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What difficulties does an author encounter when writing in one language about a culture conceived in another?

What difficulties does an author encounter when writing in one language about a culture conceived in another?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Phoebe Cooney. Originally submitted for New French Identites (Contemporary France) at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer David Parris in the category of Languages & Linguistics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Phoebe Cooney. Originally submitted for New French Identites (Contemporary France) at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer David Parris in the category of Languages & Linguistics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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12/04/2013

 
La question du langue, je la considère souvent comme le problème numéro un pour la littératurenord-africain d'expression française, je dirais, et certains sentiront cela comme une provocation,qu'il nous faut arabiser le français, avec une condition: en passant par la beauté, traduisons: par la poésie. Assia Djebar. Quelles difficultés un écrivain rencontrait-t-il lorsqu'il entreprend de décriredans une langue une culture qui se conçoit dans une autre? What difficulties does an authoencounter when writing in one language about a culture conceived in another?Language is one of the fundamental
vecteurs d'identité
and the principal form of humancommunication. However, language shared does not necessarily mean communicationaccomplished. If language is thought of as a kind of patrimonial site which holds ideas formedthrough history and the memory of a people, we can see that each word had a potential depth far greater than its denotation. The problems that an author writing in one language about a cultureconceived in another would face are similar to the problems that face the translator. There is far more than just differences in syntax and grammar. Even simple greetings and terms of politenesscan carry implications which are not apparent in a simple translation. This essay will briefly discussthe reasons why an author might choose to write about one culture in the language of another, withFrench as the main example. The repercussions that this entails and the particularity of French as acolonial language will be examined. We will go on to address the relationship between languageand culture as well as language and thought and the implications this may have. The effort toappropriate or adapt language, as mentioned in the quotation above, as a means to better expressone's identity will be discussed.That a considerable number of non-French writers choose to write in French, even though itmay not be their mother tongue or historically the language of their culture, invites us to questionwhy they make this choice. In some cases the choice is seemingly based upon an objective idea thatFrench is simply better for the purpose. Léopold Sédar Senghor expressed his view on thelinguistic choice:
“Nous nous exprimons en français parce que le français est une langue à vocation universelle, que notremessage s'adresse aussi aux Français de France et aux autres hommes, parce que le français est unelangue de gentillesse et d'honnêteté...Chez ' nous les mots sont naturellement nimbés d'un halo de sève etde sang; les mots du français rayonnent de mille feux, comme des diamants.”
1
Here we come across the idea that French is better able to pitch the writing at a universallevel, that by using French the audience is broader and that French words have better connotationsthan those of African languages. However, one wonders whether the 'vigorous' and 'bloody'connotations to African words have anything to do with its colonial past, but we will address thisissue further on. That writing in French links the author to an older, established literary canon isundeniable. It may be the case that a work written in French renders it more credible, simplythrough this choice of language.Amin Maalouf, in his book 
 Identités Meurtrières,
 points out that Maimonides, a 12
th
centuryJewish writer, wrote
The Guide for the Perplexed 
, a treatise reconciling Jewish and contemporarymorality, in Arabic in order that it would reach the largest audience. This was at a time when theArabic language and culture was flourishing and dominant, therefore the choice of Arabic over Hebrew seems to fit with this notion of universality and extending one's readership.In spite of this, consideration of one's audience is not just a matter of inclusion, but also of exclusion through language. For Azouz Begag, a French writer of Algerian descent, the choice towrite in French seems natural, as it is the language of the country in which he was born. However,his parents did not share this; his parents never fully learnt to read or write in French. Thus thedecision to write in French entails the in-admittance of his parents and part of his heritage. The ideaof French universality expressed above appears curious, as it is only for a chosen group. In Algeria,
1opold Sédar Senghor Introduction to
'Ethiopiques, le 24 septembre 1954
'
 
French is significantly not an official language, but it is still spoken in government, higher education and in the media. However, if one wanted to be sure of being understood by Algerians or  North Africans, the choice of language would simply be Arabic. Writing in French assumes a moretargeted, even select audience.That French is being adopted as a literary language is welcomed by some. An article published in
 Le Monde
in 2007 'Pour une littérature-monde en français' points out that the centre of French literature has moved from its native France to 'ailleurs'. It announces the end of francophoneliterature and the beginning of French world literature. It is easy to see how, for the French, thiscouldn't be seen as anything other than a great thing; it opens up a new range of literature andrichness of language that is immediately readable. On the other hand, for those who are choosingFrench over their native language, this phenomenon is surely experienced in a different way. It isnecessarily a negation of one part of one's identity. Whether such a crisis and conflict is felt by allsuch writers who choose to write in a language that is not historically theirs, cannot be known.Assia Djebar, an Algerian writer who writes in French and the first writer from the Maghrebto be elected to the Académie Française, wrote in an article “I discover once again these wordsinside me, these words that tear me apart: “You should say no to that displaced language”. Thefather who does not want to let you go, like a slap in the face, a blow to your shoulders, your guiltyshoulders.”
2
We can see that in her case, there is a culpable feeling of turning away from or  betraying her heritage.In North Africa, the reason that French is spoken at all is that its countries are former Frenchcolonies. The language here was imposed, and not the result of 
 
natural
,
organic
 
formation of thenative language through history. For some, using French is a
 
continual reminder and connection
 
tothis colonial history and carries a strong connotation. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan writer whoinitially wrote in English before deciding at a certain point to write solely in Gikuyu. He feels thatfor Africans to write in English, French of Portuguese is to perpetuate colonialism. “The bullet wasthe means of physical subjugation, Language was the means of spiritual subjugation.”
3
To persistwriting under the weight of a colonially imposed language is to submit to this spiritual subjugation.The political and cultural implications of language are, to some, only a part of the problemsince the implications of a particular linguistic system run deeper. That language and culture aresomehow entwined is a commonly held belief. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o states that, “Language, anylanguage, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture”
4
. Heuses the example of English being spoken by Scandinavians as a means of communication withnon-Scandinavians, but not with each other and not to write in since it is not a carrier of their culture. Ngũgĩ argues that language evolves with culture, a culture that distinguishes itself fromothers through its distinct moral, ethical and aesthetic values; these values, he says, are carriedthrough language. “Language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people's experience inhistory. Culture is indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next.”
5
We can see a similar difference between two different societies in the present as in onesociety over time. Chaucer's English would be as different to modern English as Chaucer's Englandand its different cultural morals and activities. Would it be possible to describe modern life inEngland using Chaucer's English, or vice versa? Languages change and adapt as those who use itchange and as history unfolds. Renan, in his essay
Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?' 
stated that “Leslangues sont des formations historiques.”
6
That cultural and linguistic development are analogous
2Assia Djebar and Pamela A. Genova, The Eyes of Language (From the Novel in Progress "La fin du royaumed'Alger"),
World Literature Today
3Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o,
 Decolonising the mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
, 19864Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o,
 Decolonising the mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
, 19865Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o,
 Decolonising the mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
, 19866Ernest Renan,
'Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?' 
présenté par Raoul Girardet, Imprimerie Nationale, 1996
 
seems to be a fair assertion, however, should this negate one's ability to express one culture, with itsdistinct history, in the language of another?That one culture's language is better placed to describe that culture seems to be a fair case,however, if one does not understand that language, to what extent are we impeded if it is describedin one that we do? Language makes communication of thoughts possible up to a certain point, butto what extent does a system of language condition thought? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which tothis day continues to be disputed and defended, holds that thoughts and behaviour are determined,or are at least partially influenced, by language. The hypothesis, in its strongest sense, claims thatthoughts and ideas are determined or limited by language, and in its weaker sense purports thatlanguage influences the way we think and apprehend the world around us. It considers that no twolanguages can accurately represent the same social reality. If this is taken to be the case, it wouldseem that North African writers working in French would not be able to fully describe certain NorthAfrican cultural phenomena. According to the stronger implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,describing the experience of one culture using a language other than the one in which that culture isconceived would be nothing more than an approximation. The difference between two societiesthat have different languages is far greater than two societies with different words to name theobjects therein. That societies are different is not such a challenging idea, but that language mayrestrict our ability to comprehend another culture because it was not conceived of in our language isa more difficult notion.André Gide's novel,
The Immoralist,
is partly set in Tunisia and Gide uses Arabic words todescribe certain objects such as the '
chechia
'
.
Although he could use the word 'hat' or '
chapeau
',neither would have the same specificity as the Arabic name. Abd al Malik, whose book '
Qu'Allahbénisse la France!
' is largely a description of North African culture in France, freely uses Arabicwords where French falls short. Words such as '
 ponedou
' and '
madessou
' are used to describecertain traditional dishes and, on his conversion to Islam, we come across many words that arespecific to Islam, such as '
 shahada
', '
rakaat 
' and '
 sunna
'. Even where there is a French equivalentthat seemingly translates the word well, he still uses the Arabic alongside; “L'islam était ma religionnaturelle, celle dont Abraham, le « croyant originel » (
hanîf 
), avait le premier témoigné.”
7
Heexplains the meaning of the words, but continues to use them as if no other French translation couldfully contain the meaning. He also uses English words when writing about the world of rap. It may be that, as there already exists a word for a certain phenomena, '
djing 
' or '
 freestyles
' there is noreason to create another. Since the particular act and word were conceived of in another language,one remains closer to its expression in using the original word.There is also an inextricable connection of a culture to its religion, especially in the case of  North Africa and Islam. The same could be said for French and Catholicism. Although France andFrench aren't
the
country
 
or 
the
language of Catholicism, it has been the dominant religionthroughout the development of the French language and country. The two different languages andcultures have two different systems of spirituality behind them. How successfully one can describe North African culture, which is largely Islamic, in a language steeped in Catholicism, is debatable.That certain terms are kept in Arabic and not translated indicates that there are certain nouns andeven realities in the indigenous language and culture that cannot be converted entirely into French.It also represents the limit of understanding between francophone and a French audience.
 
It may be the case that certain North African writers feel a need to appropriate the Frenchlanguage, partly for this need to express cultural or religious phenomena in the language of their contrivance and partly to express their own identity through language. This appropriation maymanifest itself by changing words, adding new ones or any modification that seems to adaptlanguage to its user and their particular identity. French rappers, who adopted the style of rap fromAmericans, at first encountered some difficulty in using the French language in a style that had
7Abd al Malik,
Qu'Allah bénisse la France
! Editions Albin Michel, 2004

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