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Foreignization and Neologism

A shorter post today: what are blogs for if not indulging (à livre ouvert, as they say) parbaked ruminations? Removing this one from deep freeze and tossing it to the hive mind. Two summers back at Banff, an author was defending her insistence on using foreign words in her novel, which her American editor objected to. I believe the word she’d picked out as an example was one for a kind of bed, because to say the word “bed” in English—or even “cot,” which it was visually closer to—was not to name the item in question with any accuracy. It was precisely a kind of bed her likely readers would not be used to having around, much less making or lying in.

M. Lynx Qualey brings up this practice in the context of translation at the QC ’s Constant Conversation:

On the other hand, there’s a more complex foreignizing. For instance, in Elias Khoury’s Yalo, translated by Humphrey Davies, you will find the word kohno, which appears often, untranslated. But this word—changed into an English phrase—would break down its meaning into too many component parts. By leaving it as kohno, Davies holds the concept together, and creates an image of kohno in the reader’s mind. Perhaps even teaches us what kohno means.

My brother, a Japan scholar, once got off the Acela excitedly brandishing the Amtrak magazine, Arrive. It had used the Japanese word for delicious in a restaurant review. “In a few years,” he predicted, “it’ll be hip to say oishii at a sushi bar.” Menus may rival literature as a smuggler, into English, of alien vocabularies. After all, everyone eats, and likely less parochially than they read.

All ordinary examples of ways foreign words can pass into parlance, reinforced by repetition until they summon a rough concept or clear image. “The result,” Edith Grossman writes in Why Translation Matters, “of the linguistic infusion of new means of expression is an expansion of vocabulary, evocative potentiality, and structural experimentation.” Matthew Ward’s use of Maman in the first line to his 1998 translation of The Stranger (instead of Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 “Mother”) may be read among other things as a victory, in the intervening decades, for compulsory public school foreign language education. Though we worry, too, about how aggressive the already dominant English is in its assimilation of other tongues, for while these also grow and change, they are likelier to do so by incorporating English.

But it strikes me that this rhetorical pattern of introduction and insistent repetition has been a strategy of science-fiction since its inception. From the foreign country of a posited future, SF authors introduce neologisms. Some of these by their very construction, portmanteau or otherwise, clue us in to their meaning, but others are conceptually elusive enough that only context triangulates them. SF critics use the word freefall to denote the opening phase in any story, before the reader figures out the rules of the world and lands on his or her feet. In this, and the marginalization of their reading public by commercial segregation, SF and world literature would seem not only to share practice but be subject to a similar prejudice against textual difficulty.

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