Principles 2

20 July 2009 at 4:22 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

This is the second principle of multilingual literary criticism:

(2) A work not in the mother tongue cannot be read as though it were in the mother tongue.

Extremely common, for example, is the mistake of reading Joseph Conrad (or anyone else writing in a language other than the mother tongue) as though he were Ernest Hemingway (or anyone else writing in the mother tongue). Most literary critics do not ignore the distinctive linguistic qualities of passages not in the mother tongue or passages that clearly echo the mother tongue, but the whole work, not just parts of it, should be read with the mother tongue in mind. Passages that appear to be in the second (or third) language are really in the mother tongue, using words in the second (or third) language. Criticism that would be valid were the work in the mother tongue might not be applicable to a work in a non-mother tongue.

An example that I often use is that of Cirilo Bautista’s rhyming of men with mien in “Pedagogic.” Since all the other end rhymes are correct from the point of view of an American or British speaker, there is no reason to think that the two words are not meant to rhyme. They rhyme only if you hear Bautista reciting the poem in public (which he has done on occasion); he himself pronounces mien to rhyme with men. Since his mother tongue is Tagalog (in which he has written his novels) and English is his second language, it is the Tagalog vowel sound that dominates, rather than the English vowel sound. The inexact rhyme is not a mistake but a deliberate way to alert the reader to the ethnicity of the speaker in the poem – an added dimension to the situation of a Filipino teacher teaching American students in a country with four seasons (the Philippines has no fall season).

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