As a rule, in my writing, I never italicize non-English words. At first, this wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just common sense. Italics indicate emphasis. And if a story is from the point of view of a Spanish-speaking character, say, then words like hijo and lo siento and hola would have no particular emphasis in the character’s mind.
When my short stories were published, editors sometimes italicized the non-English words. To be honest, I didn’t notice. Probably no one asked my permission. Or maybe they did and I was too green around the gills to know better or refuse.
But after The Boat People came out, a reader asked how I’d convinced the editors not to italicize the Tamil words. And that stopped me short. Because the fact is - bless my editors - it never came up. Speaking with other writers, hearing them tell their stories about fighting their editors on this very thing I’d taken for granted, I became more aware of the italics. And now I’m militant about them. AUTHORS! EDITORS! DON’T ITALICIZE NON-ENGLISH WORDS. CEASE AND DESIST.
Let’s say a story is written from the perspective of a character called John. If John is having toast for breakfast, would you italicize toast? No, you would not. Just look how idiotic those italics look. Italics draw attention to the word, telegraphing to the reader: “hey! look! here is something exotic!” Which…come on now, since when is warmed up sour dough exotic? We’re agreed here, right? So please let us extend the same courtesy to a character called Mahindan who is eating appam. Let him finish his meal in un-italicized peace.
This isn’t about the rules of copy editing. It’s not even political (though I’m coming to that next). This is a straight forward issue of craft and specifically point of view. The mistake editors and publishers and yes, sometimes writers, make when they italicize non-English words is to temporarily lose sight of their craft (and also, I’d argue, common sense). They lose sight of the character. And do so in favour of the imagined reader.
And now we come to the politics. Because why is the reader at the centre of the story instead of the character? And also, who is this imagined reader exactly? More on THAT in Monday’s blog post. In the meantime, here are some totally different thoughts on toast.
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