31 March 2009 at 4:52 AM | Posted in News | 6 Comments

I got a lesson in accents once when I was in Bacolod, a Southern city in the Philippines where people speak a language called Ilonggo (technically called Hiligaynon). I had just come from Cebu, a nearby Southern city where people (called Cebuanos) speak a language called Cebuano (Sugbuhanon in older books). Since I was in Bacolod for more than a week to teach an extension class, I learned some sentences to get me through buying dinner in the local food places. (It was cheaper, of course, to eat where the people eat, rather than where the tourists eat.) After I said my well-practised sentences in Ilonggo, the storekeeper said to me with a wide grin (of course, in Ilonggo), “You speak Ilonggo like a Cebuano!” I think the same thing happens when a writer writes in a second language. The second language sounds like the first language. (Btw, I know just a little bit more Cebuano than Ilonggo. My mother tongue is Filipino – not Tagalog. My second language is Tagalog. My third language is English. My other languages are mainly for tourist, research, lecturing, or bragging purposes.)


Not just literature

30 March 2009 at 5:16 AM | Posted in News | 6 Comments

Although this blog concerns itself mostly with literary matters, it is not just about literature. The issue of multilingual literature merely mirrors the bigger multilingual and multicultural issues of nations and the world. The rise of English as a dominant international language has caused the death of several languages. In the Philippines, for example, the continued use of English for all government, legal, and business transactions has been shown to be directly related to the deepening poverty, hunger, and helplessness of almost 80% of the population (only 20% more or less are functionally literate in English). The Philippines used to have many more than a hundred indigenous languages; it is now down to about a hundred. The use by a poet of only one language has similar disastrous consequences. By giving readers only a highly limited view of reality, the monolingual poet fails to catch the complexities of real life, thus oversimplifying our view of the world. Since literature is our best (some say our only) way to see the world as it really is, the monolingual poet sins against humanity. It is the responsibility of every real poet to have at least two languages – the mother tongue and a language as different as possible from the mother tongue. Poetry, needless to say, is a third language.


29 March 2009 at 5:00 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Translation has been around since the beginning of literature. Various encyclopedias trace translation to the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 BCE), which was read in translation by writers of the Jewish Bible and the Iliad. Translation theory has also been around for quite a while, although of course not as long as translation itself (theory always comes only after practice!), being traced by historians of translation theory only to Quintus Horatius Flaccus [Horace] (65-8 BCE). From translation theory, we can pick up a concept that will help us in multilingual literary criticism, namely, the concept of biculturality. It is not enough, the translation theorists say, for a translator to be bilingual or fluent in both the source language and the target language; the translator must also be bicultural, meaning that the translator must have lived part of her/his life in the country where the source language is the native tongue. This is my biggest beef against most (not all, since some studied in English-speaking countries) Filipinos that write in English – they know English only from books or films but have never heard it spoken to them by ordinary British or American speakers. The poetry of these bilingual but not bicultural Filipinos sounds, well, terrible to the ears of someone that has lived part of her/his life in the US or UK. It would not be so bad if the non-bicultural Filipino writer would insist that s/he is using Philippine English, but no one I know will admit that but will on the contrary insist that her/his poetry is as good as that written in the US/UK. Since sound or music is at least half (I would say much more than half) of poetry, English poems written by non-bicultural Filipinos tend to violate the purity of one’s poetic ears.

Linguistic relativism 3

28 March 2009 at 4:57 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

“All observers.” wrote Benjamin Lee Whorf in Science and Linguistics (1940), “are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.” Even if this controversial statement were true only a little bit (I know that most linguists today do not believe it completely), it would follow that a critic should share the same linguistic background as the writer. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case, partly because of the reality check of critics usually being professors under pressure to produce a long work every year or so in order to be retained or promoted. Critics then have to try to quickly understand works which took their writers a much longer time to create. Remember James Joyce saying of Ulysses, “I spent seven years writing it. People could at least spend seven years reading it.” With multilingual texts or texts written in second languages, a critic must then know all the languages that the writer knows. How many critics have made fools of themselves writing about Oedipus Rex without knowing classical Greek? Anyone that has ever tried to translate a literary text knows that there are nuances of language that just cannot be recaptured in another language, even by the best of translators. When I had to learn Persian to teach in Iran, I found out, even with my very elementary Persian, that the version of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that I read in school was, well, pretty distorted. FitzGerald did not share Omar Khayyam’s linguistic background, even if he could understand individual words of Persian and even if he tried his best, through several editions, to revise the English to come as close as he could make it to the Persian.

Linguistic relativism 2

27 March 2009 at 4:45 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

One reason it is difficult for critics to judge monolingual against multilingual works is that the critics themselves have to be multilingual or at least bilingual. A Western critic faced with the challenge of determining which of Oedipus Rex or Hamlet is a better play has to be able to read both Greek (even if learned only in school) and English (not our contemporary one, but that of Shakespeare). There are, of course, such critics, especially those that took classics in Oxford or similar universities. Reading Oedipus Rex in another language (which is what most critics do) will fail to catch some if not many of the crucial literary qualities of the work (the rhymes, the length of the syllables, the homophones, and so on, what structuralists would call the signifiers). That is, even if English speakers do not always acknowledge it, also the case with Shakespeare (I once heard a British actor read Shakespeare the way Shakespeare would have recited the lines, and no one in the English-speaking audience understood a word!). With macaronic poetry, a reader can at least catch the sounds and glimpse the rhyme scheme, but a literary critic has to go beyond merely glimpses. The literary critic has to be able to explain the relationship of sound to sense, and that is very hard (but not impossible, as in the case of Filipino critics that read English or in the case of many European critics that grew up with languages other than their own). Just like the multilingual writer, the multilingual critic has a distinct advantage over monolingual critics.

Linguistic relativism 1

26 March 2009 at 5:58 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

Multilingual literary criticism can most probably contribute to the current debate about linguistic relativism, popularly but inaccurately known as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. If it is true in some way that language determines the way we see the world, then a writer using only one language, more precisely his/her own mother tongue, necessarily is able to mirror only a limited aspect of the real world (assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is indeed a real world, something some philosophers contest). If we want poetry to mirror (I am using the traditional word, which is a general synonym of the classic “imitate”) reality, then poetry that mirrors only a small part of reality should surely be inferior to poetry that mirrors a greater part of reality. In theory, therefore, assuming that some version of Whorf-Sapir is correct, a multilingual or at least bilingual poet must enjoy an advantage over a monolingual poet, in that the multi-lingual or bilingual poet sees more of the world than the linguistically-challenged one does. One way to test this is to read a poem containing more than one language and to see how it compares with a monolingual poem. Of course, sampling will always be debatable, but if we take two poems considered classic or excellent by most critics and compare them, we might be on to something.

Genoveva Edroza Matute

25 March 2009 at 5:22 AM | Posted in News | 6 Comments

Let’s shift a little bit to much too real life. Philippine novelist and short story writer Genoveva Edroza Matute, who wrote in Tagalog (her mother tongue), English (her second language), and Filipino (the language she learned late in life, because she wanted to relate to the new generation of urbanized young readers), died 20 March 2009 in her sleep. She was 94 years old. She received several honors for her writing, including a major one in 1992 from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which cited her for “her valuable contributions in elevating the standards of the Tagalog short story and in forging a national identity through the active promotion of Filipino.” Her short stories are canonical and are read by millions of Filipino schoolchildren. She was a charming lady to the end, even when she was bedridden due to various illnesses. The world of multilingual writers has shrunk due to her demise. Ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for us writers writing in two or more languages.

Critics follow writers

24 March 2009 at 5:22 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

That critics follow writers is fairly obvious from the history of criticism. Plato and Aristotle came after Sophocles and company. Cleanth Brooks and the New Critics came after T.S. Eliot and company. Even the Hungarian Marxist critics wrote only about previous works. The Australian postcolonial critics came after the Nigerian novelists and company. It is, of course, a tautology to say that a critic has to have a literary text to criticize, which means that the writer must necessarily come before the critic. In the few cases when critics (such as the early Russian Marxists) tried to tell writers what to write and how to write, the results have been either disastrous or insignificant. No one in China, not even the diehard Maoists, would now consider the works of the Cultural Revolution as superior in quality to those written before or after. No one in Russia even mentions the works done during the Stalinist period. In the Philippines, only the anti-Spanish (and anti-Spanish teachers) works of the late 19th century remain in the literary canon; those that presumably followed the Spanish critics of the time have been so forgotten that they are not even mentioned in footnotes.

Practice vs. theory

23 March 2009 at 4:08 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

That writers are producing literary texts in languages other than their own is obvious. The practice of multilingual literature has been going on for centuries. What has not been going on, except in bits and pieces here and there, is the theory of multilingual literature. The situation is similar to the disjunction between the theory and the practice of translation. In translation theory, translators should translate from a foreign language (source language) into their mother tongue (target language), but translators continue to translate into languages other than their own. Translators are also supposed to translate from the original language, but translators do excellent translations based on translations (source language to first target language to second target language). Btw, this is not the same thing as the old story that physics proves that bumblebees cannot fly; that is an urban legend (read the amusing essay by physicist Ken Zetie entitled “The strange case of the bumble-bee that flew“). The inability of literary critics to come to terms with multilingual literature is not an urban legend: it’s a challenge to critics to wake up to a globalized literary culture.

Writers vs. critics

22 March 2009 at 8:55 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments

“Why does the literature of so multilingual a world give so imperfect a portrait of that world’s linguistic complexity?” asks Lawrence Rosenwald in “American Anglophone Literature and Multilingual America” (in Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors, 1998, p. 327). The question applies not only to the United States (with its glaring denial that not all Americans write or even speak English), but to the rest of the world, which has become mostly multilingual or at least bilingual. In the area of literature, writers around the world have increasingly become multilingual, not only with macaronic texts, but with many mainly monolingual texts with other-language passages. It is in the area of literary criticism that intellectuals have lagged behind; literary critics still read poems as though they were written by linguistically-challenged poets. Why is this so? We can perhaps glean an answer from postcolonial theory: it is intellectuals that have always tried to maintain the status quo (we call that hegemony or ideology) by marginalizing or suppressing minority languages, texts, things, ideas, and persons. Another way of putting it is this: artists always try to go against the grain, critics always try to keep the artists in check. As a playwright and critic, I am as schizophrenic or hyphenated as can be: as a playwright, I hate it when a critic says I do not follow the Aristotelian structure or that my plays lack plot, conflict, character, etc., but as a critic, I love putting down playwrights that do not worry about Aristotelian structure and that ignore plot, conflict, character, etc. There is a moral lesson there somewhere, but I haven’t learned it yet.

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