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Latina Heritage

Is true translation possible? Let’s try it!

photo credit of top image Hello’s: flixtranslations.com

A typical scene at my house as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s: Dad picks up the guitar and he and Mom start crooning a Spanish love song, harmonizing and smiling into each other’s eyes. I sit cross-legged on the floor, enjoying the tune, the rhythm, the guitar strums. But one major element is lost on me: the lyrics.

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My parents, 2013

“What do the words mean?” I asked.

The answer could take anywhere from one second to one week, depending on how accurate they wanted to be. Mom often gave a quick approximation. Then Dad would re-word every phrase. Then Mom tweaked shades of meaning. Then Dad would add nuance to that with whole new phrases. The translation for a single line in Spanish turned into a paragraph in English.

The good news: language is rich. The bad news: Straight definitions fall short.

Around each word poofs a cloud of connotations and cultural contexts. These extend the meaning of each word. Translators, then, have a tough job. How to transmit meaning in new words, and pull in as much of the connotation cloud as possible?

Let’s try it for ourselves. Here’s a short poem by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer:becquerga300x300

¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía… eres tú.

A clunky, but useful starting translation into English might be:

What is poetry? you ask while you hammer
onto my pupil your blue pupil.
What is poetry? And you ask me?
Poetry . . . is you.

This “translation” stays close to the dictionary meanings of the words, but it doesn’t sing as poetry, and most crucially, is doesn’t sound romantic. And romance is the point of this poem! ♥

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Poet Jane Hirshfield has translated for decades. She advises, “convey each poem’s particular strengths” in her book Nine Gates. To find out what this poem’s strengths really are, I went to Dad.

First, he said “poetry” is more than just a genre of writing when a Spanish speaker says it. Poesía can mean . . .

  • the sublimity of life
  • the music of existence
  • the marriage of wisdom and beauty

And of course, poems. Secondly, he pointed out that our poet, Becquer had a thing for blue eyes. Most importantly, he emphasized that this poem is about the couple drowning in each other’s eyes. The word “hammer” is not going to work very well!

Giving ourselves permission to make a version of this poem that stays true to the heart, but not the letter, we could create a version like this:

What is the sublimity of poetry? you question
as you pour your blue ocean eyes into mine.
What is this poetry? Do you not know?
You, my love, are poetry.

Purists may balk at the liberties I took here. Others will say it’s not great writing. True! I can imagine ten different versions, none of which are “best.” Go ahead and try one yourself. Paste it into the comments!

So. Is translation possible? The short answer is no. But are we willing to deprive ourselves of all the literature and speech of the world outside of English? No way!

Foundational texts such as the Bible and Homer’s Iliad? Gotta have them. What about Jung and Kafka? Li Po and Shikibu? Gotta, gotta, gotta. Even if true translation is impossible, we must do it anyway. We can read multiple translations and learn a second language to broaden our sense of a text, but we’re going to be relying on translators a lot. Growing up with bi-lingual parents showed me the complexities translators face. Given the service they render, what can I say but THANK YOU, TRANSLATORS!

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Latina Heritage

Tri-lingual Moment in Italy

Before I traveled to Italy some years ago, I learned a little Italian. Ciao! Mi chiamo Rebecca. Building on my basic (I repeat, basic!) knowledge of Spanish, I felt I could pronounce phrases pretty well and make myself understood at restaurants (Sono vegetariano) and museums (Un adult per favore). By the middle of the trip, I could have a small conversation of say, three or four sentences. A hike between the villages of the Cinqueterre gave me a chance to do exactly that. I smiled and pulled out my stock phrases as soon as I saw a friendly-looking woman coming the opposite direction on the trail. The conversation quickly opened up in a way I didn’t expect.

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Italy map, Cinque Terre villages marked

Let me set the scene. Connecting five tiny Mediterranean villages is a scenic trail. It winds through forest, then emerges onto coastal views. The towns made the UNESCO Heritage List. Easy to see why. They’re downright edible! (I took that top photo from the trail.) There’s nothing much to DO in these towns, which is why a visit here can be a vacation from your vacation, as travel guru Rick Steves says. For me, it was a sip of seashore between chewy bites of cities like Florence and Rome.

I started the hike with a spring in my step, but parts of it get rugged and the wide sidewalk turns into a narrow dirt rut every time the trail swings away from the ocean and into the woods along the inlets. My camera was smoking as I snapped shots of every beautiful leaf and vista. By the time I reached an ocean overlook near the end of my hike, I was happy, but sweaty and hot, my glasses sliding down. As shown below!

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Me on the Cinque Terre hike

When a smiling woman with two scampering children appeared around the bend, I envied their energy. I also liked them immediately. We exchanged smiles and traded some “intro info” in Italian. How long are you in Italy? Where are you from? My Italian was running out when I heard her say a phrase in what sounded like Spanish to one of the children. It might have been about not running head first into a tree.

“?Hablas español?” I asked if she spoke Spanish.

“!Si! Mi esposo es de” — I can’t recall the Spanish-speaking country she said her husband was from, but it set of fireworks in my head.

“Mi papá es de Guatemala!” I told her my father’s Central American origin. This launched us into a wide-ranging conversation. Suddenly Spanish felt like a large lake compared to my puddle of Italian.

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Woman I met on the Cinque Terre trail

We sailed along in Spanish for several minutes. I confined my comments to present tense, which let me keep up. I showed her photos of my kids, and she told me about meeting her husband. Then she mentioned living in Canada.

“Canada?” I asked. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes! It’s my first language!”

“Mine too!” How we laughed! Now my lake expanded to an ocean. We talked on until her kids couldn’t wait any longer to get hiking and I couldn’t linger without missing my return train. It was a beautiful linguistic experience and one of my favorite moments in all of Italy.

Click here if you’d like to receive updates on Rebecca — and her essay on biking 1300 miles while pregnant!

Latina Heritage

So yeah, I Oughtta be Fluent in Español

My dad speaks Spanish. My mom speaks Spanish. My second son speaks it pretty well. So what’s my problem? Why is my Spanish –let’s just say it– pathetic?

Nowadays, bilingual parents know the value of immersing kids in both languages. That wasn’t true in the 1970’s when I was born. Parents were told that using two languages confused babies and toddlers, causing significant language delays. The smart tactic of code-switching was seen as a deficit rather than a strength. (I wish I were kidding.)

More mundane, my Dad was busy learning English during my youngest years. Born as a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan, he was strict with himself as he tried to keep Spanish to a minimum in order to immerse himself in English. He watched Sesame Street, listened to co-workers, read newspapers. It worked. He passed his GED during his second year in the USA and went on to finish college and become –wait for it– an English teacher!

Mom speaks Spanish, but English is her first language. During her time in the Peace Corps, her Spanish zoomed from book-learned to fluent. Once home, though, her urgent project was to help her new husband master English.

 

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Parents with baby Rebecca

My parents didn’t leave Spanish totally behind. They sang love songs to each other and children’s songs to me. They spoke español as a grown-up code that would let them talk over my head, which made me listen closer. They even tried to teach me Spanish out of a book when I was nine. It was too late. Not too late to learn, but too late to absorb the language in that miraculous way that babies do. Plus, they kept speaking to me in English.

I took Spanish classes in school. My teacher heard my last name and hoped I would excel. I did my best, but I worked for those A’s. In fact, my upcoming novel includes a scene based on this experience. I took Spanish in college as well. By twenty, I reached my Spanish fluency zenith.

It dwindled from there. Though I don’t feel guilty about not knowing more español, I do wish I could read Spanish writers and converse with fellow Latinxes effortlessly. Life would be more fun. I would get my dad’s puns. My Duolingo app makes sure I’ll never forget the word for apple, but it doesn’t go far enough. I could take a class, and I’ve been invited to a bi-lingual “talking group,” but I haven’t arranged my schedule to fit those in.

The truth is that even if I learn a lot more, I won’t be fluent. My bi-lingual cousins will always speak more English than I speak Spanish. I could get better. A lot better. But I’ve decided I’m okay with my Spanish “como tourista.” Bi-linguality isn’t a test I’ve failed. It’s very cool, but it’s not going to be me unless I work harder than I want to or move to Spain.

I admire all the bi- and multi-lingual folks out there. I toast you and your awesomeness! For myself, I’m a little sad that I can’t do that thing you do. I’ll still listen to marimba music and make homemade tortillas once in while. I’ll listen to my parents sing those romantic love songs.

Even when I miss most of the lyrics, their meaning comes across just fine. Love jumps the language barrier. Like it did for my parents back in Guatemala in the 1960’s, as they fell in love in two broken tongues.

Click here to receive news from Rebecca — and a 2-part thank-you gift of a writing tip and Rebecca’s essay about biking 1300 miles while pregnant!

Latina Heritage

Dad’s Spanish: Secret Stair to High-level English

corn-on-the-cob-2083529_640.jpgDuring his first years as a citizen, my Dad, a native Guatemalan, worked hard to become fluent in English. My mom translated a lot of conversations, forms, and birthday cards. Soon, though, he picked up the language. Immersed in English at his job, in the home, and on TV, he had to sink or swim. This was Iowa, 1968. Lots of corn, no tortillas, I like to say. Dad swam.

An unexpected thing about that Spanish knowledge: it served him well. Not only from a brain-connectivity standpoint (which studies say is significant for bilinguals), but in terms of learning high-level English. Because Latin underlies Spanish, the complicated words of the SAT, the university, and the highly-educated came easily to him.

Where an English-speaking student struggled to memorize a medical word, for example, my dad already knew its meaning. What does cardiac have to do with the word heart? Nothing, in our Anglo-Saxon-based English. In Spanish, heart is corazón. What does pulmonary have to do with the word lung? For me, nothing. In Spanish, lung is pulmón.

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I’d see a native English speaker search for the “fancy” word to complete a sentence. “I love beef,” an Iowan might say. “I’m what you call a . . . Um . . . ” Carnivore! My dad supplied the word readily. Carne is Spanish for meat. Another person might say, “I’m glad I wasn’t taken to jail, you know . . .” Incarcerated! Jail = carcel in Spanish = easy for Dad.

Shakespeare’s plays challenge even English speakers, but here Dad found his Spanish useful again. Many words that prompt me to search for a footnote give my dad no trouble. Act II of As You Like It uses this line: “If this uncouth forest yield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it to be food for thee.” Here, savage means wild, as in a wild animal. My ear doesn’t hear it that way, but a Spanish speaker hears salvaje behind savage, and salvaje means wild. Hamlet‘s Act I includes the phrase “Nature, crescent, does not grow alone.” As my mind goes to “crescent moon,” a Spanish speaker’s thoughts turn to crecer, which means to grow. That is exactly the meaning here. Shakespeare’s vocabulary drips with Latin. Spanish speakers take it in stride.

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Shakespeare’s inverted word order trips us up too. But Spanish’s word order is more flexible than English’s. While this sounds mixed up to my ear, “Only there are three apples,” it makes a correct Spanish sentence, “Solo hay tres manzanas.” When Shakespeare writes “Away from the light steals home my heavy son,” in Romeo and Juliet, I rearrange it to “My heavy son steals home, away from the light.” Spanish speakers can reference constructions like “Me gusta la manzana,” which is “It pleases me the apple.”

Plenty of folks worried about my dad when he stepped off the plane into an English-speaking world. Turns out, he carried knowledge that helped him go to college and graduate Cum Laude, a Latin phrase that he, more than I, readily understands.

Click here to get upcoming news about Rebecca!

Writing Tips

Emerson’s inspiration for writers

Ralph Waldo Emerson stands as one of America’s great thinkers and mystics. Credited with giving voice to Transcendentalism, he drew his lectures from extensive private journals. His famous speeches include one that especially inspires me as a writer: “The Poet.”

Who is a writer? Instead of someone who is producing a certain number of words or someone who is getting good at Beat Sheets and queries, Emerson defines a writer (and a poet in particular) as one who has

never ceased to explore the . . . meaning of every sensuous fact.”

Sensory objects and sensory experiences are not just stimulants for writers; we explore their meaning or even meanings. For Emerson, physical objects are “externizations” of a soul, ideas that have traveled from the thought realm into manifestation. And the writer who examines objects, people, and situations is discovering expressions of universal truth. If Emerson is right, then we are not merely relating stories in our novels; we are mapping out the meaning of human experience.

What does a writer do? Emerson says,

[The writer] apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”

Again, Emerson points to the writer as revealing insights about not only the personal, but the global. The writer’s words explore not just a main character, but the human condiRalph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedtion. A plot line leaves the reader with life lessons; a heart line nudges the reader toward the same wisdom that the character wins.

Do we need writers? Emerson says yes! Writers interpret this crazy world and add to our communal understanding. Memoir writers, especially, come to mind when Emerson says,

“[H]e will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer.”

As readers we find ourselves not only transported to interesting times and places with great books, but spoken to on a deep level. We leave the page with expanded self-knowledge. Emerson and I haven’t read all the same books, but he describes my feeling upon finishing a good book exactly:

We are persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles, and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods.”

Gods? This is heady stuff, and I don’t think about it when I’m in my sandbox of sentences. Or when I’m immersed in a scene. In fact, it’s only right that I’m unaware, at that stage, of what larger purpose the story serves or what insights a reader will take away. But when I emerge from the workshop, I do look for validation — not that every word I write is good (would that it were so!) — but that the very act of writing serves a purpose.

When I’m wondering if writing takes too much time from my parenting, my teaching, or even leisure activities (What are those?!), I go back to Emerson. He reminds every writer,

This is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee.”

The meaning here is two-fold: that real things/situations/objects will yield up their ideal underpinnings/patterns/souls and that ideals/insights/truths will manifest through the writing. If true, our writing time is time is well spent.

Interested in exploring Emerson’s “The Poet” more? Check out my video here: SixMinuteScholar video on “The Poet,” part 1 and find the text here: “The Poet” text by Emerson

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