Literature In Plain English

By Nirmaldasan

Literary classics are abridged, adapted and retold in plain English to appeal to a graded audience. But it is very difficult to capture the brilliant hues and harmonies of the original texts in a retelling. Right from William Shakespeare’s works of the 16th century to Rabindranath Tagore’s of the 20th are available in simplified form. While some of these retellings are fine, others are hopelessly bad.

The literary function relates more with the aesthetic function and less with the communicative. The literary writer may be dealing with complex themes and mixed feelings that require figurative language and complex turn of phrases. This is not to say that the litterateur can afford to ignore the reader and compose his classics in an ivory tower. But it would be nice if the reader took some extra effort in understanding literary works. Reading a classic in the original may not be easy, but the effort is sure to be a rewarding experience.

But when the themes are plain and the feelings clear and deep, the great writers resort to a style that shapes literature in plain English, a composition that is its own retelling. One such writer is Kahlil Gibran, author of classics including ‘The Prophet’, ‘Spirits Rebellious’ and ‘Broken Wings’. Here is a short example titled ‘The Fox’:

A fox looked at his shadow at sunrise and said, “I will have a camel for lunch today.” And all morning he went about looking for camels. But at noon he saw his shadow again — and said, “A mouse will do.”    

Here follows a slightly longer example titled ‘Said A Sheet Of Snow-white Paper…’:

Said a sheet of snow-white paper, “Pure was I created, and pure will I remain for ever. I would rather be burnt and turn to white ashes than suffer darkness to touch me or the unclean to come near me.”

The ink-bottle heard what the paper was saying, and it laughed in its dark heart; but it never dared to approach her. And the multicoloured pencils heard her also, and they too never came near her.

And the snow-white sheet of paper did remain pure and chaste for ever — pure and chaste — and empty.

In the first example, Kahlil Gibran did not write ‘Said a fox…’, but in the second he uses poetic inversion. Readers must come to terms with at least some of the literary conventions, if they wish to fully appreciate a literary text. And when they are reading poems, they should understand the rhythmic flow of the lines. I end this article with the popular mnemonic nursery rhyme:

Thirty days hath September,

April, June and November.

February has twenty-eight alone,

All the rest of thirty-one,

Excepting Leap Year — that’s the time

When February’s days are twenty-nine.


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