Emendations & corrections

7 January 2010

Come to another country & whether by the scrim of gaze or secondhand report you’ll misrepresent, distort, squeeze a heterogenous tangle of history & culture into well-polished declarative sentences. This is easy enough to do to places you’ve known your entire life, in accents you’ve grown up with; how much more so, then, when you’re just passing through, when you don’t even speak the local dialect?  Now whenever I read travel narratives I look in vain for an accounting of how fluent the writer is in the language — not whether or not, but to what extent. I pass as fluent in nine-tenths of situations now, but fluent in what? I can read a newspaper, get through a novel with the occasional use of a dictionary, argue politics with high school philosophy teachers & swear colorfully, all in andaluz-inflected castellano with some bilbaíno slang attached, but Spanish? What’s that?

For a long time I tried obsessively accumulating details & refraining as much as possible from normative statements; I thought maybe that would be safer, that an ants-eye catalogue could itemize difference without being too selective. Now, going back & rereading what I’ve written, particularly during my first month, I see to my embarrassment that I’ve gotten dozens of little things wrong, missed some big things entirely. And even where I haven’t published a correctable mistake, there are entries whose flavor just seems . . . off. Nothing you can put your finger on — it’s just not right.

My liking for well-made sentences has always gotten in the way of the facts. This is a partial catalogue of emendations & corrections to what I’ve written here. Apart from the details I’ve gotten wrong are the enormous number of things that I meant to write about, thought I’d written about, and find upon rereading I haven’t.

11 Oct. “whole legs of cured Iberian pork . . . . graded on a scale, from J to JJJJJ, based on provenance & feed – the highest quality are fed only acorns” — Not quite, apart from “cured Iberian pork” being an odd way to anglicize jamón ibérico (ibérico refers to the breed of pig, not the peninsula). Only jamón ibérico de bellota, already the most expensive & superior type, is graded from one to five Js, & all of them are fed acrons (bellotas).

11 Oct. The last time it snowed here was two years ago. — Maybe in Jaén, but in the pueblos & the mountains it snows every year. That winter would be the coldest in decades, at any rate. It was all the abuelitas on my morning bus could talk about — pero ¡que frío hace!

14 Oct. Falange, the coalition of Catholic priests, corporate power, & military ambition founded by Primo de Rivera back in the 30s — An attempt at a nice sentence goes awry. The coalition could be described as the regime itself; the falangists, although founded by Primo de Rivera, were just a particular rightist party, avante-garde fascist in the early Italian style, marginalized & used under Franco after Primo de Rivera’s execution by the Second Republic during the Civil War.

14 Oct. La tortura animale no es arte ni cultura. — That e couldn’t have been tacked on to animal.

18 Oct. ¡jienenses! —You can spell the word for a person from Jaén with one n in the middle or two, but I was never quite sure which to go with.

18 Oct. People are dancing flamenco —Yes, kind of. They’re dancing sevillanas, which is why they’re in pairs.

18 Oct. botollón —Misspelled. Should be botellón, the augmentative of botella, or “big bottle,” the custom of drinking in parks outside en masse.

22 Oct. cerveza —I never decided, & still can’t decide, how often to use local words & how often to translate. Certainly I was at my least consistent early on, when you never knew whether I’d call something coffee or café or even whether it would be italicized. At its worst I suspect my writing looks like over-ornamented obfuscation.

22 Oct. an entire audience of five hundred people singing in unison a song that began, “¡Encore! ¡Encore! Encore y encore, . . .” & includes more words that I do not know —The song does not go anything like this. It goes: “¡Alcohol! ¡Alcohol! ¡Alcohol alcohol alcohol! Hemos venido a emborracharnos, el resultado nos da igual.” It took me months to learn more than fifty percent of the words (and up until last May, I thought it was, “Hemos bebido, y nos emborrachado“). If you’re pronouncing the words correctly, bebido & venido do sound almost the same, particularly in andaluz.

23 Oct. My television features episodes of “Dirty Sexy Money” —In Spain, it’s just called Sexy Money— in English.

23 Oct. Carreterra —Highway is spelled carretera.

24 Oct. Everyone still calls the Calle de Andalucía the Gran Eje. —It’s an Avenida, not a Calle.

28 Oct. James Sligh, day one: Teacher of English, music, & natural sciences, & sometime auxiliar de communicación. —The job title is actually auxiliar de conversación, & ‘comunicación’ is misspelled.

28 Oct. The second time he gave me a look and said, “I took your ticket, right? I wouldn’t have let you on if this wasn’t the bus for Bédmar!” —This is a rare, for me, example of direct reported speech translated after the fact, & it reminds me of how suspicious I get when I read articles where local people speak English enclosed by quotation marks.

2 Nov. On and around the Día de los santos, there is also quema, which is served hot, and gacha, served chilled – a kind of custard made with cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, & topped with little pieces of sweet fried bread, ideal autumn food. —So many things wrong in a single sentence. First: All Saints’ Day is, of course, Día de todos los santos. Gachas are actually an Iberian staple food, made generally from garlic, hot oil, wheat flour & water, a hard times food, unrefined, typical in Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, Murcia, Andalucía, parts of Valencia – each town & region has different names, local variations. Only in Andalucía are sweet gachas prepared —less a custard than a mixture of olive oil, flour, & water or milk with sugar & different flavourings (vanilla, orange peel, honey, anise), topped with fried bread. They are served chilled. Quema is not a variety, it’s the word for burn, and in reference to food can mean hot enough to burn your tongue. My landlady got the recipe for the gachas dulces she made from the abuela next door, & didn’t have time to refrigerate it, so she served it hot — “quema.” I, of course, couldn’t tell the difference.

10 Dec. You typically don’t eat much of a breakfast in Andalucía. —Actually, “Desayuno” is fine, no embarassments. I’m just noticing that I’ve stopped saying “Spain” & started being careful to talk about “Andalucía” instead — still generalizing, sometimes unforgivably, & maybe I should have just said “Jaén,” but it at least makes sense to talk about Andalucían as a discrete cultural unit, with a dialect, certain ways of being. After living in Bilbao, I’ll never blithely refer to Spanishness again. For starters, we don’t eat tostada at all in the north. People even eat pinxtos of tortilla for breakfast!

13 Jan. chupetos of dark, sweet rum —The word for shots is spelled chupitos.

17 Jan. a small bare stone plaza in the old town, in front of a 17th C. palace —Palace is probably not the best translation for palacio, which can sometimes refer to a large public building & other times to a mansion built by a conquistador. I can’t remember which this was. It would also be a mistake to imagine Jaén having anything so grand as a “17th century palace.”

16 Feb. The world is a handkerchief? What does this mean? Why does the back page columnist use it as his first sentence? It may be an expression, but I can’t imagine its meaning, not even from context. —’El mundo es un pañuelo’ means, effectively, “It’s a small world.” Someone told me eventually.

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