The Idiom of Literature: Native Vs Non-native Language(s)

The Idiom of Literature: Native Vs Non-native Language(s)

By Ashraf Lone

The debate about which literature is best among the native/mother language and English language is gaining currency with the emergence of new writers in English language and dwindling the number of writers in native/mother language(s) with each passing day. There is nothing bad in writing in any language as far as literariness of literature is not compromised, but it is not that simple as it seems to be. This demands much attention than before especially when a litany of writers shift from their native/mother language to a non-native language or English in contemporary times.
At the first glance, literature in native/mother language may not look better as compared to literature written in English(mostly owing to the market value), but literature in mother language or regional language is always better as compared to non-native( say, English) language and mostly we come to know about this when a non-native language leaves or vacates the place. There are plenty of examples to corroborate this claim. Ghalib always used to boast about and felt proud of his Persian poetry, but once the Persian language was replaced by Urdu/Hindi as a major mass language of subcontinent, Ghalib’s Persian poetry also lost the appeal among the masses and among the elite as well, or we can say, even went into oblivion.
Now, Ghalib is famous and revered because of his Urdu poetry and his letters, written in Urdu. The big and immediate reason is the loss of readers/speakers of Persian in the subcontinent which also holds some weight, but after having a close look on this phenomenon, there arise many questions. First is itself of a language of a native. It is a fact that it takes 15-20 years for a non-native speaker to learn a non-native language , say English, and after reading so much literature one comes to some extent to grasp the context of language and words and the meanings attached to the words of a non-native language. It is always said that almost half of the age of person passes in learning a non-native language and still we can’t say that he/she has mastered the non-native language in its entirety. The culture of a place plays an important part in evolving and construction of a language and to learn a language in its full, one has to understand a culture of the language also, which is not possible or very difficult for a non-native. We can never claim to have a full hold on any non-native language and the culture behind it.
This does not mean that all the time native language literature is of high quality but it needs to be studied in broader perspective. Moreover, a writer expresses himself better and more explicitly through his native/mother language. A writer of mother or native language knows very well the culture and meaning behind a particular word or phrase. He goes into the depth of word and he knows which word is perfect at which place. For this, a writer of native language has not to extract everything from the dictionary or from some kind of literary book. He /she sometimes innovates phrases and words, keeping his/her culture in mind. It doesn’t mean a writer of English or any non-native language cannot do this, but the truth is that a speaker or writer of English has to rely always on secondary sources or a literary piece/dictionary. He/she is chained in that with little freedom unless he/she has grasped and absorbed too much form a non-native/English language.
Take for example, almost every writer of Urdu, especially the early poets have written in Persian- an official language of India at one time , spoken by masses and elite as well, but the bitter truth is that in today’s times very few know or study Persian poetry, and other literary works in this language. Like Ghalib, most of these writers boasted about their command on Persian and literature produced in this language as well, little they know that one day, it is their Urdu writings, which will give them fame and keep their name alive, and also introduce them to the world. It doesn’t mean that these writers wasted their energy or talent by writing in Persian, but the truth is that a non-native language is always in a temporary state or we can say a guest language. As far as literature is produced in a native language, although if with a slow pace, non-native languages face a threat of vacation.
So. the question is: which literature is better? There cannot be any definite answer to this. While some may claim that literature written in English language is better, but , on the other hand , there are thousands of writers or natives who hold the opposite view for many reasons , some of which are mentioned above and some of which are known to every unbiased reader of literature.
We have also examples of Manto, Prem Chand, Ismat Chugtai, Rajindra Singh Bedi, Intizaar Hussain and so on. These are the great short story writers of Urdu literature. They have set the standards of short story writing in Urdu literature and their works are considered classics. The language, diction, expression and feelings expressed and used by these writers in Urdu is a treat to read and every native reader enjoys it. A reader easily relates with the diction and words and the meanings and expression hidden behinds these. Now there are also translations of these writers available, but these translations lack expression, feeling and meaning of original or Urdu- rightly so. We are unable to enjoy Mantos or Ismats language and their expressions in English. We can’t see or feel the intensity of the words and phrases in English as compared to its original language , that is, Urdu even if a translation is of “high quality” done with utmost care. The culture and taste is lost in translation, although meaning is there. In the aame way every, literary piece written in non-native language cannot have that magic which can engage readers for long. It is easily impossible to find Mantos or Intizar Hussains like prose in English writings of any Indian Pakistani writer.
So , the question that arises here is that what is the point of writing in English or any other non-native language? To be precise, we sometimes feel privileged to write in a non-native language as it gets patronage from the market and the ruling elite. A writer wants to write in language to reach more readers or we can say there are better readers available in that particular language. Sometimes it’s a matter of reaching global audiences. But, the larger question here was about better literature, in the long run, and, in the broader context, and not about the immediate readership.

—The author can be reached at: [email protected]


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