30 July 2010

Another country's language

One of the problems "selling" multilingual literary theory (as well as multilingual literature itself) is that many (if not most) literary critics are monolingual, if not in their speech, then in their outlook.  Of course, we have to make allowances for "patriotic" critics claiming that their country's literature is better than that of other countries (think of American critics loving American literature, British critics loving British literature, French critics loving French literature, etc.), but on the whole, literary analysis suffers if the norms used are based on the literary tradition of only one country or set of related countries.  I like the way comparative literature scholars or immigrant writers deal with the literature of the country where they currently or accidentally reside:  they always "compare" the literature they are now reading to that they used to or still read.

One online discussion group, The Literature Network Forums, now and then has someone champion the literature of a country not his/her own.  Take, for example, this post dated 30 May 2008:

"Now if you really want to learn an Eastern language, learn Persian. A literary history spanning thousands of years, this language has the most beautiful poetry. Almost untranslatable in English, you can spend your life-time studying poet after poet after poet right from the 6th century BC to the 21st century AD. Compared to Arabic, Persian is dead-easy. With only 7 clauses of mostly fairly straight forward verbs (Arabic has fourteen and most of them irregular!), the grammar is a doodle and a pleasure to learn. The vocabulary is huge but you learn with the passage of time. Here is a taste of the 20th century Persian Literature:


Surrealism, decadence, horror, no this is not French, this is Iranian Literature!"

I'm not sure about Persian being easy to learn, though I agree about the pleasure (I tried for a year, but gave up).  I do know that I learned a lot about the social context of words.  Here's a story I like to recount:  A long time ago, I was hired to teach in a university in Iran.  I hired a female tutor for Persian (in addition to a formal class handled by a male) for several months.  After I thought I had learned enough to do a lecture to my class in Persian (Farsi is how we called it) instead of English (which my Iranian students had difficulty following), I discussed a work in my newly-learned language.  After the class, one male Iranian student approached me and said, "Sir, you speak like a woman."  Needless to say, I dropped my tutor and delivered all my lectures in English after that.  I suspect (but do not know) that Persian literature has to be read with this gender distinction in mind.

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