Why using italics to denote foreign words can be problematic

The storm hasn’t passed. Brexit has finally happened (kind of), there are far right rumblings across Europe, ethno-nationalism is on the rise, and there are still supremacists in the White House. Nice. What these various groups, movements and ideologies have in common is their ability to create a fear of the Other. Othering individuals, communities and cultures is fundamentally based on the assumption that that which is being othered represents a risk to ‘our’ way of life, to what we know, and to what we understand about our individual or collective sense of Self. And this is what rallies people to move or vote or fight against it.

Of course, the groups above aren’t the only ones doing it. In fact, alienation comes quite effortlessly to most of us, even if it isn’t our intention. It happens in our conversations, in the risqué jokes we make among friends and family, in our snap judgements of people on the street, in the influential media we consume, in the condescending interactions we have on holiday. It can be conscious or unconscious. The latter might even be more damaging than the former — if you don’t know you’re othering someone, how can you stop it?

Using italics to denote foreign words in literature

Here’s a theory: When a foreign word — one that isn’t part of the language in which the text is being written — is highlighted in italics in a work of literature, it becomes Other.

Syntactically, it still belongs to the sentence; semantically, it has been set apart, singled out, left to fend for itself. It has the same effect as placing a big red arrow underneath it. When it has been italicised, your eyes can’t help but stumble over the word. They see it, they stop, they look at it again. You’re taken out of the reading experience to consider that single word. You perceive it as something alien. Then you dive back into the safe waters of the familiar, eyes gliding over the page, devouring the words that haven’t been italicised.

When the next italicised word appears, the sense of Other is compounded. You can already see it coming, further down the page, in the next sentence, on the same line. You know it’s alien. Perhaps this time you don’t stop to mull it over; you simply jump over it as though it’s an obstacle in the road.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the notion of Us vs. Them crystallises, becomes the standard. Even if the aim is to highlight the uniqueness of the word or signpost it so the reader won’t trip over it, the result is still one of Entfremdung (see what I did there). If the word is Other, then it does not belong. If it doesn’t belong, it isn’t to be wholeheartedly trusted. And if the word cannot be trusted, then you might even say the people to whom the word belongs and the culture surrounding it can’t be trusted either.

Below are three works of literature that use italics in very different ways.

Burmese days

In The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Burmese Days by George Orwell, there’s a brief, interesting explanation on the use of italics in the novel:

“Almost fifty words have been italicised at every appearance. One effect is that Orwell’s story is presented as he would wish: it is the British who are aliens in this society and the language in which the story must be told — English — is itself alien to the host people.”

Here’s an example:

“The old butler was hurrying from the servants’ quarters, thrusting his pagri on his head as he came, and a troop of twittering chokras after him.

‘Earthquake, sir, earthquake!’ he bubbled eagerly.

‘I should damn well think it was an earthquake,’ said Mr Lackersteen as he lowered himself cautiously into a chair. ‘Here, get some drinks, butler. By God, I could do with a nip of something after that.’”

The butler is immediately othered through the italicised use of the term ‘pagri’. Instead of adding the suffix ‘headdress’ or receiving an explanation (e.g. ‘pagri, a turban typically worn by Indian males’), we understand only that the butler has thrust something strange on his head, making him strange by association. This, coupled by the fact that he has no given name other than ‘butler’ (despite being an ‘old’ butler who has probably been at the clubhouse for a long time) and ‘bubbles’ rather than speaks like Mr Lackersteen, establishes him as an entity that has no real place within the rarefied clubhouse atmosphere.

Then there’s the fact that the butler is followed by ‘a troop of twittering chokras’. On first read, it seems as though chokras are an animal of some kind, perhaps birds (twittering) or monkeys (troop). In actual fact, they are boys employed as servants for the white men at the clubhouse. All we understand, however, is that they are Other.

This is exactly the problem and the power that lies with using italics. It causes immediate alienation, creates a dividing line between host and hosted (or perhaps invaders and invaded). In this case, Orwell applied the technique to lay bare the hatred, hypocrisy and intolerance surrounding British colonial rule.

Many other works— especially those dealing with less weighty themes— have no such ambition to fall back on.

Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room is a wonderful, complex novel, a natural successor to the Isherwood novels of the 1930s and a gateway to the gay literature of the 1960s and 1970s. One thing Baldwin does consistently throughout the novel, though, is to mark French words in italics almost to the point of parody. For example:

“He was sitting bundled up in his greatcoat, drinking a vin chaud.”

And:

“‘I’ll see you later. A tout à l’heure.’”

And:

“It was observable, through open windows on the quais and sidestreets, that hoteliers had called in painters to paint the rooms.”

In the three examples above, the italics serve only to keep reminding the reader that the novel is set in France, France, France. There’s no social commentary being made here (at least not that I can see). Baldwin’s intention may have been to put the reader in the shoes of David, the US protagonist, as he seeks to unpick the existential knots binding him to the streets of Paris, but the attempt falls short when one considers David has been in Paris for over a year and has clearly mastered the language. He’s at home in this environment, more so than in the USA, a country to which he has no desire to return. Moreover, the words highlighted are so banal. Vin chaud is simply mulled wine. A tout à l’heure is a repetition of ‘see you later’. A quai is a quay. And an hotelier is…an hotelier (a word used in English since around 1900, according to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary). Why use italics at all other than to bewilder and to reinforce the reader’s sense of alienation?

The God of Small Things

Compare Giovanni’s Room to the following passage from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things:

“The bald pilgrims in Beena Mol began another bhajan.

‘I tell you, these Hindus,’ Baby Kochamma said piously. ‘They have no sense of privacy.’”

In this example, Roy turns the use of italics on its head , choosing to highlight a word in English as a way of underlining the superiority complex of Baby Kochamma, a Christian, when confronted by a group of Hindus. It is not the bald pilgrims who are othered after starting to sing a bhajan (a spiritual song); they are accepted, integrated, a natural part of the landscape. Instead, it is the educated, English-speaking Baby Kochamma who is framed as prissy, conceited and out of step with the rest of her environment when she speaks of privacy.

If the intention is not, like in Burmese Days, to reinforce the sense of alienation between the foreign word and the English-language text, or, like in The God of Small Things, to play with conventions, I would argue it is better not to italicise foreign words at all. If an author wants to establish a sense of the unfamiliar, they shouldn’t rely on the typographical equivalent of stringing fairy lights around the front of a house. Embed the foreign words; don’t lean on them. Make them part of the whole. After all, it’s more constructive to build bridges than to dig trenches.

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