Saturday, December 08, 2007

Reading and references

Finished reading Lolita and picked up ‘The Kite Runner’ (Intend to finish it before movie releases). Lolita, though exceptionally well-written; was at times difficult to read since Nabokov liberally uses French sentences and expressions and not commonly used words in English. Top it with the references made to Russian dancers and French authors; and you are left with the choice of either searching online dictionaries and wikipedia or plowing through undaunted with the strange unsettling feeling that something important has been left out. I won’t go as far as in saying that it is annoying [akin to one you feel when you know that someone is trying to hide something from you or just considers you not smart enough to understand it]; but it does leave me with an after-taste of mild dissatisfaction.

Reading ‘The Kite Runner’ after Lolita could not have been pleasanter. Most of the Farsi words are explained, but there are still quite a few (like pari, mard) which the author does not bother to explain. Apart from the words, being an Indian I think I understand the way the Afghans lived twenty five years ago; their customs like respecting the elders and festivals like kite-flying; the social hierarchy, the way people think and talk – better than say, an average western reader.

The pictures that are formed subconsciously in my mind as I read it are far clearer than reading Lolita. (As a crude example; I can envisage a Mumbai train station far more clearly than say, a London tube station – assuming that both the descriptions are equally well-written.) Of course, not a small part of this is due to the fact that the book is written in flowing, captivating style; but the familiarity of the background and characters plays more important role.

By extension, I can say same thing about reading in Marathi as opposed to English. The references, the descriptions – at least most of the times, form so clear-cut images that there is little gap between reading and comprehending. (I fail to think of a better example, but it is like regular intake of medicine vs. injecting it through IV.)

This fact also seems to affect my speed of reading and ability to concentrate/ read through the pages without any distraction for these two languages. It is a well known fact that when we read, our eyes don’t try to take in each and every alphabet. Moreover, a group of three-four words is read at a time in a kind of hopping fashion. It is my conjecture, that one reason I can read faster in Marathi is the ability of my mind – of course due to longer exposure to the language – is better developed to fill in the gaps between the alphabets (or syllables in case of Indian languages), guesstimate the word or group of words, take in their meaning and form pictures before the mind’s eye after comparing with the feelings, places, things, references stored somewhere on the brain’s hard-drive.

Now that I have written it down; it appears to me that it is too obvious to state it :). However, it prompted me to think in another direction – when can one say that he/she has command over a particular language? The usual criterion is the ability to read/write/speak that language well. But, there might be more to it. Even if you are confidently able to read/write/speak a language other than your mother-tongue; it still takes some more time to develop an ability to start thinking in that language. So far, I believed that would be the last step in mastering a language. It is in fact true for all practical purposes.

Still, there is that tiny part – the unfamiliarity of the culture that language is part of. (Example of English is not much useful in this case, since it has ceased to be language spoken only by the natives of England long back) which does not allow you to get complete ‘feel’ of the language. It is not a major hindrance but it will prevent you from understanding at least some things completely since you will miss out on the references which are quintessentially part of that culture and hence, of that language. This is the most challenging part when you attempt a translation – especially between two culturally unrelated languages.

This, of course is just an observation [and it sounds sillier and more obvious to me each time I write it :(] and this limitation should not prevent us taking up a book in a different language. However, we should brace ourselves to accept the fact that there might be at least a very tiny fraction of it which would remain unclear to us.

4 comments:

Nikhil said...

Good observations. I guess it ties in with the general human tendency of being more comfortable with familiar stuff. Be it language, music, people you hang out with etc. etc. Also our ability to pick up languages decreases with age, hence the languages we learned and spoke the earliest are the one's we are most comfortable with.

However, we don't really think in languages. Words are the end products of thinking. When we think we are thinking in a language, we are most often visualizing an event in our head, and even in that scene, words follow a thought process rather than precede it. I guess in that respect speaking and thinking/visualizing are equivalent, except that speaking has an observable output while thinking/visualizing hasn't.

Akira said...

I agree...

Some thoughts - Isn't visualization a function of one's imagination?

Also what is derived out of reading a piece differs from person to person . Often the perceptions gleaned might me completely different than what even the author intended.

प्रिया said...

Well said about language, culture and comprehension! On a slightly different "note", I wonder if this why I am able to relate more to Indian music than to Western, even though I can appreciate the beauty of the later!

sandhya said...

very well said! I love to read. I read both English as well as Marathi books but given a choice when i go to bookstore/library i automatically choose a new book by Asha Bage or Meghana Pethe rather than a book from english author. But i will definitely buy a book by Jhumpa Lahiri or Khaled Hosseini because i like their writing. Few months back i read Konkani book JAI KAI JUI by Datta Damodar Naik (Academy Award winning book) I was not very comfortable while reading it but essays are very well written & therefore i enjoyed reading it.My mother tongue is Konkani,we speak konkani at home, marathi in office but still i like reading marathi books by renowned authors like G A Kulkarni, Vijay Tendulkar, Jaywant Dalvi etc.the list is very long.But I remember before shifting to Pune 23 years back from Panaji, i used to visit Saraswati Mandir Library in Panjim every alternate day & read only Marathi books.As u say marathi books can be read with quite a speed but English reading takes little more time. you cannot read between the lines.I really enjoyed reading your views, keep writing. thanks