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Italicizing "foreign" words in English text

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On Facebook recently, Jackie asked a question:

Jackie: Conversations in languages other than English: italicized or not? Do we have strong opinions? What do I do with Spanglish?

Jackie: I guess I’m asking WWJDD, What Would Junot Diaz Do?

The following conversation ensued, reprinted here with permission from Jackie and Mary Anne. I've edited it lightly, and I've left out contributions from various other participants, most of whom agreed that such words should not be italicized.


Jed: Traditionally, non-English words embedded in English text are italicized, but I’ve been seeing less of that over the past ten years or so. Mary Anne had interesting discussions/arguments with her publisher about this for Bodies in Motion; she noted (among other things) that italicizing words makes less sense when the speaker/narrator doesn’t see them as foreign, and when you don’t want to call them out as Different to the reader. With that and related ideas in mind, I personally have been leaning toward less use of foreign-word italics over time, and in at least some SH stories we eschewed them altogether. (Example: “Recognizing Gabe: un cuento de hadas,” by Alberto Yáñez; there are italics in the title, but not in the body of the story.)

Mary Anne [responding to Jackie's question, not to my comment]: NO NO NO NO NO [Facebook, entertainingly, interpreted this as being in a non-English language, and offered to translate it for me.]

Mary Anne: Okay, I don’t have a lot of time right now, but the brief argument against italicizing “foreign” words is as Jed summarized. Foreign to whom? The character? The author? Or just the reader?

Two illustrative points:

  • When they were publishing Bodies in Motion, they ran it through Webster’s, per usual, and of course, half the food words had made it into English and half hadn’t. So I’d have a paragraph of food description with half the food words italicized. Totally ridiculous.
  • Keri Hulme’s The Bone People has a ton of Maori words and she doesn’t italicize any of them and it’s a brilliant book and one of my ten favorite in all the world and it won a Booker Prize, so there.

[Jed: And there are plenty of readers to whom the words in question aren’t foreign at all, of course.]

Jackie: omg, the food word example is a complete nightmare, Mary Anne.

Mary Anne: Yes. Is biryani an English word? Dal? Chutney? Ketchup?

Mary Anne: Catamaran, candy, cash, cheroot, congee, coolie…[See also] List of English words of Indian origin.

Mary Anne: At what point do we consider these words sufficiently legitimized?

Jackie: Um…biryani is the word…for that particular dish. Full stop.

Also, I guess I’m against Othering Spanglish. Possibly very strongly against it.

Mary Anne: A great book on the subject is Borderlands/La Frontera, by Gloria Anzaldúa. If you’d like some theory with your opinion.

Jackie: I swear I own several books with those titles, but not that one. And yes, I think I would.

Mary Anne: She wrote it when she was in grad school (!), but it has become a foundational post-colonial text. “The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country, a border culture.” —Anzaldúa

Jackie: Is it WRITTEN in Spanglish? That would be AMAZING.

ps. Spanish 202 is still not a high enough level to follow Spanglish on the bus or on a hiking trail. It’s just enough to begin to appreciate the breadth and flexibility of the speakers. And of course it’s regional, and rapidly changing. Sometimes I encounter it on people’s Facebook pages, and often I have NO IDEA WHAT IS GOING ON. NONE.

Mary Anne: Jackie, yes it is. I had four years of high school Spanish, and I could read it just fine. There were people in my grad school class who had no Spanish, and they struggled, but with the help of a dictionary, made it through.

Mary Anne: She isn’t trying to make it impossible for the [Anglophone] reader. But she also isn’t going to try to make it easy for you.

Which, interestingly, dovetails exactly with a bit of Toni Morrison I was just teaching. In the foreword to Sula, she talks about how the opening section was something she added, to function as a “lobby,” to give white readers a white perspective to open the book with, rather than dropping them right into the world of the black characters. And that she did it because she was afraid of limiting her audience to just a few hundred black readers. And that Morrison didn’t do that with any of her other books, and she regrets doing it with this one.

Jackie: I totally get being upset if she feels it’s a weaker book because of it. But Toni Morrison wasn’t already Morrison, Toni, The Great when she wrote Sula, was she? It was a legitimate concern: so I think the blame for that falls on white readers who put down books that aren’t aimed specifically at them, not on her for worrying about it.

Mary Anne: The rest of the Foreword is mostly talking about how black writers of that era were expected to write about “black issues.” I don’t think she’s exactly blaming herself—it’s more that she made a certain choice, and now she’s wishing she hadn’t, and had let the chips fall where they might in terms of readership.

Jackie: But she didn’t do it with The Bluest Eye, huh?

Mary Anne: I can’t remember, honestly. But she says not, in this. “This deference, paid to the ‘white’ gaze, was the one time I addressed the ‘problem.’”

Mary Anne: Here, this speaks to the italics thing: “[In] my new first sentence I am introducing an outside-the-circle reader into the circle. I am translating the anonymous into the specific, a ‘place’ into a ‘neighborhood’ and letting a stranger in, through whose eyes it can be viewed.”

Mary Anne: A last note re: Anzaldúa, and then I’m running to class. From an Amazon review by reviewer Nom de plume (and this seems accurate to me):

The Spanglish included is intended for an English-speaking audience, and is not in my opinion of the true transient nature which is inextricable from spoken Spanglish. So at times the language of the writing does feel a tad contrived; using Spanish as a highlighter for key words of certain themes as opposed to allowing it even-handed participation in the exploration of the author’s thesis.

While somewhat obnoxious, this choice points to Anzaldúa’s desire to make this work accesible to people with little or no knowledge of Spanish. This can be seen as a beacon to draw in people who do not as yet see themselves as connected to the Chicano / Hispanic world.

Jackie: Yes. The Spanglish I encounter day-to-day is surprisingly opaque if you just speak English and some Spanish. It’s almost its own language.

Jackie: (And I’m sure people have written entire graduate theses on its grammar and evolution and regionalism. And I would love to see some of those.)

Jed: Btw, I found the bit of Anzaldúa that Mary Anne showed me a while back fascinating and awesome, and largely comprehensible to a monolingual Anglophone who grew up in California and thus learned a couple hundred words of Spanish by osmosis, or at least to me. And I should have mentioned in my earlier comment that that piece also contributed to changing how I think about this stuff.

Jed: …On a vaguely related note, there’ve been linguistic studies of code-switching, some of which I’ve found useful in thinking about bilingual fictional characters, though I still know very little about it. I just happened across one titled “Code-switching or Borrowing? No sé so no puedo decir, you know,” by John M. Lipski, which might be of interest re Spanish/English code-switching even though it’s not specifically about what you were talking about.

Jed: I just checked Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. The Spanish is unitalicized—but it’s also rarer than I had remembered. Most of the two-page spreads I opened randomly to had no Spanish words; a couple of them had one Spanish word (no italics). The last one I looked at has three, all unitalicized: “novias,” “cocoa pañyol,” “moreno.”

Jackie: It’s “interesting,” isn’t it, that just a sprinkling of Spanish can cause such issues for some readers.

Mary Anne: Jackie, I keep thinking about this and wanting to rant, even though there is no one here to rant against. What makes them think their English is better than my English, anyway. Mi ingles can take su ingles out back behind the woodshed and vencer a la mierda fuera de él.

Except I don’t actually speak Spanglish, or really Spanish anymore, so that probably didn’t actually make any sense.

Jackie: If you’re really itching for a fight, I found an old reddit thread on Diaz’s “Motherfuckers will read a book that's 1/3 Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and White people think we're taking over” comment.

Jackie: It’s also worth noting that in a lot markets, a sprinkling of Spanish will be regarded differently in a story by an author with gringo last name vs. one with an Hispano-sounding name. Maybe not so much in [the market that sparked the original question]… But privilege and authenticity and appropriation are elephants in the room.

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