I recently finished the first book I have ever read entirely in a language other than English. It was Las batallas en el desierto by Jose Emilio Pacheco. It’s a classic of Mexican literature, originally published in Spanish 1981 and translated into English as Battles in the Desert and Other Stories by New Directions in 1987.
As you might imagine for someone reading outside of his native language for the first time, this is a slight work: 68 pages total, and the chapters average from five to six pages each. It took me a while to get through it. I read it on and off over the course of a month with a Spanish-to-English dictionary in hand, proceeding at a rate of perhaps 3 pages per hour. I’m happy to report that my Spanish improved while I read Las batallas, and I was inspired to start in on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, a book that is a little more challenging than Las batallas.
I could tell my Spanish was better because the grammar became more intuitive and I could define more and more words from context (looking things up in the dictionary is a real speed-killer). This all made me wonder about how often I define words from context when I’m reading in English, and I think the answer is "surprisingly often." Picking one page at random from Life: A User’s Manual (the book I’m currently reading in English), I find the following unknown words:
carotid artery; macintosh; a fortiori; rolling stock inspector
I didn’t need to look up any of these, though, because I was able to reason that I didn’t need a precise definition of any of them in order to understand what was going on. For instance, I don’t know exactly what the carotid artery is, but I know enough to know that if an assassin’s bullet hits it, that’s bad. Likewise, I don’t know what a rolling stock inspector is (maybe someone who checks the condition of livestock being delivered between destinations?), but I could tell that it wasn’t really important information, so I didn’t look it up.
It’s different in Spanish because I have a much worse sense of knowing which unknown words I need to look up and which ones I don’t. Many times while reading Las batallas I’d have a general sense of what was going on, but there would be a lot of details I was uncertain of. Which of these were crucial for my understanding of the book, and which of them were not? I couldn’t tell, so I just looked up everything.
Other times, I would know all the words, but meaning would still elude me. What would be perfect grammar to a native Spanish speaker was to me a sort of koan; I had to sit there and puzzle over it until the translation into English suddenly struck me. For instance:
Estamos por salir. — Literally: We are for to leave.
Something like this doesn’t seem quite right, but, after sitting there squinting at it, it eventually it occurs to me that it really is "We are ready to leave." There are lots of instances like this, and unless my dictionary lists this particular expression or something similar, then I just have to go on context and wait until the meaning strikes me. It’s strange when these things would strike me. Oftentimes I’d be unable to translate something like this and just settle for a more-or-less correct understanding, and then, maybe a day later when I was in the shower, the expression would suddenly pop in my head with the attendant translation. It was as though my brain had been kicking it around the entire time, which may not be that far from reality. They say that as you learn a new language your brain literally rewires itself, and I could feel it happening; grammatical structures that seemed completely alien the first time through eventually because so familiar that I found myself almost using them in English.
Of course, there’s also lots of idiomatic language that seems stranger still, like "Te da el avión," — "He’s giving you the airplane," which makes no sense at all unless I’m a pilot. It actually turns out that this is a figure of speech somewhat akin to "He’s pulling your leg." Once you know it, you can kind of see it (but why a plane? Why not a ship, or a roomful of gold?), but good luck figuring that out on your own.
I was helped in all this by the very large number of cognates that English shares with Spanish. There’s actually quite a lot, and it was fun trying to guess if the word went from English to Spanish or vice versa. It’s not too hard to see that postgraduado started out in English, but I wonder if finalmente was in English first or Spanish. I had to watch out for false friends, however, of which embarazada is probably the best known. If I told any Spanish speakers that I was embarazada, they’d wonder how such a state was physically possible for a man.
Related were words that could be cognates with just a bit of imagination. Timbre in English is a kind of sound, but in Spanish you ring the timbre at someone’s front door. These were kind of fun, because in unlocking the meaning I just to cross a slight synaptic (or is it syntactic?) gap, kind of like when you solve a riddle.
The act of reading itself felt contaminated by a number of different sensations that I don’t usually encounter while immersed in a book. Most common was that little snap of pleasure you get when the solution to a riddle suddenly pops into your head. I suppose that if I had to compare it to reading in English, I’d say that it is somewhat analogous to the feeling you get when you spot an emerging theme in a novel, or suddenly concoct a theory as to how what you’re reading in chapter 9 connects to what happened in chapter 2. There was also the constant weighing of speed versus accuracy. Do I read for the precise meaning sentence-by-sentence, or do I read an entire paragraph for the general idea, and then go back for specifics? Or do I just get the gist of this page and move on? Reading the book felt like a balancing act between just getting through it and reading deeply for things like voice, aesthetics, key phrases, subtext. Strangely, although I’ll read pretty slow at times in English to enjoy the language or ponder what’s going on, speed is never really a consideration.
Then there was the fatigue. In English I can basically read indefinitely; I don’t stop because I get tired, but because there’s other parts of life that need my attention. In Spanish, though, after about an hour or so my brain felt like it could use a break. It felt like a much more active kind of reading, which isn’t to say that my brain is passive when reading in English, but just that whatever action takes place no longer feels like work. Whenever I finished a chapter of Las batallas, I felt a kind of satisfaction that I used to feel back when I regarded reading literature as work.
Reading in Spanish, I got a much better appreciation of what it is people do when they translate books into English. My brain seemed most comfortable turning the Spanish into English (as opposed to just directly linking up the Spanish word with the signs in my head), so I was effectively translating the book as I read it. (With Pedro Páramo I’m trying to avoid this, partly to encourage my development as a Spanish reader, and partly so I can get a better sense of the rhythm and cadence of Rulfo’s prose, which, since Spanish is a romance language and English is not, should be considerably different than what I’ve experienced.) I began to see how much ambiguity is bound up in any translation. Of course this isn’t necessarily news to anyone, the old debate about staying true to the literal meaning of the words versus trying to capture the feel of the language with a more imaginative translation, but actually experiencing it was different. Because of the differences in grammar, even a very "literal" translation required considerable leaps on my part, and, given my lack of fluency in Spanish, much of the time I was really just guessing that this was how a Spanish speaker would hear the words.
Overall, reading this translation gave me an inkling of the variety of aesthetic experiences that are out there in other languages. Up to this point, it’s either been sheer faith or the assurances of author/linguists that have convinced me that more languages is better. I’ve taken it as axiomatic, as akin to the life and death of species. But now that I’ve actually seen literature in another language face to face, I feel like I’ve actually experienced some of evidence why it is better to have literature in more languages. This truly was different than reading in English, and perhaps as my Spanish improves I’ll be able to see more and more of that.
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