30 June 2010

Barbaric poetry

Here is a recent blog reaction to Leevi Lehto, calling him "radical":

"Finally, for a more radical suggestion I turn to the ideas of a Finnish poet, Leevi Lehto, a specialist (among others) in American experimental writing, who has devoted many essays to the issues of translation and the relation of international poetries. He observes that the most widely spoken language in the world today is 'English spoken as Second - or Nth - Language,' but that this language does not yet have its proper literature. Therefore he advocates the production of 'barbaric poetry': that as a Finn, for example, he might write original work in other languages - including, perhaps, languages he can not even read himself (and in fact Lehto has done so). Internationalism, then, is not to be achieved by everybody speaking the same language, but by everybody coming to the same uncontrollable pluriformity of languages from an uncontrollable pluriformity of linguistic positions. Radicalizing a poetics of misprision, language and nation would then no longer be fundamentally linked. Instead there would be a 'new kind of World Poetry not yet in existence,' a poetry that might involve 'independence vis-à-vis National Literatures, including institutionally [...]; mixing of languages; borrowing of structures – rhythmical, syntactical – from other languages; writing in one's non-native languages; inventing new, ad hoc languages; conscious attempts to write for more heterogeneous, non-predetermined audiences…' (quoted from his essay Plurifying the Languages of the Trite). Recent examples of similar approaches in Dutch literature might include Arjen Duinker's original work in other languages or Rozalie Hirs' multi-lingual text-and-electronic-sounds composition, Brug van Babel, based on quotes from poets in many different languages."

I disagree that the "new kind of World Poetry" is "not yet in existence."  As I search the Web, I find numerous multilingual texts (which I try to alert readers to through this blog), but more important, I am trying to push the idea that even apparently monolingual texts are actually multilingual.  Multilingual texts are only the most obvious examples of how languages interact with each other in literary texts.  Apparently monolingual texts require a lot more effort on the part of critics and readers to distinguish the separate languages used by the writers (consciously or, more usually, unconsciously).

28 June 2010

Brenda Cardenas

Brenda Cárdenas prefers the word "interlingual" to "multilingual" or "translingual":

"Listening to Brenda Cárdenas is, on its own, an exercise in crossing borders. She has adapted ideas from interdisciplinary arts into a philosophy for interlingual literature. It's very important to distinguish interlingual versus bilingual texts. The difference between bilingualism and interlingualism is the same as the difference between 'either' and 'both.' Bilingualism is using either of two languages in turn, but sticking to one discrete language or the other for an entire expression. Cárdenas, on the other hand, is an advocate of interlingualism, which is blending or mixing two languages in-line, within sentences, as they're used organically and naturally by people who speak both languages fluently. The American slang for this Spanish and English mix is called 'Spanglish.' And indeed, a lot of people in the United States speak a fluid blend of both tongues, both in Mexico and in the United States. It's a linguistic fact of life.

"Sometimes when languages blend, and stay mixed in certain ways, they create whole new ways for people to express themselves. Grammars change rules. Fresh words appear that carry tell-tale signs of their parent languages. Old words pick up new meanings. Artists often want to rush into these circumstances to take advantage of the fresh creative opportunities that a still-forming language permits. However, critics and historians often resist this situation, and insist that serious literature is written in well-defined languages such as English or Spanish, but not a blend of both. So there's always a battle among the people who describe language as-is, versus the people who prescribe language as it should be, when interlingualism is in effect.

"But even once such a blended language is established, it continues to carry much heritage and creativity. There is precedent for this in Europe. The Yiddish language was a blend of German, Hebrew, Slavic, and a smattering of other central European tongues. It was spoken by many Jewish immigrants who came to the USA in the 1890s through the 1910s. While it wasn't specific to any one European nation, it was once a common language among millions people from Europe in over a dozen different countries. Even today, the wit and storytelling in Yiddish is hard to beat, and its influence is still felt in American popular culture from Broadway to Hollywood.

"Today, the United States may be experiencing a similar language-morphing phenomenon right at home, within the borders. The ingredients have just arrived here: a mobile society drawn from several countries; a vital culture with diverse roots connecting back to common heritages, centuries ago; and enterprising merchants, scholars, laypeople, and writers interested in communicating with each other, with the 'old' country, and the greater community surrounding them. But this time the mix is between English and Spanish, and the mix is only beginning to get rolling. The delicious ironies, warm blends, and pointed contrasts of commingled languages are Brenda Cárdenas' incentive to keep crossing frontiers. Listen to her poetry, songs, and stories, and cross the frontiers of the Américas."

While the article is correct in what it wants to say, it is, of course, incomplete in that it is not only Spanglish that is used as a literary language in the United States.  A number of languages mix with English to create literary languages for many American multilingual authors.  Citing Yiddish is also not enough historical evidence of the vitality of interlingual texts (to use her word); English itself is interlingual, as all languages probably are.

26 June 2010

Not just language

When a writer takes a poetic form from another language without using words from that language, can the text be considered multilingual?  Not strictly, of course, because the other language apparently is absent from the text.  But if we take the broader view of linguistic mixing as not just appropriating words but also ideas and cultures, then yes.  A poetic form in a language arises from the distinctiveness of that language.  When a form is adopted or even adapted by a writer writing in another language, some of that "foreign" culture must necessarily also travel across languages and cultures to the writer's text.

Here is a description of what happens in Jarcha:

"One very distinctive form of the Hebrew poetry is the Jarcha. This poetic style is an example of the development of Arabic poetry, mixed with Jewish themes, to create a new poetry. The Jarcha is a lyrical poem that repeats the final verses of an Arabic structure. Yosef the writer's Jarcha, dated 1042, is considered not only the oldest text of Romance Spanish, (The Poema de Mio Cid is dated 1140), but the oldest lyrical text of any European Romance language. Consequently it becomes evident that Sephardic poetry is very important for all of Romance literature, as well as for its own culture. Below is a translated quartet from a Jarcha, which tells the Biblical story of Joseph:

'Joseph always feared the mighty Lord of Hosts
And was with his brothers a shepherd of the flocks.
At that time it was that he sinned one of the sins,
Causing them to quarrel with their father over Joseph.'

"Some poets wrote with a Muslim structure, while writing in Hebrew. Other poets, like Ibn Gabirol, wrote in many forms, with different rhymes and rhythms. The Sephardim remained faithful to their Biblical education and often used images and stanzas from the Torah. Much of their poetry was direct quotation from the Bible, which they adapted into original formats. You can see this format in the above example of the Poem of Joseph, which is a fine example of the mixing of Spanish and Jewish styles."

Writers from one country routinely borrow or adapt poetic forms from another country.  The effect of the other country's culture (not just the forms nor the language) on the literature of the receiving country is another open area for research among younger critics looking for a dissertation topic.

24 June 2010

Alurista's "birth"

Here is an analysis of a poem by Alberto Baltazar Urista Heredia (Alurista), the Chicano poet laureate:

"The poem 'birth,' from 1981's Spik in Glyph?, is exemplary of the dual work borders perform in Alurista's poetry as tools of separation and unification. In 'birth' the mixing of Spanish and English in bilingual lines suggests that the division between the two languages is arbitrary, yet new meanings derive from their mixing; this renders their separateness a significant aspect of their ability to make meaning together, a paradox of language that is also a paradox of the nation. 

"The poem turns on several puns, ending with the lines, 'yang pango te su / taxa? / lice'l chinito / yo ya pange,' emphasizing the homophonic relation between 'pain' and 'paying': 

                think u nut good kill er off payn? pain pay in? tax es paying paying yang pang 'yang pango t4 su taxa?' lice'l chinito 'yo ya pange.' (Spik 18) 

"A Chinese man speaks the last line of the poem ('chinito'), saying, 'yo ya pange.' At first glance we might read this as an acknowledgment of having paid taxes and therefore being complicit with the actions of the state. We can also read this as an expression of the oppressed: 'I do not need to pay taxes, I have already paid quite enough with my body and soul.' Either way, it is significant that an ethnicity is specified for the speaker in a poem that has resisted ethnic specificity. One could argue, however, that the apparent specificity is actually a gesture towards non-specificity. The word is not capitalized, and 'chinito' is also a way to refer to Mexicans who appear more indigenous than others. The concluding pun functions as a gesture of the dispossessed paying and in pain, then, and is also a gesture towards non-specificity and the transnational connections between the dispossessed."

This is the sort of thing a multilingual literary critic can do to help readers get into a multilingual poem.  In this poem, the use of two languages is clearly functional.  If the poem were written in one language (the effect would be obvious in a monolingual translation into a language other than English or Spanish), the sound play would disappear, and the corresponding equation of meanings based on sound would no longer be there.  The pun on chinito to mean both a Chinese person and a Mexican person would also be lost.  (The theoretical question, which we need to answer eventually, is whether a multilingual poem can actually be translated.)

22 June 2010

Turkish as example

The history of the Turkish language highlights one of the problems faced by multilingual literary critics.  Like it or not, we have to take into account the politics of the place where the language is spoken.  Turkish, for example, used not to have too many foreign words, but when Islam came to the place, Persian and Arabic words entered the Turkish vocabulary.  According to the Turkish Cultural Foundation:

"In the field of literature, a great passion for creating art work of high quality persuaded the ruling elite to attribute higher value to literary works containing a high proportion of Arabic and Persian vocabulary, which resulted in the domination of foreign elements over Turkish. This development was at its extreme in the literary works originating in the Ottoman court. This trend of royal literature eventually had its impact on folk literature, and folk poets also used numerous foreign words and phrases. The extensive use of Arabic and Persian in science and literature not only influenced the spoken language in the palace and its surroundings, but as time went by, it also persuaded the Ottoman intelligentsia to adopt and utilize a form of palace language heavily reliant on foreign elements. As a result, there came into being two different types of language - one in which foreign elements dominated, and the second was the spoken Turkish used by the public."

There appears to be three phases in the development of a literary language.  First, the language evolves independently of other languages (a "pure" stage).  Then, the language is influenced by other languages (a "mixed" stage).  Then, the language is either seen (incorrectly) as being pure or is deliberately cleansed of the foreign influences.  In this third stage, literary critics are misled into thinking that the language is not really a mixture of an earlier pure language and foreign languages.  Monolingual literary critics, for example, think of English as a pure language and no longer (except for  hardworking diehard New Critics who had a classical education) refer to the original languages that made it up.

20 June 2010

Amir Khusro

Here's an excellent account of the beginnings of Urdu poetry, from an article by Zoya Zaidi in SikhSpectrum Quarterly:

"Urdu poetry started to develop in the Indian subcontinent in the thirteenth century AD.  The famous Urdu poet, Amir Khusro, made a great contribution to its evolution. A disciple of the Sufi saint Nizam Uddin Aulia, he was a one of the wandering dervishes. To spread their message far and wide, the dervishes used the instrument of music and sang their verses in the language of the people, often using the colloquial language to gain popularity. Persian being the official or the established language of verse at that time was not followed (understood) by the sundry masses; therefore in order to gain popularity Khusro started mixing Persian verse with colloquial lines of verses.

"One of his early poems was an amalgam of Persian and local colloquy, like Brij Bhasha and Bhojpuri language: One line of pure Persian was often followed by a line of pure Brij Bhasha.  For example the following couplet from the famous Sufi Ghazal goes like this:

"Z-e-hal-e miskin makun taghaaful, varaaye naina banaaye batiyaan
Ke taab-e- hijraan n’daaram e jaan, na leho kaahe lagaaye chatiyaan
(Look! What your aversion of eyes, excuses and negligence has done to me!
Why don’t you embrace me, my love, and relieve me off the agony of separation?)

"The last line is in pure colloquy, while the first three are in pure Persian. Or, this other couplet of the same poem:

Shabaan-e- hijraan daraaz chun zulf o roz –e–vaslat, chun umar kohtaah
Sakhi, piya ko jo main na dekhoon, to kaise katoon andheri ratiyan
(The nights of separation are long as the dark tresses of my beloved,
While the day of rendezvous is as short as the life itself, /
How can I, O’ Sakhi (female friend), spend the dark and desolate night without seeing my beloved.)

"Here again the first line is pure Persian, the second pure colloquy. Amir Khusro was greatly revered in the court of Ghayas Uddin Balban. Khusro can be called the father of Urdu language."

We think of the great pioneers such as Khusro, Chaucer, and Dante, and we realize that multilingualism was the root of today's major languages.  Most, if not all, our languages today evolved from other languages.  Since (as the New Critics never tired of pointing out) all words carry with them the entire histories of their meanings, poems necessarily must carry inside them all sorts of languages.  This is the theoretical basis of multilingual literary criticism.

18 June 2010

Shakespeare, of course

If we think of Shakespeare as the greatest writer the world has ever produced (I do), then we have to deal with his mixing of languages in his work.  For example, here are some lines from Love's Labours Lost, Act 5, Scene 1:

Laus Deo, bene intelligo.
Bon, bon, fort bon, Priscian! a little scratch'd,
'twill serve.
Videsne quis venit?
Video, et gaudeo.

16 June 2010

Authorial versus societal mixing

The appearance of words from other languages in a text dominated by one language need not mean that the text is multilingual.  A critic must first determine if the language of the text merely mirrors the language of readers or of the characters in the narrative.  A writer must not be credited with incorporating other languages into a text if the language used actually already is mixed.  Verisimilitude is quite different from authorial invention.

An easy mistake to make, for instance, involves Chaucer, who is often cited as a genius for cleverly incorporating French into his English text, thereby "creating" Middle English.  On the contrary, Chaucer might have been simply using the language of his time; Middle English might have created Chaucer.

Here are William Rothwell's comments on this issue in his “Aspects of Lexical and Morphosyntactical Mixing in the Languages of Medieval England,” in Multilingualism in Later Medieval Britain (2000), edited by D. A. Trotter:

"In a recent book, The Empire of Words:  The Reign of the OED, John Willinsky quotes without demur a passage from Owen Barfield written seventy years ago on the role of English and French in the late fourteenth century.  Barfield writes of the modern poet envying ‘Chaucer with this enormous store of fresh, unspoiled English words ready to his hand and unlimited treasury across the Channel from which he could pick a brand-new one whenever he wanted it.’ Apparently convinced by this fanciful and utopian picture of Chaucer’s working practices, Willinsky simply puts the second edition of the OED through his computer and declares roundly that: ‘Chaucer coins more new words in English than any other author.’  However, he does not understand the reality of the linguistic situation in late medieval England, so that, whilst the computer might be able to pick out for him all the dictionary entries in which Chaucer’s name appears before the earliest attestation of a word, this facile exercise cannot tell him whether such words were already current in England in either French or Latin documents, or whether they even existed in continental French for Chaucer to borrow.  For the computer to provide any meaningful assessment of the growth of English in the Middle Ages, it would have to analyse the entire contents of the Middle English Dictionary, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources and the Anglo-Norman Dictionary as they all advance over a long time-scale, steadily recording the true state of written language in medieval England.  It would then have to do the same with the vast dictionaries of continental medieval French in order to see whether developments in England were paralleled by similar growth in France itself.  Both Barfield and Willinsky have their gaze firmly focused on the narrow literary sphere of Middle English, apparently in blissful ignorance of the fact that both French and Latin had been developing in an English society on English soil for hundreds of years, independently of either Rome or Paris, not only  in the general field of imaginative literature, but also in a  wide spectrum of administrative and technical tales."

The New Critics frowned on literary critics moving out of the "work itself," but New Historicism and various other newer approaches to literature have shown us that literature cannot be divorced from history or society.  We have to give credit where credit is due, and that is to writers who really invent language not really used by men and women (to contradict Wordsworth).

14 June 2010


In his lecture on Basque literature at the Basque Studies Symposium sponsored by the University of California, Santa Barbara, in May 2008, José Ignacio Hualde used the word "transmigration" to stress the need to define words in a literary text in a way different from the way dictionaries do:

"The meaning of a word cannot be captured in a dictionary. The meaning of a word emerges from the discourse contexts where it is used, as the proponents of exemplar theories of language learning have argued. In 'jarri zuten martziano aurpegia geratu ziztzaidan niri iltzatua' I glossed, for instance, jarri, as put. With this I simply mean that in perhaps most contexts jarri would correspond to English put. It is more exact to gloss it with Spanish poner. As we know, there are many contexts where English put is an appropriate translation for Spanish poner, but there are also many other contexts where it is not (se puso enfermo, me puso verde, no te pongas así, poner huevos, no sé que pone aquí) and there also many contexts where put cannot be translated with poner.

"In a language without monolingual speakers, it seems inevitable that its words will tend to become exact equivalents of the words of the majority language, no matter how distinct they are in their sounds. That is, to continue with our example, the tendency will be to make jarri an exact equivalent of poner. In this sense, those purist writers of some generations ago who invented words that they explained as equivalent to a Spanish word known to the reader, were rather misguided in their means to create a Basque language that would be more distinct from Spanish. In a sense they were inventing Spanish words in Basque clothing.

"Basque words may keep their visible or audible body but their meaning, their soul will have transmigrated, like we have transmigration in the expression quoted above, where we can see the spirit of the Spanish language dressed in Basque forms. This was shown quite a few years ago by Gumperz & Wilson (1971) for a village in India with three nominally distinct languages."

12 June 2010

Translingual Writing egroup

A new Google Group has been formed from the participants in this American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) seminar.  If you want to join it, go to Translingual Writing and ask to be a member.

Writing Literature in a Second Language: Transnational, Translational, Translingual

 Eugenia Kelbert, Yale U

"From Beckett to Brodsky, dozens of writers – of poetry as well as of prose – have abandoned a native language for an acquired one. Whether driven by circumstances (Joseph Conrad, Jean Moréas, Vladimir Nabokov, Elsa Triolet, Irène Némirovsky), or by choice (Fernando Pessoa, Oscar Wilde, Milan Kundera, Rainer Maria Rilke, Andreï Makine), their writing in 'other languages' has found a place in modern literature. This seminar invites a multidisciplinary discussion of this phenomenon. There is room for disagreement: according to Marina Tsvetaeva, 'writing is already – translating, from one’s native language into another,' while Philip Larkin claims that 'a writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him.'
"Points of inquiry might include: the reasons behind translingual writing, its reception in different audiences and its growth in the last century; its relation to autobiography, the aesthetics of exile, or the theory of translation; the effect of writing in a second language on the syntactic, idiomatic and semantic texture of a literary work; whether one can speak of a specific poetics of translingual writing (e.g. in Deleuze and Guattari); the interpretations made available by such recent methodologies as postcolonial theory, economic critique of globalization and the rise and fall of politics of identity; how translingual writing reflects approaches to language as either a tool to convey ideas, or the structure that determines them; methodologies of inter-language comparison; how a writer’s de- and reconstructed poetics refract through the prism of what linguists study as second language acquisition."
As I have taken pains to point out in this blog, the difference between Tsvetaeva's and Larkin's views is similar to the difference between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics:  one is merely the special case of the other.  On the surface or in everyday life, Newtonian physics (or Larkin's view) suffices, but seen from a deeper or broader perspective, everything is Einsteinian or relative (Tsvetaeva's view).

10 June 2010

New book on multilingual American literature

Amazon.com has announced the publication of a book in November entitled

Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism (Modernist Literature and Culture) (Paperback) 

by Joshua L. Miller

"Accented America is a sweeping study of U.S. literature between 1890-1950 that reveals a long history of English-Only nationalism: the political claim that U.S. citizens must speak a nationally distinctive form of English. This perspective presents U.S. literary works written between the 1890s and 1940s as playfully, painfully, and ambivalently engaged with language politics, thereby rewiring both narrative form and national identity. 

"The United States has always been a densely polyglot nation, but efforts to prove the existence of a nationally specific form of English turn out to be a development of particular importance to interwar modernism. If the concept of a singular, coherent, and autonomous 'American language' seemed merely provocative or ironic in 1919 when H.L. Mencken emblazoned the phrase on his philological study, within a short period of time it would come to seem simultaneously obvious and impossible. Considering the continuing presence of fierce public debates over U.S. English and domestic multilingualisms demonstrates the symbolic and material implications of such debates in naturalization and citizenship law, presidential rhetoric, academic language studies, and the artistic renderings of novelists.

"Against the backdrop of the period's massive demographic changes, Accented America brings a broadly multi-ethnic set of writers into conversation, including Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Henry Roth, Nella Larsen, John Dos Passos, Lionel Trilling, Américo Paredes, and Carlos Bulosan. These authors shared an acute sense of linguistic standardization during the interwar era and contend with the defamiliarizing sway of radical experimentation with invented and improper literary vernaculars. Mixing languages, these authors spurn expectations for phonological exactitude to develop multilingual literary aesthetics. Rather than confirming the powerfully seductive subtext of monolingualism-that those who speak alike are ethically and politically likeminded-multilingual modernists composed interwar novels that were characteristically American because, not in spite, of their synthetic syntaxes and enduring strangeness."

Hopefully, this book will put to rest the superstition (I call it that) that American literature is purely in English.

08 June 2010

Readers vs critics

Too many times, literary critics have marginalized or ignored public opinion about literary works.  Take Arabian Nights.  Here is a comment on it from an Arabic scholar, who appears to say that the reason the work is popular is that it is read mainly in translation, thereby removing the mixing of languages in the original:

"THE Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah) is the only Arabic work that has become truly popular in the West. For centuries it was frowned upon by educated Arabs for its inelegant style and mixing of the classical and vernacular languages.
"The first written compilation of the stories was made in Iraq in the 10th century by al-Jahshiyari who added tales from local storytellers to an old Persian work, Hazar Afsana ('thousand tales'), which in turn contained some stories of Indian origin. The 'frame' story, in which Sharazad saves herself from execution at the hands of King Shahrayar with her endless supply of tales was borrowed from the Persian Afsana but probably originated in India. A similar device, which may also come unltimately from India, is found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron.
"The first Western translation was made in the early 18th century by Antoine Galland. His elegant French, coupled with some liberal editing, masked the flaws in the original and it became a huge success. He also added, from oral sources, several of the stories which later became most famous - including Ali Baba, Sindbad, and Aladdin.
"The Nights had a wide influence on European literary taste during the 18th and 19th centuries, when orientalism was fashionable. Examples include Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Zadiq, as well as the poetic works of Byron and Wordsworth.
"The three best-known translations in English are by Edward Lane (incomplete, but accurate and with a detailed commentary), John Payne (probably the best, but without a commentary) and Sir Richard Burton (which tries to reproduce the oriental flavour of the original).
"Although sometimes regarded as children's stories, the sexual content makes some of them unsuitable - though bowdlerised versions are available. Modern Arabic versions have also been amended to meet the stylistic demands of critics."
Is it time to democratize literary criticism?  Is it time to finally remove the distinction between Literature and literature, High Culture and Low Culture, Literary Masterpieces and Airport Paperbacks?  The majority may not always be right, but surely they must know something the minority (that's us!) may not know.

06 June 2010


One of the things that fascinate me about translingual or multilingual writing is the way the grammatical structure of a language is deconstructed or ignored when a second language is used hand in hand with a mother tongue in a literary text.  Here is an observation about Malayalam literature:

"The early period of Malayalam literature consists of a triple stream. (i) The Pacha-Malayalam stream, by which we mean literary expression in pure Malayalam without any admixture, (ii) The Tamil stream, (iii)the Sanskrit stream. The first stream consists of ballads and folk-songs, which are difficult to date. Songs connected with religious rites such as ‘Bhadrakali Pattu’, ‘Thiyattupattu’, ‘Sastrakali’, ‘Thottampattu’ and later in point of time, ‘Margamkalipattu’ are important varieties. Then we have festival songs like ‘Onappattu’ and ‘Krishipattu’ and ballads of North Malabar and South Malabar.  In the Tamil stream (pattu school) the most outstanding work is Ramacharitham (12th Century AD) composed in a language which is a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. The mixing happens in the area of grammar as well."  [italics mine]

The subversion of English grammar is obvious in Philippine literature written in English, even by Filipino writers already living in English-dominant areas such as the United States.  Most teachers and even literary critics tend to regard grammatical peculiarities as "lapses" or plain "errors."  Linguist Andrew Gonzalez, however, in a famous article, claimed that "errors" might be "features" of a variety of the language.  In his later study of F. Sionil Jose's prose, he justified Jose's grammatical peculiarities as identifying marks of the writer, rather than the gross errors that practically all literary critics think they are.  (Jose, whose mother tongue is Ilocano but writes exclusively in the English he learned only in school, is occasionally rumored to be a contender for the Nobel Prize.  His books in English have never sold well in his native Philippines, but enjoy modest sales in the American-edited Random House editions and quite brisk sales in various translations in European and Asian languages, arguably because such American editions and foreign translations have "corrected" his grammatical "errors.")

03 June 2010

"Refinement" in literature

This is the kind of definition of "literature" that has marginalized texts using more than one language:

"John Clammer points to several interrelated social factors in the relative paucity of this [Peranakan] literature. Many Peranakans up until the turn of the century were basically illiterate. Furthermore, as an interstitial community, there was a fundamental ambivalence of cultural identity which precluded any such great literary florescence--even what language to primarily publish in Chinese, Baba Malay or English, remained a critical trilemma. Due to the basic ambiguity of their cultural identity 'at the nexus of three civilizations' and their lack of any clear political culture, except that framed by the colonial administration, the Peranakans lacked the appropriate developmental or cultural context conducive to the cultivation of a refined literature. 'The mutual reinforcement of socio-political-cultural and literary values of this kind was absent from Straits Chinese society at its outset. Indeed, what peranakan culture had to do was to find or create precisely such a nexus of interrelated influences.'"

I don't know if Clammer is correctly quoted by Hugh M. Lewis, but the underlying assumption in the paragraph is clear:  most critics see mixed-language literature as being less "refined" than monolingual literature.  They do not realize that monolingual literature is only monolingual on the surface.  There are actually two or more languages at work in every literary text, particularly the classic or great or "refined" ones.  The beauty of multilingual texts is that the multiplicity of languages is foregrounded or not hidden.  In effect, multilingual texts are more "honest" than apparently monolingual texts.  (I am not arguing that multilingual texts are better, but merely that they are more clearly multilingual.  The greatness of the great monolingual works is that only truly perceptive literary critics have realized that there are other languages at work in those texts.)

01 June 2010

Two views on multilingualism in fiction

Paul F. Bandia, in his review of Fictionalising Translation and Multilingualism (2005), edited by Dirk Delabastita and Rainier Grutman, talks about two views about the mixing of languages in a literary text.

The first view is this:  "Multilingualism in fiction can be said to challenge the dominant role of powerful global languages such as English by forcing the reader to engage in some form of translation in the reading process, thus marking the presence of other marginalized languages.  The dominant global language is made to share the literary space with other minority languages in an attempt to represent the multiple voices coexisting in today’s multiethnic societies.  For some the mere occurrence of these languages is an act of resistance to hegemonic languages, for others fictional heterolingualism is only an appropriate reflection of real-world language practices.  In postcolonial fiction, for instance, the writing of literary heteroglossia often implies a certain quest for an egalitarian relationship between languages."

The second view is this:  "Far from enacting resistance or creating a level playground for languages, multilingualism is often used not necessarily because of the incommensurability of languages, but rather for reasons pertaining to aesthetics, ideology or identity politics.”

As I've taken pains to establish (slowly and not so systematically, I admit), these two views deal only superficially with multilingual texts.  It is true that, on the surface, authors either deliberately want to give importance (equal or not) to the other languages or use the other languages to beef up the main language, but on a theoretical and deeper level, all literary texts are products of the interaction between two or more languages (not just voices as Bakhtin thought) - the mother tongue of the writer (in the case of monolingual writers, the idiolect) and the main language of the text (for lack of better words, the literary register or idiom).  Each language contains within itself the culture that originally or eventually created it ("eventually," because english today has replaced English).  We are thus dealing not only with multiple languages but with multiple cultures, whether the writer explicitly admits it or not (not all writers are self-conscious about their aesthetic decisions).