Blog, language and the global audience

It was a rainy day yesterday. Gray sky as dark as slate, a gray river with boats in muted colours stuck solid on the gray, opaque water of the Hudson in the low light. The air smelt of wet vegetation. The balcony railing had drops of water clinging from it. I breathed in the fresh air  and I thought, ahhh, a muri, telebhaja kind of day.

Oh wait. I’ll have to translate that.

A puffed-rice and assorted-vegetables-dipped-in-batter and deep fried kind of day.

I smiled.

  1. How my Bengali friends in Calcutta would laugh at the gentrified translation if they read this. English–it does that to words.
  2. How my diasporic Bengali friends in other parts of the globe would understand why I did this but would still smile. They do it all the time. Translate nuances into broad markers.
  3. How my non-Bengali speaking friends familiar with the variations of South Asian food would have their mouth water at the translation guessing at the food item. They’re quick to get to the specific from the general idea. Especially food. Like me.
  4. How my friends completely unfamiliar with South Asian food would guess at what it could be, perhaps find a substitute in their minds (say Jalepeno poppers or fried chicken) and still feel the rainy day.
  5. How my non-diasporic (is there such a term?) friends in Calcutta, writing on the web addressing a global audience everyday, would understand the challenge, laugh, and yet do it themselves.

Kokab Ka Dastar-khuwaan - Aloo - Pakoray [with...
Not my “aloor chop,” a kind of “telebhaja” but a variation maybe. Original caption via Zemanta: Kokab Ka Dastar-khuwaan – Aloo – Pakoray [with recipe] (Photo credit: Samad Jee ( ))

I had started out trying to blog about the rainy day but what I ended up doing was think about language, writing on the web, and the global audience.

Books have always been translated from one language to another. Something is always lost in translation but much is left. The audience that does not speak the original language has had to have been satisfied with the translation. Sometimes, the translation has turned out a literary work by itself. Other times people have been motivated by the translation to learn the original language.

A writer representing one culture has also written primarily for an audience from a different culture in the second culture’s language. That’s been very common.

Say, for example, so many writers from the Indian diaspora write all the time living in the US in English about life in the US and India. Often, they have to provide a background or keep explaining very common things for an audience that’s completely unfamiliar with the context. To Indian readers, this could sometimes kill the fun by killing the nuances or the jokes could seem like fiction by itself, removed from much that is currently “real.”

In the past, translations would appear only after the original work had already established its merit to one set of audiences or when the writer was famous enough to justify simultaneous publications in many languages. Writers could also choose a primary audience within or outside a community thereby being able to decide what to contextualize.

With writing on the web, like say blogging, the work is read simultaneously, in the same instant, by people from mind-bogglingly different backgrounds.

That’s amazing.

Globe (Photo credit: stevecadman)

But it’s not just the audience. If the article on Forbes today about WordPress is to be believed, editors can also span the globe. 26 different countries in six continents represented in WordPress alone, although most employees may not be involved in editing (I don’t know).

How will writing adjust itself to this instant global audience?

And that’s not just a question of language or nuance.

It can be about description.

Consider this:

He noticed how the paint was chipped off from the houses lining the streets, how the cars were run down, and how the AC’s were old and dripping water.

  • Reader 1: He’s in an economically backward area for sure. How sad these people live in such poverty.
  • Reader 2: Cars, houses and AC’s? He’s in a middle-class area for sure.

The great dictum of good writing, “show, don’t tell” would not work so well here. You’d have to come out and say what the setting means.

It could also be about structure.

  • If it was an essay, one set of people would expect a clear thesis in the first paragraph or so, several body paragraphs backing up the thesis and then a conclusion reinforcing the thesis.
  • Another set would read the above as too “in your face,” an example of a not-so-subtle approach.

But when all these audiences co-exist, as on the web, how will writing change to accommodate everyone’s tastes?

Then again, perhaps I’m dreaming up a problem that’s not here.

Could this be an already homogeneous audience, albeit geographically spread, that’s reading on the web? Are they all similar thinkers, made that way by commonalities in education, global exposure through global culture, and similar economic backgrounds that gave them this exposure in the first place? Perhaps I’m not even close to addressing all the rest.

Or is this just an old problem in a new form? Did writers always grapple with these issues?

Yesterday I put up a post on an experience in a library where I heard a man without identification being escorted out. Although I never knew who he was, I was primarily thinking of the homeless. My primary emotion there was mostly sadness at the memory.

But then, a reader, apparently a mystery writer, commented on the post saying it had given her an idea for a mystery novel.

A mystery novel could not have been further from my mind when I wrote the piece but now my memory of the incident will always be coloured by her perspective of  mystery.

She, a reader, managed to alter me, the writer’s memory of the incident!

Isn’t it cool that despite all these considerations you still get to write not knowing where it will lead?

47 thoughts on “Blog, language and the global audience”

  1. Insightful post. Some of the blogs though have a specific audience in mind, so the language maybe more apt for that group. It’s like a niche. But somehow it spills to a bigger audience. Just like when you happen to read mine. Thanks for visiting.


  2. Love the scene that you described in the first paragraph. It is so wonderful. Good language is not about putting all good words together, but is using the simplest words to present a wonder. Good job!


  3. Good post. Having access to instant reader commentary is a gold mine for writers of all kinds. I use my blog to practice my craft and to gauge how each piece I write is received.


  4. Great post. I’m not sure, though, that ‘writing [will] change to accommodate everyone’s tastes;’ I don’t think it can and I hope it doesn’t try. For me as a writer, the magic of the web is in the idea that my readers could be anywhere; that I might write something to suit the taste of people in Philadelphia and the Punjab, Austria and Australia, Somalia and Sweden. And if they understand it differently but like it anyway, what does it matter? Far more books exist than have ever been written, because every reader reads a different book. And that’s wonderful.


    1. That’s a great comment. On the whole, I agree with you. Everyone’s tastes can’t be accommodated and if they like it, it’s great. But at the same time, the consciousness that meaning is changing the moment it’s leaving the keyboard has to have an effect on the writer, doesn’t it? Because writing is also ultimately about communication and communication works two ways?


  5. Wonderfully out in the Food and words comparison- the ‘authentic’ way they are prepared inthe homeland vs the changes that get incorporated when you put it into another culture. Excellent- thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  6. All about perception. And in one hundred years, if someone comes across your writing, will they understand any of it?
    In the last one hundred years, things have changed so much – think about communication on its own – no one living then could have understood how we might have television inside telephones that we carry in our pockets. Everything we write has to be crystal clear to the person we are writing for. Not just the words, but the essence of them.Writing is and has to be telepathy. You write/I read: We may not see precisely the same thing, but it has to be near enough to have succeeded.


    1. That’s a sensible way of thinking about it. That it has to be near enough, by which I guess you mean some universal points? I agree. But sometimes the little details matter so much. . . at least to the writer! 🙂


  7. I always think of it this way: if it inspires others and gives them new ideas, than it’s a really good piece of writing. 😉 Love your post, it made me rethink about some things.
    “Isn’t it cool that despite all these considerations you still get to write not knowing where it will lead?”
    The best feeling in the world is the feeling of not knowing what comes next, I so agree!


  8. As they (Roland Barthes) say, “Once the writing is done, the author is dead.” This means the interpretation of a piece of writing is completely up to the readers, and the author can never control it. When we write, we already have an audience in mind, even though this assumption can often turn out to be false. We can only do our best.

    I write bilingually, and when I choose to write in one but not the other language, I am also choosing my audience and hope that I can do my best to convey to them what I want to express. I also get to focus on just one group of readers (despite the diversity among them) and not to worry too much about the other. Such choosing is a way to decide on what identity I want to use as well.

    So the matter is who you want to be when you write, how you identify yourself so that your perceived readers can identify with you. It is always a personal choice, a personal voice, one voice. But the good thing about writing is that right at the next moment or in your next piece of writing, you can easily turn into someone else.

    If you translate yourself, like I often do, you will know that you can never be the same one self in two different languages. You will always have to change. Sometimes you will end up with multiple personalities, as I suspect I already have… But that is the fun about writing.


    1. This is a great comment. I agree to an extent with the “author is dead” school of thought but only to an extent. Meaning can’t be controlled as it leaves the pen, but isn’t there also something called intent? Your other point about developing two (or multiple) personalities is very, very interesting to me. I’m still thinking through this. Certainly, we write with real or imagined audiences in mind and this way of dealing with the situation we’re thinking of could work. But I’m also thinking as I write here, could there be a psychological cost to the writer and the writing involved? I mean, is switching so effortless?


  9. You don’t even have to leave your home town to run into that problem. There are subcultures that are alien to the folks next door. In my current novel I am drawing a lot from the gay leather culture, and I keep wondering, “Are people going to get this? How much am I going to have to explain to a straight audience here?”


    1. Heck, I just realized that I used the word “straight” to mean two different things, in my comment on yesterday’s post and my comment on today’s. Using language can be like Alice’s croquet game with the flamingos and the hedgehogs–nothing stays still long enough to figure out if you’re winning.


      1. Yes, this exchange right here has been an interesting tryst with meaning! Thanks for your great comments. I know, so many subcultures could exists side by side leading to so many possibilities of reception. At the same time, as subcultures become well known, the need for explanations disappear. So one doesn’t know what the future is going to bring (as another commenter says here).


  10. When I read your post yesterday I also immediately thought the man was homeless. And that, of course, is all about ‘interpretation’. Which is what I love about writing. Despite the picture the writer creates with his or her words, the reader is always free to interpret the story the way they see it. Wonderful.


      1. You’re welcome. I very much enjoy your posts. Today you’ve made my mouth water. I spent a month in India not all that long ago. Did not get to Calcutta. Wanted to but there’s only so much you can do in a month. Loved every second! I can still taste the wonderful meals we had, regardless of whether we were at a pakora stand on the side of the road or a fine restaurant.


  11. Loved your post. So true about not knowing where it will lead. A phrase becomes a poem, a poem becomes a short story, a short story becomes a novel. This has happened to me more than once. When a fellow writer reads my words and says, “That gives me an idea,” it is just too cool. I look forward to your next post.


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