03 January 2010

A reader on multilingual literature

How do ordinary readers react to a work with more than one language? Here's a comment submitted to Amazon.com on Paulette Poujol Oriol's Vale of Tears (2006): "The setting and way that that this story was told was perfect. Oriol's words are almost poetic and I loved the mix of French creole into the dialog. Although I was equally glad that for every foreign phrase there was an English translation. The mixed language sentences added realism to the story and helped it to flow along."

Realism or verisimilitude is indeed one thing going for using more than one language in a literary text. For many readers, that is probably enough. For readers that want to get at what the author is really trying to say, however, it is of course better if the second or third language is as comprehensible as the main language; translations are a way to help the monolingual reader. For readers that need guidance on everything going on in the text, however, the literary critic has to step in, for it is only the multilingual literary critic that can point to the deeper meanings brought about by the inclusion of other cultures through the other languages in the text. After all, it is not only the literal meanings of the "foreign" words that are important (all one needs in this case is a bilingual dictionary), but the allusions and traditions in the cultures associated with those words. Multilingual literary criticism is really multicultural literary criticism.

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