The Politics of Presentation

March 30th, 2005 · 5 Comments
by Booksquare

We stumbled across an interesting discussion about our friend Daniel Olivas, whose first book came out at the same time as Jill’s (they shared war stories during her month here). Actually, the discussion is about Olivas’s book — we’re feeling too lazy to rewrite the sentence. Okay, really, the discussion is about the way presentation affects the perception of language.

In the midst of a glowing review of Devil Talk, we found a serious contemplation of the implications of italicizing Spanish (specifically) in text. Let us, for a moment, forget style guides and their strictures (this is hard for us, but we will try). If you’re Californian or a native of certain other states, you grow up with a smattering of Spanish in your standard vocabulary; some acquire a passable level of conversational Spanish; others speak fluently. As one who has no ear for language (as evidenced by our dismal six years of French with nary a proper pronunciation to speak of), we envy the latter two groups.

But all language is equal in print. Except. . .it depends on the audience. If you are accustomed to it, reading de nada is the same as hearing it. Olivas’s publisher has a policy of not italicizing non-English words or phrases dropped into an otherwise English text. We get this on an intellectual level.

It’s the reader confusion level that gives us pause. La Bloga pinpoints our discomfort:

If you’re the monolingual gringo (or agabachado Latino who lost his Spanish), do you read “hombre” and sound like John Wayne or definitely assume the character’s speaking Spanish? More importantly, what about “Pinche heavy.”? Do you read it like “pinch” and think it’s maybe a typo and not understand Olivas isn’t really talking about using two fingers and that the word has a profane edge?

If “hombre” and “pinche” are italicized, it’s a clear sign to that gringo (and agabachado) that it’s in Spanish and time to pull out the diccionario. Easier for them to grasp, no? If you want to keep and teach them to become literate readers, that is.

Yes, says our stubbornly monolingual gringo soul, that’s it. But, says our wishy-washy nature, words like gringo are so much part of vernacular that italicizing them seems pretentious (doesn’t it, once you’re outside of La Bloga’s quote?). Ditto for hombre. That would be like italicizing burrito. Where, exactly, is the line drawn, however? What is familiar to us may not be familiar to you.

Probably the smart thing to do is to purchase Devil Talk and see if the lack of italics impacts our understanding. Yes, yes, it cuts a little close to the notion of research, but we are nothing if not giving. Right, like we need another excuse to buy a book.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

5 responses so far ↓

  • daniel olivas // Mar 30, 2005 at 10:59 pm

    i can see both sides to this argument even though i’ve chosen one side. this discussion has been picked up by several fine blogs and i’ve been enjoying the give-and-take (it’s been intelligent, thought-provoking and respectful…things we don’t see enough of these days). code-switching (as professors of language call it) has become so common in parts of the united states that very idea of using italics seems, well, alien to certain folks. with respect to confusing the reader, i assume he or she is intelligent and will get it or figure out a way to get it (ask a friend, check out a spanish/english dictionary). but as my son would say, it’s all good.

  • RudyG // Mar 31, 2005 at 6:39 am

    Unfamiliar with this site, I can’t assume anything about the Booksquare author’s ethnicity. But look, gringo, let me tell you … something.

    The something I want to say is: consider my last sentence, above. If you read the word gringo, (as you point out) you can “get this on an intellectual level.” But that’s not all there is to Chicano or Hmong or whatever-Lit.

    I’m no Umberto Eco, but when some people read “gringo”, it maybe produces a rise of the neck hairs. Why? Because they sense a subtle animosity or infuse it with my Otherness, being Chicano and all. They’re not certain, so let me rephrase it:

    Look, gringo, let me tell you something.

    You’re certain now, no?–I must be pissed. I must be Chicano or some Other, no? My italics emphasize animosity or my Otherness or the pronouncing of Other idiom. I’m not certain I could give you clarity about which of the three. There’s limits to what the writer wields with the written word.

    It reminds me of the Treasure of Sierra Madre (which in my edition doesn’t italicize Spanish): ” I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabron (sic–cabrón) and ching’ tu madre!” When people jokingly speak these lines, they tend to stick in an accent, even to the English. But that’s based on their having seen the movie.

    Does your “stubbornly monolingual gringo soul” get that same consistent perception of accent from reading B.Traven’s Treasure? Not without having seen the movie (or heard others use the lines, I’d contend.

    To the author and from a reader’s perspective, how important is it to get that accent into the monolingual reader’s head? Olivas in Devil Talk and La Bloga contributing author Manuel Ramos feel it’s not essential and having opposing views they contributed at La Bloga. I’m crass enough to say go to the site, read those, add your own.

    Once the monolinguals become bi, italics won’t be needed (except for emphasis!). That’s not today.

    Glad I could help “pinpoint your discomfort”. I’d could go on about more, but I always do, so I won’t.

    Rudy Ch. Garcia

  • Booksquare // Mar 31, 2005 at 8:53 am

    Yes, as noted, I can see both sides as well. Oddly enough, I’m reading Lolita for my bookclub, and there are many French phrases rendered in italics (further reminding me of six wasted years!). Most I can pick up from the context, and I’m guessing that will be the case for Devil Talk (it arrives on Friday, so I’ll report back).

    I’m glad the discussion has been adult — I think it’s a fine time to talk about code switching (yes, I’ve learned a new phrase and will be popping it into conversation as much as possible). Since this is the house style for your publisher, readers will also find themselves growing comfortable with the lack of visual cues (and that’s really all the italics are).

    Now my inner autodidact will face new challenges…but we’ve survived so far together. I’m really glad your book is getting this kind of notice.

  • daniel olivas // Mar 31, 2005 at 10:07 am

    the one thing i’ve gotten out of this is that you two purchased my book. god bless the both of you! (i’ve gotten much more out of the discussion but i figure why not make a pinche joke.) peace out, as my son would say.

  • Booksquare // Mar 31, 2005 at 11:38 am

    Rudy — Your Sierra Madre example was perfect. I would encounter the word in text and (being an autodidact) try to force it to fit the “rules” in my head. I wouldn’t get the flavor of the word, which in turn undermines my understanding. Part of this is me — I can’t “hear” other languages (I can read them). This is why I’ll never be more than a passably technical musician. It has also allowed my family to have much fun at my expense. Dictionaries are not the best source for sussing out secondary meanings or slang. However, good writing often saves the reader there!

    I’m not sure what the answer is, and, given the number of languages spoken in Southern California alone (my neighborhood is strongly immigrant Armenian, as opposed to first-generation), I doubt there will ever be a solution that fits comfortably for everyone. I’m willing to experiment and see if it affects my perception of the work.

    Also, Rudy is correct — the discussion at La Bloga is excellent. I strongly recommend reading what others have to say.