18 February 2009
Second-language writing and emotions
In "In conversation: Cebuano writers on Philippine literature and English" in the recently published Philippine English: Linguistic and Literary Perspectives, edited by Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista and Kingsley Bolton (Hong Kong University Press, 2008), Resil B. Mojares says, "Something else can be said about English - it's a way of distancing yourself from your emotions. Like if I wrote my poems in Cebuano [his mother tongue], I would worry about mawkishness, sentimentality, without the emotional control of the English language. English offered detachment. A foreign language renders things more neutral."
Is this true? Does writing in a second language distance writers from their emotions? (A linguistic take on William Wordsworth's [more likely Samuel Taylor Coleridge's] "emotion recollected in tranquillity"!) Or does writing in a second language falsify those emotions?
Posted by Isagani R. Cruz at 3:25 AM
Albert B. Casuga said...
Resil Mojares might just be doing a disservice to Philippine literature in English by assigning this second language as a "neutralizer" of emotions. Whenever any poem is competently written in whatever language the poet chooses as his medium, it is his primary function to "concretize" his experience so that it might transform itself to a "subjectified" experience capable of exuding emotions, sentiments, perceptions, insights, and the like -- stimuli to an aesthetic experience. To "neutralize" indigenous poetic emotions with English would effectively create a "neutered" poem, indeed. That is not what T.S. Eliot meant at all about these periphrastic renditions of emotions. When the poet uses his mother language to create literature, it is not his business to worry about "mawkishness, sentimentality" -- he will use his language to control that, if necessary. Any language is equipped to do that. Figures of thought and language in any language are tools for that purpose. The oblique expression of an otherwise "drippingly false" sentiment through these tools is available to any competent writer.
I hope Mr. Mojares does not intend to conclude that any Philippine language or dialect used in poetry must perforce create "sentimental" (nothing wrong with that either) nonsense, and poses the danger of emotional, verbal diarrhea. Even Cebuano is equipped with the wherewithal of poetic expression to create good poetry.
(When I wrote "Sakada" -- the Filipino lyrics sang in Isagani Cruz's play, I used these tools without muting the hurt and rage of the abused sakada (cane gleaner or gatherer) who contemplates revolution to wreak havoc on the haciendero.
"O sakada! O sakada!
Tag-ani na naman sa sakada!
Luntian ang bunga, silanga'y pula,
Umaga na rin kaya sa sting mga dampa?
Tag-ani na naman, kapatid sa lupa,
Aanihin din kaya ang 'yong kalul'wa?"
(O, cane gleaner! O cane gleaner!
It is harvest time in the canefields!
The fruit is golden, the east is red,
Will morning see us, too, in our shacks?
It is harvest time, brother of the field,
Will the master also harvest your soul?)
The English translation here (closest I could get to the "sentiment" of the Tagalog lyric) loses the power and the anger behind the lament. The rhyme and rhythm in the Pilipino version is not there. It neutered the anger for no good purpose.
I used tools to "control" mawkishness throughout the five stanzas (which I could not quote here for lack of space) -- and Dr. Cruz, saw the lyric "as good." Would English have done it any better? I doubt it; even with a more vigorous translation by better poets, it could not.
No, second languages are not "hired help" to blunt if not mute the wailing in phoney dirges disguised as poetry.
What was Resil thinking?--ALBERT B. CASUGA
18 February, 2009 10:52
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