How Language Interacts With The Reader

I’ve been intrigued by the use of language. Cantonese and Russian in jingjing’s chapters are clearly used to provide context for the characters background and the setting. What’s more interesting, though, are the seemingly arbitrary translations. In jingjing’s first chapter (pg 101-113) the translations are sparse and unclear when it is a translation or just the next thought. For example, the Cantonese/Russian/[some other language?] combination in the middle of page 105 is left without any translation; in fact, the sentence is treated as if it never changed languages at all from English (if that’s what you can call the language in this chapter). On the other hand, the Russian in jingjing’s second chapter is clearly translated (pg 274), but it is done by the text within brail (which has become more active throughout the novel and seems to be omniscient). This character’s (?) willing explanations have seemed helpful, especially with something as frustrating as trying to read something in a language you don’t understand. But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by it, like this is a part of it’s attempt to earn my trust by helping me see the book through it’s eyes (metafiction, right?) while it doesn’t have it’s own chapters and has never identified itself. On the other hand, the etymology of vocabulary (like on pg 380) is given by Anwar, a character I instinctively trust since I see how he relates to (and is loved by) his family and coworkers and who has his own chapters to give me deeper insight into his mind. Furthermore, he uses his own language with Xanther (albeit not foreign); this use of language shows a depth of relationship that none of the other characters seem to share. Their own language includes Xanther calling Anwar by his first name and him calling her “daughter” (opposed to what would usually be the other way around “dad” and “Xanther”), which reveals a bit of playful intimacy the two have, which Xanther describes as “their little code” (pg 54). So the distinction between the explanations/translations provided by Xanther and Anwar and the distant braille speaking character is a level of trust that the reader has with the character.

Also, just a side-note with language: French has kind of shown up in two places. Firstly, how Xanther refers to Astair and Anwar collectively as Les Parents (instead of the parents or my parents). She attributes this to one of her friends, Josh (pg 182) and then it’s consistent. I’m not really sure if that has any significance at all, but I’m going to keep watching for it. Secondly (and this might be a stretch) the French use << and >> instead of quotation marks, so every time these are used in place of parenthesis, I automatically read them as if someone is speaking. It has made those side thoughts seem more significant or as if the book is speaking directly to the reader. For some reason, I can’t help but think this is attached to the braille commentary, but again, I’m not really sure if this is of any significance.


3 responses to “How Language Interacts With The Reader”

  1. kelseybourque says :

    At first I found myself slightly frustrated with the onslaught of various dialects (which beside the sections in English or Spanish) I would be compelled to translate or use context clues to decipher. As I dive deeper into The Familiar, however, I find myself appreciative of the different terminology and even the slang mandated to specific sections. I feel Danielewski enticing the reader, challenging us to experience the book actively instead of directly understanding everything at face value. The diversity of the narratives’ language aid in placing the reader into the heart of the characters we are focusing on. For example, if the Luther sections were written completely in English, with no Chicano slang or crude vocabulary, the vivid imagery and overall ambiance of Mexican gang life in Los Angeles would not be easily perceived by the average reader. The same can be said about the other sections where characters are speaking Cantonese, Russian, Hayaren (in the Armenian sections), and as you previously stated, even Anwar and Xanther’s conversations can be classified as their own “dialect”. The use of native tongues pertaining to each individual section, accentuates the distinctions between plot lines. Ironically, (even though at first confusing) the mixtures of these languages create a familiarity within the sections that help in understanding and interpreting the text.

    Not only does Danielewski use foreign languages, but he also utilizes varying fonts to provoke a “familiar” receptivity from readers. The fonts create a strong division between chapters, and aid in gently transitioning focus from plot line to plot line. For example, in the height of the “Cinnamon” section, my mind was completely trapped in the scene of Xanther running from Anwar’s car and encountering this oily, helpless, and fragile creature. Although my thoughts were fully concerned with what was to come, as I turned the page to see the “Raeden” cover page and the font in which the jingjing sections are always written, I immediately was able to re-center my focus and enter into jingjing’s world in Singapore. In a sense, the fonts serve the same purpose as the different dialects throughout the book.

  2. amanduholsen says :

    The “omniscient voices” you speak of are the narcons. If you notice the further you get through the narrative, there are three distinct fonts used to comment within the braille. I agree, that these narcon characters are extremely untrustworthy because we have no back round on them, yet they are supplying us with information. While the information is extremely useful to understanding parts of the narratives like jingjing’s section, you as the reader wonder how much of the information you can trust coming from the unknown source. Right now, as the reader, I am forced to believe any information or translation the narcons give me because they have the upper hand and know more than me or like you said, are all knowing beings.

    Are you finding that any section with a lot of use of the narcons, or use of foreign language you distrust or dislike more? Do you think that because you see the familiar (haha see what I did there) use of French used by Anwar and Xather you trust them more to deliver the story to you?

    • pmcates says :

      Yeah their knowledge definitely gives them an upper hand (which puts us in a bit of a quandary). But now that I’ve read through page 600, TF-Narcon9 has given us more information on itself and it feels more trustworthy. It’s interesting because in any other novel, we would automatically trust the all-knowing narrator, but I still question whether or not the Narcon is completely reliable. I guess that’s part of the point, questioning how the reader normally interacts with a book.

      It is interesting to think about the recognition of language being associated with trusting/liking the character! I suppose it’s elementary to dislike a character just because he/she doesn’t speak English fluently… but I really struggle to connect with a character I can’t understand. Jingjing, for instance, is of no significance to me. And I find myself disinterested at the parts in Luther’s chapters that have Spanish. On the contrary, recognizing French makes me way more excited when the tiny bit that’s being used is a language I can read! It showed up again with Anwar and Xanther (pgs 459, 542), and even though it was largely nonsense, it made me engage with the book more. What are you feeling with the languages? Does it hinder or enhance you experiencing the book?

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