Arundhati Roy

Why I don’t use italics to denote foreign words

Brexit, white supremacists in the White House, far right rumblings across Europe, ethno-nationalism. It feels as though humanity is on a knife edge at the moment. We’re standing there in the snow, clinging to the mountain ridge, hoping our footing is strong enough to keep us where we are. But a katabatic wind is buffeting us, our fingers and toes are numb and we don’t know which direction to go in. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to slip over the edge and slide down the mountain into oblivion? To accept that we’re not going to get out of this situation, to give up, to bow our heads to the forces trying to knock us off our perch and let them do it?

Well, no. Of course not.

Any movement or group that spreads hate and discord relies on its 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 understand about our individual or collective sense of Self. Still, these groups 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, at home and work, in the condescending interactions we have on holiday. It can be conscious or unconscious. The latter is perhaps more damaging than the former—if you don’t know you are othering someone, how can you stop it?

When a foreign word is highlighted in italics—i.e. one that is not part of the language in which the text is being written—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. They are taken out of the reading experience to consider that single word, to see it as something alien. And then they 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. They can see it, further down the page, in the next sentence, on the same line. They know it is alien. Perhaps this time they don’t stop to mull it over. They jump over it as though it is 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, to celebrate it, to signpost it so that the reader won’t trip over it, the result is still one of Entfremdung. If the word is not the same, then it does not belong. If it does not belong, it is not to be wholeheartedly trusted. And if the word cannot be trusted, then the people to whom the word belongs and the culture surrounding it cannot be trusted either.

In The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Burmese Days by George Orwell, there is a brief, but 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 (‘pagri, a turban typically worn by Indian males’, for example), 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 rarified clubhouse atmosphere. In addition, the butler is followed by ‘a troop of twittering chokras’. On first read, it seems as though the 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). And while Orwell applied this technique to lay bare the hatred, hypocrisy and intolerance surrounding British colonial rule, many other works have no such ambition to fall back on.

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, however, 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 is no social commentary being made here, no attempt to force the reader to contemplate the horrors of colonialism or forced occupation. 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 that David has been in Paris for over a year and has clearly mastered the language. He is 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?

Compare this 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 brilliantly, 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, natural, integrated. 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.

If the intention is not, like in Burmese Days, to reinforce the sense of alienation between the foreign word and the English-language text, I would argue that it is better not to italicise the word at all. If the reader wants to look up the word later (or immediately), then they will, but don’t rely on the typographical equivalent of stringing fairy lights around the front of a house. Embed it within the rest. Make it part of the whole. It’s more constructive to build bridges than to dig trenches. After all, we’re all standing up there, on that knife edge, wondering which way things are going to go. Navigating a safe route down starts with the language choices we make and how we use it with one another.

Home doesn’t have to be something we cling on to like crazy people.

Home doesn’t have to be something we cling on to like crazy people.