Monday, January 6, 2014

The Best Way to Understand a to Read it with an Accent?

I'm back! I'm back from my trip to India -- and, surprisingly, Abu Dhabi as well, due to an overbooked flight during our stop in Abu Dhabi. I've got a few pictures up on my Twitter feed  (mostly because Michelle said she expected pics, and I couldn't say no XD) and I plan to put more up there from when I was in India. It's easier to upload onto Twitter from my phone rather than upload it onto the computer to get it on this blog (I don't even think I know how to do that). IT WAS AWESOME. And I'm refreshed, got 2 weeks away from my first draft, and I've already dived into revisions! They're going well so far. I hope you all had a great New Year's!

*** First Blog Post of 2014!!!!! WOO!!! ***

I'm currently reading (amongst a lot of other books) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Now, this is considered to be one of Woolf's masterpieces. So much is said about her technique, her style, and especially about her lyrical prose.

Lyrical prose means that the arrangement of the words sound musical. The way the words roll off the tongue, they way they sound next to each other, the way they're pronounced....

Virginia Woolf was British. That means that her prose was crafted around a British dialect.

Now, as an American, am I missing the true magnitude of her words' musicality by reading Mrs. Dalloway in my normal American accent?

Yea, I know, it's a really weird thought, so go ahead and laugh (I snickered in my mind when I first thought of it).

But lyrical prose is very much like a poem itself. Poems change dramatically if they are read in its true accent: words that normally don't rhyme together suddenly do; the poem solidifies into a united structure; the rhyme scheme and meter and rhythm all come together.

It's a silly thing to get caught up about, and this issue mostly comes up only where the prose is the main draw of the writing, but just think: how much do readers unknowingly cast aside because they don't live in the same world that the writer does?

In America, it's a public school. In Britain, their public school is the equivalent of an American private school. Now, say an American writer wrote, "Little Billy sat in the classroom of a Chicago public school." British people would nod and be like, "Very good for Little Billy! You go Little Billy, good job, go get that great education."

Let me tell you something. Little Billy might be getting something in a Chicago public school but more than likely it's not a great education.

It's a concept lost in translation, for modern Chicago public schools are amongst America's most infamous education systems, characterized by an epidemic of poverty, misbehavior, and extremely low results. But a British reader might associate Chicago (a big city) and a public school (rich private education) to mean Little Billy is of wealthy means, something entirely opposite to what the writer wanted. On the same token, a British writer might say, "Little Billy went to a public school in the depths of London," and an American would think, "Well, Little Billy's in for a rough time," completely opposite to what the writer intended.

As hard as we try, we'll never be able to pick up on all these mistranslations by ourselves unless we live in both countries and are immersed in both cultures. It's not because we're dumb; it's because half the allusions the foreign writer puts in we, seriously, don't give a second thought. For instance, very few probably knew that JK Rowling's magical creation of 'Spellotape' (basically a magical version of normal tape) is a pun on the very popular British brand, 'Sellotape'. The American equivalent is Scotch tape.

I think this is why the translator's job is so incredibly important, even in UK to US or US to UK translations (imagine translations between languages.... I'm not even going to try talking about that in this post). There are so many differences in any two cultures that the translator needs to pick up on, needs to bridge the gap for the reader so the reader gets the full power of the original text.

What I love are annotations. You'll find them in most classic novels, especially in the translated ones, little blurbs that explain a piece of the text. They give such a richness to the novel and help bring the reader closer to the author's intentions.

So, while it might be too exhausting to read a British book in an American accent, or an American book in a British one, knowing that there is a culture gap is the first step to understanding the book.

Realize, at least, that the author wrote the book in a different dialect than the one you're used to. Then you can research the novel more, buy an annotated edition, try understanding it yourself, or simply read it normally. It doesn't matter. From there, it's all up to you. Just don't read in ignorance.

What do you think?


  1. Even something as simple as the bathroom gets lost in translation. (Because I've lived in London and if you say you have to go to the bathroom to pee, they will look at you funny.)

  2. Very great point! I try to conjure up the accents in my head. Sometimes they fall flat, but it really does help. :)

    Welcome back!

  3. You know. i've never thought about this. You bring up some really good points.

    Happy New Year!