Multiple Languages

Texts that have had multiple languages within them have been around since forever. Well, possibly not forever, but in one way or another for a rather long time. One might even find that the current mixing of languages that we attribute to globalization and transnationalism is actually not new, but links in with premodern society: that it is Modernity that unnaturally ended the mixing of languages. However, this is something for the future. For now, I simply want to point out the different reactions given to this mixing of languages depending on the media in which it takes place.

Recently I have heard more and more about Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wonderful Life of Óscar Wao. I finally read it last September. In it the author writes in English, but mixes in pithy spanish phrases and words. These go untranslated and unmarked, and require the reader to actively figure it out. Such a mixture reinforces ideas of postcolonial flow in the current global climate and reproduce what it is to be always within two languages. It is a best selling book, but it is also granted the distinction of literature through academic accolades.

That said, a German I know complained, extensively, that he doesn’t speak Spanish (a native German, he does speak, read and teach fluent English), and used that as a reason for not only putting the book away unfinished, but simply disliking it. I want to point out, first, that this is not the normal reaction to Óscar Wao, but then ask why I can claim any idea of normalcy to this or any other text.

Here I will supply my list of four observations around this:

  1. nobody bitches about made up languages
  2. art is okay, but not ‘wanted’
  3. foreign languages less acceptable than non-languages
  4. games are right out

So, the first is a sort of odd thing to say, but it’s pretty legitimate: nobody complains when somebody goes through the trouble to make up a new language. Examples are 1984‘s Newspeak, Lord of the Ring‘s Elvish and Star Trek‘s Klingon. The first is considered amazing and important, the second equally amazing, and the third completely nerdy, but still, uncritiqued. Nobody complains about them even if a glossary of terms is necessary. Even Neuromancer is considered important in its alternate language even if it makes it slightly difficult.

However, when that alternate is not “legitimately” an alien and just a foreign (with all of the ironies of that statement) language it becomes problematic. Óscar Wao is one example, but there are plenty of others. However, here’s the catch: those others are acceptable in “art” modes, but not as pleasure texts. Entertainment is supposed to be easy, relaxed, the opposite of “work.” Understanding other languages, cultures, people, in short, the foreign, that’s just work, and we can’t have that, so entertainment texts generally have a hidden translation at play, a Babel Fish between strange character and the screen. They might have an accent, but Bond villains all speak English.

Finally, we get to the fourth bit. One of my favorite moments of videogaming is in Onimusha 3 at the beginning when the player, coming from Tokugawa Japan, suddenly finds him/herself in late turn of the 21st century France alongside Jean Reno. This, in itself, is not particularly interesting as timewarping happens disturbingly often in popular cultural texts (temporality, pausing, et cetera are interesting issues in their own right). What is amazing of these few moments is that the Japanese player is forced to interact with both Japanese and French. Sadly, this state is soon avoided by the introduction of a magic spell of some sort that allows Jean Reno to both speak and understand Japanese, which results in the remaining 8/10ths of the game being solely in Japanese.

Multiple languages in games don’t happen. Obviously, I just used an example of it happening, but the point stands that such is very rare. Whereas such multi-linguality is common in other media, grudgingly accepted in others still, it is rejected in yet other media. There is a level of acceptability of mixing languages depending on the media and the content.

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