17 September 2010

Visual mixing of languages

Here is an unexplored area of literary criticism.  What happens when a writer whose mother tongue is Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, or some other language that makes readers read from right to left or top to bottom and not left to right the way the Latin alphabet makes us read?  Is it possible that such a writer (if the writer is aware of concrete poetry or of book design or something similar that gives poetry a visual, in addition to an aural, character) would deliberately work with the direction of reading as a counterpoint?  I know a little spoken Chinese and a little written Arabic, but far from enough to discern if an English text by a Chinese or Arabic writer has some visual pyrotechnics going on.  It would not be unusual for a good writer to play with such possibilities.  After all, hidden messages have been embedded in poems (usually just with letters that stand out).  Think of Jose Lacaba's famous anti-Ferdinand Marcos poem published unwittingly by a pro-Marcos magazine during the height of the Marcos dictatorship.

I got this thought while I was going through an essay about computer programmers having difficulty with right-to-left languages:

"Complications arise, however, when left-to-right conventions are mixed with right-to-left conventions in the same document. Consider an Arabic/English dictionary or a Bible conlrnentary that quotes Hebrew or a Middle-Eastern encyclopedia that refers to Western names in roman letters; such documents, and many others, must go both ways."

It would probably take the New Critics' Ideal Reader to get what extremely clever second-language writers might be doing with visual habits of reading.

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