Penman No. 183: Why I Choose to Italicize


Penman for Monday, January 18, 2016


ONE OF the more interesting sidelights in our discussions at the NVM Gonzalez Centennial Workshop in Mindoro a couple of weeks ago had to do with the seemingly small issue of whether or not to italicize Filipino and other non-English words in an English text.

The conventional practice, of course, has been to italicize words like utang na loob, bagoong, kaibigan, and so on. That’s explicitly embodied in editorial stylebooks employed by such publications as The Economist, which hews to the policy that “FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES, such as cabinet (French type), dalits, de rigueur, jihad, glasnost, Hindutva, in camera, intifada, loya jirga, Mitbestimmung, pace, papabile, perestroika, sarariman, Schadenfreude, ujamaa, should be set in italics unless they are so familiar that they have become anglicised and so should be in roman. For example: ad hocapartheid
 a priori
 a propos
 avant-garde, etc.”

Not everyone, however, feels bound by this rule. Increasingly, over the past couple of decades, writers of color in both the US and the Commonwealth (and, yes, the Philippines) have chosen to resist and reject italicization, believing that doing so represents a form of acquiescence to the dominance of English, and of exoticizing one’s own language, making it appear quainter and therefore more artificially attractive than it should. It’s a political rather than a mere technical decision, a declaration of independence, as it were, from the strictures of style laid down by the old regime.

One of the most quoted sources for this position is the New York-based novelist Daniel Jose Older, who demonstrates in a YouTube video why italicizing Spanish words and phrases in an English text would sound silly in the real, spoken world.

This was brought up again at the recent NVM Gonzalez workshop, where half of the participants were Filipino-Americans who came over from the US. The workshop leader—the very capable fictionist Dr. Evelina Galang, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Miami—discussed the use of Filipino words in a mainly English text, and why glossaries (and, not incidentally, italics) are better dispensed with, leaving the writer with the responsibility of establishing or at least hinting at their meaning in context.

(Evelina has an essay devoted to this concern, and let me quote an eloquent passage from that piece: “As a girl who grew up hanging upside down on easy chairs with a book in her hand, I often read words—English and other words—that I did not understand. I rarely stopped to define them. Sometimes I wrote them down and looked them up later. (I was a geek, after all.) But more often than not, having stepped into a fiction John Gardner called ‘that vivid and continuous dream,’ and driven to know what happened next, I kept reading. Like Angel, I let the words wash right over me, I watched them working next to other words. I listened to them. I tasted them and felt the weight of them in my mouth. I imagined them surrounded by nothing at all. I followed them as they floated down the page, bumping into semicolons, swimming through parentheses, slapping up against em-dashes, evading italics, and falling right off the page. I read the words in context and, right or wrong, I gave the words their meaning.”

I agree perfectly with Evelina as far as contextualization goes. I’ve always taken it as a technical challenge to show what Filipino words like bucayo and manananggal mean without defining them in that direct but clumsy way that glossaries or footnotes provide. Importantly, Evelina went on to emphasize that these choices are, ultimately, for each author to make for his or her own good reasons, and that those choices deserve to be respected by other writers and readers.

As it happens, I’m one of the holdouts in the matter of italicization, and I premise my position on both technical and political grounds. First, in terms of readability, italics may seem intrusive—and if there’s too many of them in the text, that will certainly be true—but my pet theory is that it’s actually easier on the reader’s eye and mind to spot a non-English word coming up in the text and to prepare for it, rather than be surprised by something “foreign”, even if it’s one of our own. (Just imagine the confusion that words like “ate” (older sister), “pain” (bait), and “noon” (then) would make.) Personally, I don’t want my readers—especially in my fiction—stopping to wonder what specific words mean, which is why the older I get, the simpler my vocabulary becomes; I want the reader to grasp whole sentences, paragraphs, and scenes, and not to trip on individual words.

Politically, when I italicize Filipino words in an English text, I also mean to say that these words are special to me and to my culture, and I don’t want them to be diluted by a dominant foreign language, which is English. As far as I’m concerned, the whole book in English is already a translation of Filipino experience; most of the dialogue there was never spoken in English, in the first place.

I suppose it’s different when you’re writing in English as a minority in America, and you feel bound (as I would, in that situation) to claim and establish a parity between your mother tongue and English. And let’s face it—for many hyphenated minorities, especially second- and third-generation writers, English has become their mother tongue. When they write fiction about themselves, their characters will speak in English, and the odd Filipino word will be just that.

Indeed the issue goes beyond italicization; the question of when and how to use Filipino or other non-English words in an English text should be seriously pondered by every Filipino or Filipino-American (and Filipino-Canadian, etc.) writing in English, mindful that there are words and concepts in Filipino without exact translations in English, which might be better used as is. (And as Salman Rushdie once put it, “To unlock a language, look at its untranslatable words.”) However, one also needs to resist the urge to exoticize one’s writing by peppering it needlessly with native words and expressions just to add more “local color,” especially when ready translations are available.

I’ll go at greater length into matters of translation in another column-piece, but I’ll rest my case on this issue of italics for now, hoping that it adds a bit more asim to the global sinigang of language.

One thought on “Penman No. 183: Why I Choose to Italicize

  1. Thank you for writing about this! As a reader, what italicisation seems to me is that the writer might want me to take notice of the peculiar words he’s using.

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