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.

28 July 2010

The influence of the Chinese language on English

Here's the abstract of a 2004 article in Language, Learning & Technology about Chinese student writers writing in English:

"Second Language Cyber Rhetoric: A Study of Chinese L2 Writers in an Online Usenet Group.

by Joel Bloch

It has been argued that the expectations of traditional L2 writing classroom can be problematic for Chinese students, particularly in the area of argumentation and critical thinking. On the other hand, writing on the Internet has been shown to be substantially different in ways that may liberate the students from the constraints of the classroom. This argument, however, has typically focused on American writers, ignoring how cyberspace is being appropriated by those outside of the Western tradition of rhetoric. In this study, I examine how Chinese writers use the Internet as an alternative writing space to produce a rhetoric that incorporates traditional Chinese rhetorical forms expressed in English. The study focuses on how a group of Chinese writers respond on the Internet to a television segment accusing the Chinese government of planting spies. I found that the Chinese writers use the Internet to build a collective response to the television show using a variety of rhetorical strategies, even to the point of forcing the television network to meet with them. By situating their arguments in the tradition of Chinese rhetoric, I found that these alternative forms of writing found in cyberspace are affected by the traditions of Chinese rhetoric."

Even if the writers studied are only students, they point the way for professional writers using English as a second language.  There is no need to be intimidated by Shakespeare and company.  Using your own mother tongue's rhetorical and literary devices, you can change the literary tradition in the English language.  This does not threaten the English language, but in fact makes it even richer.  The farther away the English language gets from the UK and the USA, the better it will be as a language for literature.

26 July 2010

Computerized grammar checkers

One of the problems in working with a second language is unfamiliarity with its grammar.  Except for English (which is covered by Microsoft), other languages are sometimes difficult to use because of the lack of writer-friendly grammar guides. Computers may come to the rescue, the way they now do spelling checks and word counts.  Of course, like translation tools, computer programs deal only with the most common issues and are not much help with the nuances that writers work with.  Nevertheless, it's a first step in not looking silly to users of other languages.  For example, we could try CrossCheck for Swedish, BonPatron for French, and LanguageTool for several other languages.  A good writer, needless to say, knows not just common grammatical rules but the intricacies of grammar and usage of the other language, in order to know when and why to break the rules for more important aesthetic considerations.

24 July 2010

Reposted list of authors writing in English as second language

This article is from the Books FAQ, by Evelyn C. Leeper eleeper@jaguar.stc.lucent.com with numerous contributions by others.

What English-language authors learned English as a second language?


Achebe, Chinua Ibo*
Arlen, Michael (Dikran Kouyoumjian) Armenian?
Asimov, Isaac Yiddish*
Bellow, Saul Yiddish, French?
Brodsky, Joseph Russian
Bronowski, Jacob Polish
Broumas, Olga Greek
Budrys, Algis Lithuanian
Codrescu, Andrei Romanian
Conrad, Joseph Polish
Cousteau, Jacques French+
Dinesen, Isak (Karen Blixen) Danish
Heym, Stefan (Helmut Flieg) German
Ishiguro, Kazuo Japanese*
Kakuzo, Okakura Japanese
Kerouac, Jack French
Kingston, Maxine Hong Cantonese
Koestler, Arthur Hungarian
Kosinski, Jerzy Polish
Lewis, Saunders Welsh
Limonov, Eddie Russian
Lin Yu-tang Chinese (Mandarin?)
Lowe, Adolph German
Lundwall, Sam Swedish
Malinowski, Bronislaw Polish
Milosz, Czeslaw Polish
Mukherjee, Bharati Bangla
Nabokov, Vladimir Russian*
Narayan, R. K. Tamil
Nin, Anais French
Rand, Ayn Russian
Sabatini, Rafael Italian
Seth, Vikram Hindi
Skvorecky, Josef Czech
Smirnov, Yakov Russian
Soyinka, Wole Yoruba
Stoppard, Tom Czech*
Traven, B. German?
Tutuola, Amos Hausa? (from Nigeria)
van Gulik, Robert Dutch
Vincinzey, Stephen Hungarian
Wertenbaker, Timberlake French
Wongar, Banumbir Arnhem Land aboriginal language
Zukofsky, Louis Yiddish

* Learned English as a child.
+ First book was in English

B. Traven is a pseudonym for someone of uncertain national origin, who
went to great lengths to obfuscate his past. German was probably his
first language, despite his disclaimers that it was English. (More detail:
His works were mostly originally published in German, and usually
translated into English by someone else, but the US edition of THE
TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE was edited for word order from B. Traven's
own translation. (And we know he was faking the bad word order, since
his letters and diaries are in proper order.) He did sometimes publish
in English first a few times, and that part of a pre-publication English
manuscript for THE DEATH SHIP (originally published in German) is

Other possible candidates include Timothy Mo, who grew up in Hong Kong
and was later educated in England. There are numerous Indian and
Anglo-Indian writers, like Vikram Seth (Hindi/Punhabi/Hindustani),
R. K. Narayan (Tamil/Kannada), Raja Rao (Kannada), Bharati Mukerji
(Bengali), Gita Mehta (?), Anita Desai (?), Markandaya (?), Tagore
(Bengali), and Salman Rushdie (Hindi/Urdu), for whom English may very
well be their second language. Some of the modern Soviet expatriates
write in English now (see Smirnov, above). Also Guneli Gun (Turkish),
Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah (?), Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kikuyu),
Dambudzo Marechera (Shona), many other African writers, Waguih Ghali
(Arabic), Walter Abish (German), Apirana Taylor (Maaori), Albert Wendt
(Samoan). Other possibilities include a number of Chinese and East
Asian authors. Also possibly Mavis Gallant, who spoke French as a child
in Montreal. Jan Willem van de Wetering wrote in Dutch and then
translated his books into English.

How about switches to other languages? French has Samuel Beckett
(first language English), Camara Laye (Dahomey), Julien Green
(English), Leopold Senghor (Senegalese?), Leon Troyat (Lev Tarassov,
a.k.a. Lev Tarossian) (Russian? Armenian?), and Elie Wiesel (Magyar and
Yiddish). Russian has Fazil Iskander (Abkhaz) and Chingiz Aitmatov (a
Central Asian Turkish dialect). Leonora Carrington wrote several short
stories in French or Spanish, before their translation into English.
Was Paul Celan's first language was Hungarian?

Milan Kundera's first language was Czech, but he now writes in French.

Then there are bilingual-from-birth writers, such as Liám Ó Flaithearta
Flann Ó Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan or Ó Nualláin), and Sean Ó
Faoileán. Many authors have also written novels in Esperanto.

FROM ME:  The list does not contain the names of hundreds of Filipino authors writing in English.  None of these authors had English as their first language.

20 July 2010

John Guzlowski

Is a literary text written in a second language necessarily less profound than a literary text written in a mother tongue?  The following poem (reprinted without permission from the author) raises this question.  It would be good for a critic (someone else, not me!) to examine the philosophical content of works by Joseph Conrad (to name the most apparently profound of authors writing in a second language) and compare them with that of works by any monolingual British author of the same stature.

I can't tell you about Kant
in Polish, or the Reformation,
or deconstruction
or why the Nazis moved east
before moving west,
or where I came from,
but I can count to ten, say hello
and goodbye, ask for coffee,
bread or soup.
I can tell you people die.
It's a fact of life,
and there's nothing
you or I can do about it.
I can say, "Please, God,"
and "Don't be afraid."
If I look out at the rain
I can tell you it's falling.
If there's snow,
I can say, "It's cold outside
today, and it'll most likely
be cold tomorrow."

18 July 2010

John Skelton

When using another language in a text, a poet often pronounces the borrowed words differently from the way those words are pronounced were the text completely in the other language.  One can say that this is mispronunciation.  One can argue, however, that the "mispronunciation" merely indicates indigenization or adoption of the second language into the mother tongue.  Either way, it makes for interesting thought.  Witness the last stanza of the poem "Philip Sparrow" by John Skelton:

Si in i qui ta tes
Alas, I was evil at ease!
Di pro fun dis cla ma vi,
When I saw my sparrow die!

The Latin endwords were not pronounced by the Romans to rhyme with ease or die, but the British pronounce Latin that way (or at least used to).  Of course, Skelton is working for comic effect, but that does not change the literary technique: the words in the second language are still forced to act like words in the first language.

16 July 2010

Chinese vs. English

What happens when two major international languages clash?  Are they elephants trampling us, poor grass?  Here is a recent article by Malcolm Moore in Telegraph about a protest against English words in Chinese publications:

Huang Youyi, chairman of the International Federation of Translators, claims that words such as okay, bye-bye, nice, modern and guitar are slipping in to every day Chinese, and causing problems.

Mr Youyi said: "If we do not pay attention and we do not take measures to stop Chinese mingling with English, Chinese will no longer be a pure language in a couple of years.  "The terms DVD, MP3 and CEO are so abundant in Chinese and they are very popular. But these imported terms can cause confusion."

Mr Huang, who went to university in the United States and is also the head of the China International Publishing group, one of the country's largest publishers, fears that the increasing flow of English words and phrases into Chinese conversation could endanger the future of the language itself.

"In the long run, Chinese will lose its role as an independent language for communicating information and expressing human feelings," said Mr Huang.

As China has opened up and modernised, it has struggled to contain the inward flow of Western culture and language. Presently, only 20 foreign films are allowed to be screened in Chinese cinemas each year, while a wide swath of websites, including Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, have been banned.

Nevertheless, Western brands have proliferated, English-language television shows are widely available and there are huge numbers of students wanting to study English. "Some of our people think that using foreign words is a sign of being open-minded and international.  
I do not think so," said Mr Huang. "Instead, we should have confidence in our own language. You cannot expect others to respect you unless you respect yourself," he said.

Mr Huang presented proposals to the recent Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference meetings in Beijing that would ban publications from using English names, places, people and companies.

Instead, the publications would have to translate the terms into Chinese. A national committee would be formed to make a series of official translations. "You rarely see Chinese characters in any English newspaper," he said.

However, Mr Huang has had little support for his proposals. Gu Yuego, a researcher at the Institute of Linguistics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "If we cleaned out all the borrowed words, less than half of modern Chinese will be left."

He added: "Borrowing words from other languages is a global phenomenon. It is a positive sign of cultural exchange and assimilation. There is no way that China can close the door on this.

France has tried many times to cleanse English words from French and they just make fools of themselves. Our Coke-drinking, Nike-wearing youth is undoubtedly still Chinese, but it has a broader mind and greater knowledge about other countries and cultures."

The prejudice against mixing languages is not a thing of the past, nor is it a thing only of countries less powerful than China or the United States.  Literary critics participate in this prejudice by marginalizing texts that blatantly use more than one language.  Something we learn from the debate in China:  the mother tongue (Chinese) will not disappear even if the second language (English) is very strong.  Critics insisting on a less widely-spoken and less widely-written "pure" mother tongue need not worry.  If a language has a strong literary tradition like Chinese, it will emerge stronger, not weaker, after the encounter with another language or literary tradition.  The problem, of course, is if the mother tongue does not have a strong literary tradition.  Then, it is really in trouble.

12 July 2010

Célestine Vaite

Words from the bilingual author's mouth:

"Why did you decide to write in English, your second language? Do you think in English as you write, or do you think in your native language and translate your thoughts? Does writing in a second language affect the way you developed your characters or tell a story?

"I always act my dialogues (it helps me see my character as if she/he was standing right in front of me) and I talk in French as my character - professional cleaner, teenager, doctor etc - would in flesh and bones. Then I write in English. As for the narrative voice, it comes out directly in English but with the French/Tahitian voice in my head, as if my mother or auntie was telling me the story. Very often I'm translating literally. So it's, mind your onions and not mind your business. Writing in English is a lot of fun! True, it is a lot of work, but it forces me to really think about what I'm writing, and gets me focused on the tempo, the rhythm of story-telling."

10 July 2010

Reading Sandra Cisneros

Here is John S. Christie's view of code-switching in Sandra Cisneros's short story "Bien Pretty":

"Code-switching plays a major part in the work of Sandra Cisneros. Take, for instance, a line from her story, 'Bien Pretty': 'If you don't like it Largate, honey.'  Her inclusion of the untranslated Spanish provides the emotional power of the advice rendered, the streetwise experience coming exclusively from the Spanish word.  In Rechy's Miraculous Day, Amalia's gut reaction to a visit from her adulterous husband's girlfriend is forcibly revealed via the same Spanish expression: 'Largate,' an order of vehemence and scorn along of the lines of 'Get out of here,' but charged with a testiness English can't duplicate except in vulgarity.  Cisneros's expression also automatically reveals the relationship between the speaker and her audience; the narrator addressing a peer  in a familiar style.  The writer uses the shift as one further indication of her narrator's frank, yet informal advice to an audience of women who might share her problems and desires.  Embedded in a paragraph condemning the senseless heroines of telenovelas, and exalting the women she has 'known everywhere except on TV, in books and magazines,' the Spanish here emphasizes that such women are not media created beauties, but Latinas: 'Las girlfriends. Las comadres. Our mamas and tias. ... Passionate and powerful, tender and volatile, brave. And, above all, fierce.'  The theme of the paragraph, signaled by the code-switching, points us back to the title of the story where the rather flimsy and superficial English word 'pretty' is enclosed in a Spanish grammatical structure and the English connotations of the word are redirected into an assertion that Latinas outrank the media created, stereotypical versions of attractive women.  This persona, common in Cisneros's work, has no problem with being a Latina and in fact relishes the vitality of her dual linguistic ability.  We see this in her unsympathetic attitude toward the monolingual reader's handicaps, when Cisneros even teases the reader, making it clear that the lack of Spanish is a limitation: 'Pretty in Spanish. But you'll have to take my word for it. In English it just sounds goofy.'  Like the word 'pretty,' here the choice of 'goofy' (Disney connotations included) trivializes English, while Spanish throughout the story -- the lists of songs, of herbs, of dances, of instruments -- conveys what is vital and genuine to the writer."

Notice how a study of just two words (Largate and pretty) takes quite a long time to do!  This is probably one reason most critics shy away from doing multilingual literary criticism - not just lack of energy or competence but also lack of time.

08 July 2010

Mexican literature

That there is a felt need for critics to deal with multilingual literature is seen in such side remarks as those of Karen Grimwade in a note to her 2009 translation of "La litterature mexicaine au carrefour de trois cultures" by Alain Nicolas:  "I did quite a bit of research into contemporary Mexican literature and this seemed to suggest that writers often play with mixing Spanish, English and Mexican languages in their work."

I think that most literature readers today realize that there is a lot of language mixing going on in contemporary texts, but they don't quite know how to deal with this mixing.  Many readers, I suspect, just gloss over the "foreign" words, thinking that the context will eventually tell them what those words mean.  These readers lose the literariness of the text, which deliberately appropriates "foreign" cultures into the culture of the writer and the readers.  Just like in the good old days when New Critics made readers "understand" (as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren put it in their textbook series of Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, and Understanding Drama) what seemed to be inscrutable literary masterpieces, multilingual literary critics today have an obligation to help the ordinary reader appreciate the skill and the beauty of mixed-language and even apparently monolingual texts.

06 July 2010

Appropriating an international language

The idea that a writer writing in a non-mother tongue appropriates or colonizes the foreign language is not a new one.  For example, Philippine poet and critic Gemino H. Abad's statement that "Filipinos have colonized the English language" is often quoted.  Here is the abstract of the article "English and Postcolonial Writers' Burden:  Linguistic Innovations in Femi Fatoba's My Older Father and Other Stories" (2004) by Ayo Kehinde:

"In a situation where two or more languages and cultures are in contact, there is bound to be linguistic and cultural interference. This is the situation with African literature of English expression where important socio-cultural habits and traits are expressed in a foreign language. Based primarily on the examples from Femi Fatoba’s My 'Older' Father and Other Stories (1997), this essay attempts to examine how postcolonial writers have appropriated and reconstituted the English language in their texts through some linguistic processes which include loan words, loan coinages, loan blends, pidginization, code switching and the like. Fatoba strives to find a solution to the problem of bilingualism/biculturalism in his text by relying heavily on the domestication of the imported tongue. The essay observes that although Fatoba has deviated from the international literary norms (linguistically), in the text, he has not falsified the tradition he has transformed into the English language. Rather, he has been able to bridge the gap between the local color variety and the appropriate English language diction suitable to the characters and themes he depicts. The essay also contends that linguistic innovations in Fatoba’s stories offer an outlet for creativity in language and put a new life into the imported language. The paper is concluded by suggesting that in this age of globalization, African writers cannot afford to deny their works of wide readership; therefore, they should consider the appropriation and reconstitution of English as a medium of African literature."

I think that thinking of this kind is a necessary step in the path towards a multilingual literary theory.  It is clear from the literatures of postcolonial countries that the language of the center is indeed appropriated, reconstituted, or colonized by the margins.  The next step after examining what happens to the language of the center, however, is more important and much more difficult:  to see how the literature of the writers in the center itself consists of languages away from the center.  A simple example is the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, clearly an American writer writing in the American variety of English.  It has been known by literary critics for a long time now that Poe was writing for a British audience, in the (vain) hope that he would be famous in England (the former colonizer).  How can we explain the unusual syntax of the sentences in his works by looking at the British, French, and Italian languages embedded in his texts?  That is a tall order for Poe enthusiasts, who do not all have the time to look at his works word by word, not to mention learn the European languages!

In theory, however, rather than in practice, we can see what is going on.  That is the beauty of theory.  Einstein thought up of his theory of relativity all by himself, without actually doing anything with his hands.  It took almost a century before somebody took the trouble of verifying his ideas (by watching the planet Mercury) by doing practical work.  But without Einstein, we would not have the computer age we are living in today.  Literary theorists, though they may look odd to the ordinary literature teacher, may be changing the entire landscape of literary study, but it might take years before we know it.

04 July 2010

Braj Kachru on mixed-language literature

Here are three slides from a lecture by World Englishes guru Braj B. Kachru:

"Contact Literatures in English 
    • Result of the contact of English with other languages in multilingual and multicultural context like in the case of Africa and Asia.
    • The contact varieties, as time passes, acquire stable characteristics in their pronunciation, syntax, vocabulary and discoursal and style strategies.
    • Long-term contact results in Nativisation and Acculturation.
    • Nativisation
      • Refers to the process which creates a localized linguistic identity of a variety
    • Acculturation
      • Gives English distinct and local cultural identities. 
"Such writing can be found in South Asia, West Africa, the  Philippines and Southeast Asia.

"Three facts on the Bilingual’s Creativity in English 
    • The institutionalized nonnative varieties have an educated variety and a cline of sub-varieties.
    • Writers in contact literature in English engage in lectal mixing
    • In such writing, there are style-shifts which are related to the underlying sociolinguistic and cultural context
"The result of such style-shifts, appropriate to non-Western contexts, is new discourse strategies, use distinctly different speech acts, and development of new registers in English.

"Issue’s on the Bilingual’s Creativity in English 
    • Question of language deficiency vs. difference
    • Recognition of Innovations used for stylistic effect as “foregrounding”
    • Recognition of various text types – code mixed or noncode mixed – which  are internationally meant for bilingual readers who share the bilingual’s linguistic repertoire and cultural and literary canon.
    • Recognizing functional appropriateness of lacalized sublanguages and registers
    • Providing contrastive typologies of linguistic and cultural conventions
    • Describing the formal and functional characteristics of bilingual’s language mixing and switching"
I am glad that linguists have raised the bar in their study of multilingual literature.  Linguistics, of course, does not (perhaps cannot) distinguish between the use of different languages in a text because the writer uses different languages outside the text (or in non-imaginative, real life) and the deliberate use of other languages that the writer may or may not actually speak or even know (the latter for aesthetic reasons).  This is an area where we need multilingual literary critics that can spot translingual or interlingual meanings intended or not consciously intended by writers.  (A clear problem in his presentation: a reader or a critic of a multilingual text need not be multilingual, just as a writer of a multilingual text need not be multilingual in real life.  Remember T. S. Eliot's shantih in The Waste Land?)

02 July 2010

Karen Van Dyck

Vivienne Nilan interviewed Karen Van Dyck in 2006 and gave this account of the scholar's work with interlingual Greek-English literary texts:

“In town this week to deliver the 11th Kimon Friar Lecture at the American College of Greece, Van Dyck spoke on ‘Gringlish Literature and the Question of Translation.’

“What exactly is Gringlish? In her lecture Van Dyck explained how Gringlish was first coined to describe the particular way Greek immigrants in America spoke because they didn't know enough English, coming up with formulations such as ‘Ftasame ta belozeria’ for ‘It's gone below zero.’

“The term eventually stretched to cover ‘the differently macaronic talk of their children for whom Greek, not English, was the foreign language (‘to flori’ for ‘floor’) and the language of radio and TV announcers and rappers in Greece who borrow words and grammatical structures from English.’

“Van Dyck has taken it further, to describe what she calls Gringlish literature, which is far more than a humorous mishmash of the two languages and which feeds into her interest in ‘literature written at the interstices of two or more languages. I find it fascinating to see how languages interact and alter each other, transforming the predictable into the unexpected by mixing up rules. Hybrid idioms intrigue me because they contain puzzles that demand going outside the box for solutions. One set of linguistic rules and cultural references is not sufficient. Greek Italian, Greek French, Gringlish or Gralbanian, for that matter, underscore how languages infiltrate and rewire each other, suggesting alternative identities and cultural communities that are impossible to stamp on a passport or codify in a census.’

“What makes Van Dyck's approach unusual for a scholar is that she zeroes in on precisely the elements that a more traditional academic might slate as grammatically, syntactically or lexically incorrect.

“As she explained in her lecture, ‘Gringlish offers a different approach to literature as well as translation by putting the emphasis on interference and complementarity over purity and replication.’

“Greek-American writers are teaching English speakers to read in a different way, argues Van Dyck, who also believes the most exciting literature comes out of these ways of thinking between languages.

“Citing Conrad and Nabokov as familiar examples of writers who worked between languages, Van Dyck noted how few readers of Greek literature think of the influence of other languages on leading demoticists such as Psycharis and Korais.

“‘It is important to think about national literature sometimes doing transcultural and translinguistic work behind the scenes,’ she said.”