Waiter! There’s some Spanish in my soup!
Um, can someone please tell me what balabusta means in English? What about Sukkot? Can these words be accurately translated and is there some value that is lost in the transaction, this linguistic exchange of currency? For there is value in foreign language, por si acaso no lo sabías. Yes, even in Spanish language!
Let me take a step back. Last night I read—as is mandatory for all who care about serious writing—the fiction section of The New Yorker, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander. It was funny to come across this story since I have recently been more attuned to Jewish cultural traditions, with all the holidays nearing, and marveling at Yiddish language. So I read the piece, chockfull of Jewish idioms, and felt comfortable in my not-knowingness of the language wherever it had been sprinkled in the text. I could tell what certain things probably meant by using that old skill we learned in our formative years…searching for context clues.
“So you can picture my father,” Mark says. “In the old country, he went to heder, had the peyes and all that. But in America a classic galmusmonger. He looks more like you than me. It’s not from him that I get this,” he says, pointing at his beard.
This all goes back to my years in the MFA program, where if you were not careful you could have come out of it programmed. I write creative-nonfiction that leans toward the bi-cultural experience of Latinos living in the United States, and so I tend to dash Spanglish on my writing as I do Sazón on my food—even my scrambled eggs. I don’t use Spanish language in my writing for the sake of verisimilitude either. I do it because I write the way I think and I happen to think in two languages whether I’m talking to my sister or to Mrs. Goldstein over in corporate. The conviction toward the defense of my lexical duality arose while in the grad program as I was constantly asked to translate the words I had written in Spanish by placing the English meaning within the two proceeding commas. But I didn’t feel like it!
If I said it in Spanish then that’s how I meant it. The reader always has a choice in the matter. You could put the story down and say, “Dear God make her stop,” or you go to your smart phone and translate the word into English, thereby making you a tiny bit more worldly.
English-speakers have adopted French expressions for their everyday use, right? Take for example, soup du jour, RSVP, and femme fatale. Most times English speakers don’t even know what the translation is but they don’t bother to ask because French language is valuable linguistic currency. Respected. You know, like Les Misérables, not The Miserable People. Doesn’t it flow better in French?
Well, considering the changes in the ethnic makeup of our country’s landscape, I think it is time to begin to embrace Spanish language in American literature. Un poquito, no mucho pero tu sabe.
A translation can come across as a cultural apology in literature, and I don’t want Nathan Englander to apologize for the cross-cultural, linguistic richness of his art in the New Yorker because I’m not apologizing for mine.
Peace, Love…and Language,