Having trouble reading in English? Then translate it!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

 Fish thali


During 1993 (or maybe it was '94), I attended a performance of Moti Roti, Puttli Chunni at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). This wonderful 'play' was performed in three languages: English, Punjabi, and Hindustani. The actors spoke alternate sentences in different languages. Very soon, I felt that it mattered little which of the three languages were being spoken. The action in the drama made complete sense regardless of the fact that I could  truly understand only a third of the words. My wife, who was sitting next to me in the theatre, and who understands both Hindustani (well) and Punjabi (not so well) told me that often the same thing was being said in slightly different ways in the three languages .  This play was a superb demonstration of what is termed 'redundancy' in the academic discipline of linguistics.

My Indian in-laws are bilingual (actually multilingual), speaking Gujarati and English with equal  fluency. I have noticed that when they are speaking in Gujarati, there is a liberal sprinkling of English words in their conversation. This is often the case in conversations that I have overheard when other people are speaking in other Indian languages. Where the English word fits better, it's inserted in amongst the words of the language which is being used predominantly during the conversation. And when Indians speak in English, they  employ words from Indian languages when they fit in better than their English counterparts.

Here in the UK, we do the same thing in English. After all the raison d'etre of speech is communication, and if inserting 'foreign' words into a sentence improves the meaning of what is being said, then we are doing our audience a great mitzvah.

This brings me to the point of this essay: the insertion of 'foreign' words in novels written in English (I have already explored this a little in another of my blogs [click here ]). 

I will illustrate my ideas by referring to 4 books, all written in English by African author. 

In "The Purple Hibiscus", its Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche liberally uses words from indigenous Nigerian languages, but provides no vocabulary. For example: ' "Are you ready, Jaja and Kambili? " she asked. "Nwunye m, will you not come with us?" Mama shook her head... ' . The meaning of the word is reasonably obvious; no explanation is required. The word adds colour to the writing. Its presence  feels natural, quite pukka (it's interesting to note, en passant, that in English usage this word denotes correctness, but in its original Hindustani usage it means 'ripe' as well as 'fixed') .

Mark Behr in his "Kings of the Water", set in rural South Africa just before the Twin Towers were blown up in New York, uses a different ploy, as exemplified by this brief extract: ' "Michiel alweer oppad? Leaving the country again?" ' He gets a character to say something in Afrikaans and then immediately to repeat it in English." Unlike Adiche, Behr does not distinguish the indigenous African language from the English by italicising it. The result of this repetition is, in my opinion, quite unnatural, especially as he uses this device a little too frequently. After all, what would you think if I addressed you with the words: "Il fait beau au jourd'hui. It's a lovely day today" ? You would be justified in thinking: "Was ist los mit ihm? What's wrong with him?" . 

Niq Mhlongo in his excellent "Dog Eat Dog", set in the townships around Johannesburg uses the same device as Behr, but far less often. The 'foreign' sentences that he uses are, unlike Afrikaans, quite unfamiliar to readers of English who may recognise some occasional similarities between Africaans  and, for example, German or Dutch. Mhlongo uses italics to distinguish the African words from the English. His insertions of local language are sufficiently infrequent and well-spaced to make his writing a little more piquant than it would have been had he not done so.

In Lauren Liebenberg's "The West  Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club", set in a Gold mining settlement near Johannesburg, there is an excessive use of 'foreign' words, often several per page, always italicised. There are so many words that would be unfamiliar to a reader not familiar with Afrikaans that Ms Liebenberg's novel ends with a seven page 'Glossary', which contains well over 100 words or phrases. Without this, the book would be almost meaningless to readers who have not been brought up in South Africa. In order to try to enjoy this book, I found that I was constantly having to refer to the glossary, and this wrecked my enjoyment of the book. Reading a novel ought to be pleasurable, not a chore.

"The Last Secret of the Temple" by Paul Sussman, which my wife has read (but I have not), is set in Egypt, Israel, France, England, and Germany. It includes many Hebrew and Arabic words and ends with an 18 page glossary, containing about 270 words/terms and their explanations. My wife enjoyed the book without needing to refer to this even once!

She told me that once she had discussed the use of indigenous words in novels written in English at a meeting with the Indian author Shashi Deshpande.  Whilst they were talking about the inclusion of glossaries in novels, Deshpande remarked that after Salman Rushdie had blazed a trail with "Midnights Children", which he published without any explanatory material, it was unnecessary to do so. 

A novel with all of its 'exotic' inclusions ought to be a good read without needing to have recourse to a glossary or similar. 

So, out of the four Africa novels I have just written about, "The Purple Hibiscus" takes the biscuit, followed closely by "Dog Eats Dog". In both cases, the authors speak to their readers in a 'natural' way, which allows their audience to participate comfortably in the exotic worlds that they have created.


[It's a novel without a glossary, even though it is set in South Africa!]