Alien words in our prose

Something written by a talented young Malaysian author, Preeta Samarasan, resonates with me.
She said:
“Schoolchildren studying literature in the colonies had to navigate Cockney speech patterns, imagine for themselves what toad-in-the-hole might taste like, picture moors and bogs and fens and determine the emotional significance of each of these landscapes. Now we get to tell our own stories, and this requires your dealing with my rubber estates and char kuay teow and cursing in Tamil. In the long run, this will be good for all of us. A little cultural immersion never did anyone any harm.” {See here for the full article and reference.}

Good on her. And she’s absolutely right.
As a kid growing up on an Australian farm, there was no end to the things I read that I had to imagine, as they were never explained by the author. Why, after all, would a UK writer think she had to explain the tube, or hares, or galoshes or ices or kippers or gorse or fells or (English) muffins? Why would an American writer bother to expand on what the deck of a house was, or the trunk of a car, or clapboard, or (American) muffins, or what pumpkins had to do with Halloween – and what the heck was Halloween anyway? All these words were as foreign to me as, say, gesundheit, roti canai, bwana, merde or halal.

And I went on reading and learning and understanding with very little help from a dictionary in those pre-internet, pre-TV days.

Preeta doesn’t believe in putting Malaysian words in italics because they will be foreign to non-Malaysian readers. And why should she? Those British writers didn’t italicise “fens” because I didn’t understand what a fen was.

As a writer of fantasy words which have their own vocabulary, I prefer not to use italics for words which are not foreign in the society I am writing about. It’s silly. And I try not to use words unless the context makes it clear – or will do in time – what they mean, because I also prefer not to have to have an appendix of foreign words.


Alien words in our prose — 5 Comments

  1. Surely if authors had to write with a global readership in mind and remove all words of cultural or regional uniqueness then the story would be diluted and bland.

    It must be hard for book tanslators to maintain the integrity and cadence of a story when many words, phrases and cultural icons cannot be directly translated into a different language.

  2. Nevertheless, write the words you know (or invent) and these days we can all look them up. Toad in the Hole must conjure up some interesting images.

    I know when I emigrated to North America I suddenly thought “oh is that what they meant” and as far as NA and UK are concerned, Churchill said it best “Two nations divided by a common language”.

  3. It’s so irksome to have to go to the appendix all the time (sorry JRR Tolkien’s fan, i’m an awfull traitor ^^’), or reading a book with a dictionary, it might also be like having a kind of Dr Jones father adventure ^^

  4. Glenda, I just saw this — thank you! I’m so glad you got what I meant. I actually thought it was a pretty obvious point — I’m certainly not the first one to make it, and in fact was just putting into my own words what many more illustrious folks (Rushdie, Roy, Jamaica Kincaid, Vikram Chandra, Junot Diaz) have said before me (and better) but surprise surprise, there are still people who get all worked up about what I’d thought of as a settled debate (though in at least one case it seems that they ended up making my point for me in their rebuttal)! So thanks again for reinforcing the point.

    Peter — dunno if you will see this, but yes, translation is a particularly rich and tricky issue when non-standard English is involved. I’ve been working closely with the translators of my book and I’ve seen that that’s precisely what they try to do — to preserve tone, essence, and cadence, rather than literal meaning. It’s amazing work.

    — Preeta

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