Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

martes, julio 05, 2011

Italics, Be Gone! Scram! Beat It!

There is a convention in literature that when you’re using words or phrases in a language other than the one you are speaking or writing in, you put those words or phrases in italics. Why? So that the reader will know that it’s not English, instead it’s French. Well, if you look at the words and you see they are not in the language you were reading in, I guess you know they are, wait for it, in another language. Isn’t that astounding? Isn’t that pasmoso?

So we have things like this that beautifully illustrate the convention:

”You understand beautifully. Ca va, ca va. You can’t imagine how little I care.”

The speaker, Oliveira in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela in Spanish) is speaking Spanish (in the translation he’s speaking English and not Spanish, but it doesn’t matter) and the author (or the editor or translator or somebody else important) wants us to know that the phrase "Ca va, Ca va" isn’t in the same language as the first part of the statement. That, lo and behold, for emphasis or some other reason, he’s changed languages. Like we would have thought that "Ca va, Ca va" was a phrase in English that we didn’t know, and we wanted to know what it meant, so without the italics we would have run to an English dictionary and been horrified to discover that, ah hah! "Ca va, Ca va", was not an English phrase. And because it is spoken in France, maybe we would figure out that it was French. And go to a French dictionary instead.

So if the reader is easily misled (Note for O: this word is for you alone), you need italics to create a gap between the language that is being spoken and the speaker’s unannounced foray into some other language. The speaker almost never says, “And as they say in France, ca va, ca va…”

This italics convention is particularly used when Latin names are used. So we always see things like this:

Green turtle (chelonia mydas)

C’mon now. The green turtle is an animal, so if there are words that come after it in a language that looks like Latin, then it’s almost definitely Latin. It's its Latin, scientific name. But as if the reader has never been around the block before, the reader is treated to italics, to suggest that, oh, yes, it’s a Latin name, amigo. Similarly, pot (cannabis sativa l.). This is for people who have never been around the block and are impaired by a vegetable substance. Who else would have trouble figuring out that cannabis sativa is Latin. Hence, the “l” inquires idiotically whether the reader is so impaired by a green vegetable substance that s/he thinks it’s English and needs a reminder that, ut oh, it's Latin.

So by now you’ve realized that I think this is a stupid, unnecessary convention. And for what it’s worth, I also think it does something that is extremely undesirable: it keeps one language from infiltrating and cross-polinating another. It’s designed, I think, to prevent people who are using English, Spanish, Italian and Portugese from saying at the end of a conversation, “Ciao,” as a regular usage. Ciao apparently is ok. Ciao, which implies that the word or phrase is in the same language, is not ok. Similarly, in Spanish, German, and Portugese (and a host of other languages) OK is not ok, but OK is. This is enough to make the reader and the writer even crazier: it’s like trying to keep male and female rabbits from producing offspring from their being together in the same cage. It’s that impossible. And it reeks of a kind of language purity that the world has apparently abandoned (except in France, but that’s another story). And if the world hasn't abandoned it, I confess: I have.

Why am I raving about this here? Does it matter to anyone? Well, it’s simple. And it matters to me. My manuscript for my new novel, Tulum, is written in English, and it has words in it that are Spanish. Do I want to put the Spanish words, each and every single one of them, in italics? No, I do not. The narrator uses Spanish words when he talks. He just uses them. He does not say them in italics. He just says them. Other people in the book use Spanish words when they talk. They do not italicize. I like the idea that both English and Spanish words are used by the characters. Sometimes, they explain what the word means, sometimes not. No matter. It is how they speak. It's what they say. And they do not make a gesture or a signal or a prompt that they are now, get ready for it, switching languages. They just say what they say. So. Entonces. I have decided that the italics convention stops right here. It is not getting into my book. No matter what. Italics, you are history to me.

I assure you. This will not make the book any harder to read. It will end a practice that has outlived its usefulness.

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Blogger Diane said...


But you should have artistic license over how you want your work produced.

I overuse italics and bold font all the time, to indicate a whisper, or a raised excited tone, respectively.

But not for language shifts. And I've never been accused of being a writer, so I guess I get a pass.

Or does readin me drive you nuts?

1:42 p.m.  
Anonymous ntx said...

The other undesirable thing that italics do: They stop the reader's eye, and therefore the reader's ear. Italics call too much attention to the words and steal attention from the writing.

When I want to stop the action, I stop it. Like that.

Otherwise I think it's best to keep things moving right along without a whole lot of speed bumps getting between the page and the reader.

4:29 p.m.  

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