...That is the conundrum for every writer using English as their medium of expression for a story set in a country, climate and culture that is not English. How far do you let common perceptions of the country in question (India, as the example for this article) dictate the reader’s grasp of your narrative? Do you take into account the reader’s likely familiarity or unfamiliarity with cultural conventions and how they are broken, as you gallop along with your tale?
Some years ago I started out very firmly in the ‘Do Not Explain’ camp. If writing about Delhi, for instance, I thought there wasn’t the need for an introduction to the context of the narrative. After all, there have been plenty of novels set in Delhi. Most of them do manage to bring out the peculiarity of the city: the clashes between it being the axis of political power, with the bigwigs moving in their concentric circles, and it being a city ruled by a certain kind of businessman; and also being a centre of higher education. All the oddities and irregularities of life in the city would come out in the wash, so to speak, as the novel progressed. So there was no need to explain. Or that’s what I believed.
Today’s meditation in particular is about inserting phrases in the local language (Hindi, or even Hindi-English slang, as is used in Delhi) and local syntax into an otherwise grammatically impeccable English text. Such phrases occur naturally in dialogue and are therefore logically included when writing about the place. There is an argument that they should be included in such a way. But trouble brews when local words are used in the main narrative. There are many mocking tales about Indian authors who ‘explained’ these ‘foreign’ words, although the actual words were commonplace if you knew a bit about Delhi or even if you ate often in an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world. For instance, an author was lambasted for clarifying the word ‘dal’ (cooked lentils); and here I’m doing it too, just in case, you, dear reader, don’t know what ‘dal’ is. Indian authors have been known to take each other to task (in print) about such elucidations and then commit a similar ‘mistake’ themselves.
Let’s examine both sides of the issue with a cold eye. First, how does this ‘explanation’ work? By repeating the sentence in another way, in English, so that the meaning is made clear. Or by slipping in a definition of the word used. Either way, there is an element of repetition for those who don’t understand the local reference.
If you belong to the ‘do not explain’ camp, this is what you believe: the meaning of the word or phrase will eventually be understood through the context of its usage. True, a reader who doesn’t know this other language will never get the literal meaning, but they should be able to grasp the sense of what was said and why. The reader should be credited with being wholly intelligent. Italicise the word or phrase, or not; that’s your call.
The person who benefits most from this approach is the reader who speaks or understands both languages used – English and the local vernacular. That reader, especially if they share a similar background and sensibility to the author, will get a near-indecent thrill from recognising two languages in one sentence and relishing the allusions made. No explanations required, just the joy of seeing the nail being hit on the head.
And yet, the person who is unacquainted with the local culture and language cannot enjoy the sentence or the paragraph on the same level. It’s not they are left baffled, but, depending on their nature and level of curiosity, their reading may stall for a moment and they may resent the intrusion of phrases they don’t understand. So should we spoon-feed those readers, or to put it in corporate-speak: should we be ‘creating a smoother reading experience’ for them?
I am either fickle or confused or both, because I have on occasion switched camp and joined the ‘Yes, It Must Be Explained’ side. Invariably, this happens when I am reading a book which lapses into a language I don’t know. Just the other day I read a very beautiful poem but felt I had missed something and possibly had missed the main point even, because in the penultimate sentence a Spanish word was used and I didn’t know its meaning.
It made me cross. Why was I being credited with more knowledge and linguistic skills than I have? Why was I being credited with the dedication to look up this word on the Net? I mean, that’s an effort. Where was the little asterisk at the bottom of the page with the definition of the Spanish word? How could I just skip over this word and yet fully enjoy the poem? It was a striking poem, but surely I’d missed something?
There is nothing like getting a dose of your own medicine to make you mend your ways. I have ended up vacillating between the two ideological planks of Explain and Do Not Explain. I’ve decided that, in a poem, knowing the exact meaning of each word matters, but in a text the length of a novel it may be more a question of how much to explain? Surely what’s required is a balance between becoming ungainly and being supercilious.
Proponents of the ‘Do Not Explain’ camp have pointed out to me that, if the local words appearing outside of dialogue refer to food or clothing, it doesn’t matter at all, because the reader realises that, even if they don’t fully understand these sorts of words, it is unlikely to have an impact on their understanding of the narrative. These are also the sort of voracious readers who certainly don’t want to be interrupted by a footnote or an indication to flip to the glossary at the back when they are sailing along with their reading. Some Indian writers from the ‘Do Not Explain’ cohort have told me that it is only if the book is aimed at a Western audience that those sly explanatory repetitions need to be inserted. They say the conundrum really is: who are we writing for?
I beg to differ. In 2008 at the conference organised by The Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, it was patiently explained to me by writers from India’s Eastern and Southern states that Delhi idioms (whether in English, Hindi or a mixture of the two) made no sense to them, and they really did wish that a glossary was provided for those local-lingo phrases used in Indian novels published for the Indian market. According to these authors who wrote in other tongues - but read and spoke English - readers from their states, especially those who hadn’t travelled much, needed those explanations about Delhi and its vernacular in English as much as anyone outside of India does.
So, for those of you who thought that I would provide an easy answer to the question: To Explain or Not To Explain? here is one: you cannot please everyone.
At most, you will please half your readership, even if that readership is two people. At worst, you will meet some damned readers (like the writer of this piece) who can’t make up their minds.
The second easy answer is this: do what suits you. Remember, you can’t delight them all. But you can please yourself.