" or the tendency not to look beyond our century's nose. The reason is simple: multilingual writing has been with us for centuries, macaronic verse being the most obvious example. A less literary example that is very popular is the multilingual (probably better put in quotes?) work of Michel de Nostredame (better known as Nostradamus), believed by some (though not by me) to have foretold all events since then and in the future. See a book on this or read a literal translation of his Les Propheties. It's a good respite from serious literary reading.

24 October 2009

Multilinguality in a coming conference

"Professor Nargis Virani will present at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Melbourne, Australia, on December 5, 2009

"Prof Nargis Virani is Assistant Professor of Arabic at The New School, University Liberal Studies. She received her MA in 1991 and her PhD in 1999 in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Harvard University, and also holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Education from London University and a Bachelor of Commerce from Bombay University. During the course of her Arabic Studies she studied at many prestigious institutions in the Muslim world such as the University of Jordan in Amman, the Bourguiba Institute in Tunis, and al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. At al-Azhar she studied the Qur’an with the Shaykh of al-Azhar and holds a shahadah (certificate) and an ijazah (permission to teach the Qur’an). Her areas of specialization are Arabic Language and Literature, Persian Language and Literature, Islamic Intellectual Thought, and Sufism. Her doctoral dissertation entitled ‘I am the Nightingale of the Merciful Macaronic or Upside Down?’ analyzed the Mulamma’at, the mixed-language poems, in Rumi’s Diwan. In this work she proposes that ’speaking in many tongues’ be looked at as a brilliant linguistic strategy employed by the mystic to fashion an imaginative form of apophatic discourse. She is currently converting her dissertation into a book which will also include a translation into English of all of Rumi’s multilingual verses in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Greek, and Armenian. Dr Virani’s second book project is tentatively entitled, ‘Qur’an in Muslim Literary Memory’. She hopes to analyze the use of the Qur’an by a variety of ‘litterateurs’ from secular, religious, and mystical backgrounds."

Had I but world enough and time and money, I would be there.

23 October 2009

Ahdaf Soueif's "new English"

Mohammed Albakry and Patsy Hunter Hancock's "Code Switching in Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love" (2008) ends with this paragraph:

"In the tradition of prominent postcolonial writers (e.g. Chinua Achebe,Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Raja Rao, to name a few), Soueif seems to push the frontiers of the English language so as to express and simulate the multicultural experience of her characters. She uses code switching, particularly lexical borrowing and transferring from Arabic, as a way of finding a ‘new English’, a language between two languages. This mixed new English seeks to encompass both her new home and ancestral home in order to enable her to participate in both worlds. The hybrid English, then, could become a means by which bilingual writers are able to preserve their cultural identity and capture its flavor while at the same time writing about it in the dominant language."

This description could apply to most multilingual writers, except obviously to those that do not live in two cultures but only in two (or more) languages (such as those that do not leave their land of birth but nevertheless use more than their mother tongue). Similar linguistically-heavy work could and should be done on writers forced by colonization or other historical circumstance to live in two language worlds without necessarily wanting to "participate" in another geographical or national world. For example, I do not think Nick Joaquin seriously wanted to live in Spain and from his writings clearly had nothing but disdain for the USA, yet his being born into the Spanish language and growing up in Tagalog but writing in English surely cannot be explained away by a desire to participate in two or more worlds. Linguists have much to learn from literary critics.

20 October 2009


It will be safe and convenient for us to adopt the definitions put forward by K. Alfons Knauth in his "Literary Multilingualism: General Outlines and the Western World" (2007), remembering, however, that he is dealing primarily with the better-known languages and presumably admits ignorance about languages with fewer literary works (such as the Bicol-Tagalog-English works of Abdon M. Balde Jr., this year's South East Asia Writers or S.E.A. WRITE Awardee from the Philippines). Knauth has extended definitions and examples of such sub-genres of multilingual literature as intertextual multilingualism, intratextual multilingualism, macaronic mixtilingualism, Occidental and Oriental multilingualism, courtly multilingualism, pentecostal multilingualism, modern diglossia, national and international multilingualism, simultaneism, globoglossia, primitivist multilingualism, futurist multilingualism, panlingualism, onomatopoetics, fascist multilingualism, postwar internationalism, poetic holography and zerography, fictional holography and zerography, conflictive multilingualism, and mass-medial multilingualism. I am not too comfortable with having so many sub-genres, particularly at this time when multilingualism itself has not entered mainstream or general literary theory and criticism, but the passion of Knauth more than makes up for his eagerness to rush ahead.

18 October 2009

Hong Kong's language mix

I'm in Hong Kong, and I can't help but remember the article by Ho Judy Wong Yee in the Australian Review of Applied Linguistics (2008), which had this abstract:

"China resumed its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. Since then drastic changes in this former British colony have occurred. One of these changes is a shift in language policy, from bilingualism (Cantonese and English) to trilingualism (Cantonese, English and Putonghua). The present study is aimed at investigating tertiary students' use of Cantonese, English and Putonghua on a daily basis, analysing the roles and functions of each language and discussing how these may impact on language policy and language education. Research instruments included 52 students' language diaries and written analyses, 51 hours of audio-recordings of verbal exchanges, and focus group semi-structured interviews. Results show that the students' speech repertoire mainly consists of two languages: Cantonese and English and their various mixes. Cantonese is used to ensure understanding, consolidate solidarity and maintain social cohesion. The English-Cantonese mix has become a more powerful identity marker for educated people in Hong Kong than pure Cantonese. English and its supplement with Cantonese are often used in the domain of education. The majority of students seldom use Putonghua in everyday life, but there is a strong instrumental motivation to learn it. Measures are suggested to facilitate a more successful move from bilingualism to trilingualism."

The article confirms what the late linguist Andrew Gonzalez FSC kept saying, despite his having been instrumental in institutionalizing bilingualism in the educational system of the Philippines: "You cannot legislate language."

The other evening, I had dinner with friends who exemplify the multilingual character of Hong Kong society. One was born in Brazil, grew up speaking Chinese and Portuguese (Brazilian), and now speaks the English that she first learned in school. Another was born in the Philippines, grew up speaking Spanish at home, learned Filipino from her playmates, learned French when she lived in France and English when she lived in the US, and now speaks mainly English in Hong Kong.

If most readers are multilingual, why are writers still writing for imagined monolingual audiences? Is the idea of writing a text only in one language a product of language legislation? Is there an unwritten law that we should write a text only in one language? Just as we cannot legislate or limit language, we cannot and should not limit writers to writing in only one language while their readers speak in more than one language.

15 October 2009


Here's an excerpt from "From language mixing to mixed language via purism? Spanish in contact with Zapotec (Oaxaca/Mexico)" by Martina Schrader-Kniffki (2008):

"The present study analyses aspects of the intense long-term contact between Spanish and Zapotec in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. After a short characterization of Zapotec and its language contact situation, which has developed since the colonial period, this article will systematically describe the consequences of this contact for Zapotec within a continuum of gradually differentiable contact varieties. Puristic attitudes of particular speaker groups who intend to reverse these consequences is a further aspect of this study. Puristic attitudes towards the Zapotec language are closely connected with the efforts of its standardization and manifest themselves in the lexicon of the incipient intents to introduce a written Zapotec variety. Inconsistent with this purism, the search for a standardization of this hitherto oral language is unfolding with an almost exclusive orientation towards Spanish as a well established written language. This orientation leads to a discontinuous contact variety of Zapotec." (p. 49)

All over the world, "purism" is the real enemy of multilingual writing. Instead of mirroring the "language really used by men" [and women], as William Wordsworth put it famously (excuse his sexist language), writers feel obligated to write in "well established written languages." Writers who give in to the demands of purist critics are betraying their craft, because they would rather be praised by prescriptive linguists or monolingual critics than by the vast masses of readers, who speak and would love to read in their natural mixed languages.

13 October 2009

Bias against multilingual literature

The Review of English Studies (2000), in its review of David Wallace’s The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (1999), talks about the bias literary historians have against multilingual literature:

"Yet the new Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, for all its anxiety to be inclusive – of the various languages and literatures of the British Isles, of ‘literature’ as most broadly defined, and of its institutional as well as its authorial production – begins (at least as far as England is concerned) at 1066. Why should this be so? And what will be the effect of this implicit but seemingly authoritative pronouncement about what counts as ‘medieval’ within the English literary tradition? If Old English and Anglo-Latin literature are not part of ‘medieval English literature’, then what are they part of? Or are they – as the Cambridge History seems to wish – to be consigned to oblivion?"

The review adds: "One of the enduring lessons of literary theory of whatever school is that critical positions are necessarily particular, and cannot be hidden or half-hidden behind a fa├žade of apparently stable authority or an implicit claim to some measure of enduring validity which might have the commercial advantage of guaranteeing ‘shelf-life.’"

Because multilingual literary works are rarely included in textbooks, literary anthologies, and even literary histories, they are "consigned to oblivion" unless a significant number of writers and critics take up the cudgels for them. Studies of the canon of literature in various countries invariably show that the majority rules, and as Henry David Thoreau so aptly put it, the majority are always wrong. (What he actually wrote was this: "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?" But we can change government to literary history and conscience to taste.)

12 October 2009

One or four poems?

When a writer writes what should be the same poem in four different languages, are the products to be considered as only one poem translated three times (plus the original) or should they be considered four different poems? Translation theory tells us that they are four different poems, since each one is read within the context of different cultures. One of our followers gives us an insight into the making of the four poems, at the same time illuminating an issue lying at the heart of this blog, i.e., whether a language restricts or expands the possibilities of writing. Here is the relevant excerpt from the blog of Albert B. Casuga:

"The primary and necessarily the most ordinary medium of poetic expression, of course, is the poem’s sound/verbal system. The more melodious and sensible the verbal equipment of the language used, the sharper its edge in translating a thought into a palpable/real plane of experience.

"In this exercise, self-translation provided this writer with a limbering up that revealed intriguing discoveries. I found the Spanish version to have the most significant verbal devices that helped objectify/subjectify the putative lament ruing abandonment. I felt the lament’s tug more profoundly in the Ilocano version. I consider the English version a tad uninspired."

I wonder what would happen if the writer - as many other writers are now doing - mixes the four languages in the same poem. Will the pluses and minuses of each language neutralize each other, or will the whole become larger than its parts?

11 October 2009

Down to the Bone

Thought I'd share this notice in Publisher's Weekly about Mayra Lazara Dole's debut novel Down to the Bone (2008):

"Laura Amores is a tortillera - slang for 'lesbian' in Miami's Cuban-American social scene, and a term either of endearment or a slur, depending on who is using it. But once Laura's secret is out, a tortillera is all Laura seems to be - to her mother, the nuns at her Catholic school and even some friends. Laura is thrown out of school and even from her house: 'I'm sorry, Laura, but I can't continue loving you if you stay gay,' Mami says as she literally pushes her daughter out the door. Luckily, Laura meets 'bois' who introduce her to Miami's Cuban gay scene, and her best friend shares her home and family, unconditionally. Laura remains reluctant to accept her gay identity, however, and her exploration of possible relationships - with a boi, a 'delicious' young woman and a boy she dates in hope of restoring herself to her mother's good graces - form the main arc of this honest, intense and at times moving romance. Using Spanish colloquialisms and slang, this debut author pulls off the tricky task of dialect in a manner that feels authentic. As Dole tackles a tough and important topic, her protagonist will win over a range of teen audiences, gay and straight. Ages 14-up."

It's hard to find driven authors nowadays that are not grim and determined. Fortunately for us, those that follow this blog (including Dole) share the unusual human trait so aptly described by Rafael Sabatini in the novel and film Scaramouche: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." Life is too serious to be taken seriously.

09 October 2009

Words are sticks and stones

The commonsense saying that sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never harm you is not at all true. Words are just as harmful as sticks and stones, and writers - being stewards of language - know that best. Even in the non-literary world, words are deadly.

Take the way most Italians today use the word "Filippina" (the feminine form of the word "Filipino," referring to someone born in the Philippines). According to TIME Magazine, the word "Filippina" to Italians means "cleaning woman." Some years back, Filipinos raised a howl when the Oxford English Dictionary defined "Filipina" as "nanny" and a Greek Dictionary defined "Filipineza" as "maid." Today, there are unconfirmed reports (probably and hopefully untrue) that some South Korean tourists in Manila refer to Filipinos (not just Filipinas) as "monkeys." A hundred years ago, American soldiers invading the Philippines loudly called Filipinos "monkeys with no tails."

Italians, British, Greeks, Koreans, and Americans may think the words harmless, but Filipinos take these words to heart, as indeed they should be taken. This is why words are important, whether in real life or even more especially in literary works, where words are forever.

08 October 2009

Language and imperialism

Those that insist that second-language writers write in exactly the same way as mother-tongue writers are, to use the jargon of literary theory, complicit in hegemony (translated into a bit more lay English, this means "subconsciously continuing colonial or class domination"). Literature in Africa, according to some, deliberately indigenizes European languages in order to decolonize or recolonize their former colonizers. (As Filipino poet Gemino H. Abad likes to put it when he talks about Filipinos writing in English, Filipinos have "colonized the English language.") Here, for example, is an observation by Peter W. Vakunta: "Linguistic creolization exists in virtually every country on the African continent. Everywhere, people of all ages are trying to jettison the yoke of cultural imperialism by indigenizing European languages in an attempt to better convey their thought patterns, imagination and lived experiences." In other words, when a writer consciously exploits her/his mother tongue while writing in a second or foreign language, political and not just aesthetic issues enter the picture.

05 October 2009

Kenyan novels in English

In European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa (1986), the idea is suggested but unfortunately not elaborated that language might be a key to the popularity of Kenyan novels in English in the 1970s. Writes Elisabeth Knight: “This popular literature managed to create its own distinctive idiom, colloquial, confident, resembling the journalese of Drum and its sister magazine Trust. The style is usually converstational and intimate. Dialogue plays an important part; as in Mangua’s Son of Woman, it is frequently an amalgam of predominantly American with some British slang and a number of archaisms. The language and register are often uneven, with a tendency to sentimentality and melodrama.” (p. 911)

I have not kept up with scholarship on Kenyan writing in English, but it would seem to me that we should move from readings based mainly on character, plot, and theme and move into the more specialized but probably more fruitful area of language use.

There are clearly more things to say of fiction than these statements (valid though they may be) that Knight makes of those popular novels:

"Characters tend to be stereotypes."

"While plot (generally of the multiple climax variety) is as a rule more important than character, traditional communal values are usually rejected if mentioned at all."

"Few of these novels are really pornographic. Many are curiously moral."

"While the heroes are bent on asserting their manhood, the heroines are happily not passive, submissive creatures despite some vestiges of a Western-style romantic literature of the woman’s magazine type."

"Though these writers are Kenyan they are, in the main, agents of a kind of cultural imperialism."

New Criticism, moral criticism, feminist criticism, and postcolonial criticism may be useful in general, but we still need to do the more tedious but necessary linguistic analysis, if we are to appreciate fully the efforts put in by writers.

03 October 2009

Cycle, wheel, or pendulum

It's almost a truism to say that history repeats itself, or that the world moves in cycles. It looks that way with languages in literature. I was reading just the first paragraph of "Trilingualism in Early Middle English Miscellanies: Languages and Literature" by John Scahill (2003) when I was struck by his observation that "miscellanies containing English were trilingual until the end of this period, when the appearance of the nearly monolingual Auchinleck manuscript marks the appearance of a public whose literacy is essentially confined to English." From being multilingual, England became monolingual. Today, from being monolingual, England has fast become multilingual. Some may say it's because of immigration and globalization, but we in literature (being understandably inclined to give more importance to our field than perhaps is objectively justified) could say, at least to ourselves, that writers have a lot to do with it, with multilingual writers forcing readers to become multilingual.

01 October 2009

Giant step towards multilinguality

This is a news item from Google:

Google gadget lets websites go multilingual

Agence France-Presse
First Posted 09:34:00 10/01/2009

"SAN FRANCISCO – Google on Wednesday released free software that lets website operators automatically translate online pages into any of 51 languages.

"A 'translator gadget' powered by Google Translate offers to transform pages for visitors if the language settings in their browsers are different from the language of a particular website, according to Google product manager Jeff Chin.

"'Automatic translation is convenient and helps people get a quick gist of the page,' Chin said in a blog post.

"'However, it's not a perfect substitute for the art of professional translation.'

"In August the Internet giant added automatic translation to Google Docs allowing users to translate documents into 42 languages.

"The 'Tools' menu on Google Docs now includes a 'Translate Document' feature which provides a list of the various languages offered, which run from Albanian to Icelandic to Vietnamese.

"The Mountain View, California-based company has already built automatic translation features into its popular email program Gmail and into services such as its blog reader."

Once most readers become multilingual, in the sense that they will no longer think that one language is more important than another and will be dissatisfied with reading in only one language, multilingual literature will gain in appeal and importance. Instead of being marginalized as it is now, it will become the mainstream, in a perfect example of what Raymond Williams described as the historical process of the emergent becoming a dominant form.

What a great gift from Google on International Translation Day!