Tasting what you read

4 February 2010


— Contemporáneos, Alicia Martín (2002). Via cloudy1985.

I happily subscribe (yes, like a magazine) to the notion that translation is inevitably partial & in some sense insufficient, a remaking — and if you can read the language that the original’s printed in, why lapse back to your native tongue? — but I also confess that from time to time, reading Spanish fiction, I’ve thought guiltily that I’d be picking up on more things if I were reading the English version. Wanting to go back to translation feels lazy, like giving up — or maybe like surrendering your membership card, having to read in English like everyone else, people who haven’t even tried to learn how! — but it’s true that in Spanish there’s a frustrating opacity, a flat effect that I don’t feel with English. I don’t have as good a sense of the flavor of the words, I can’t taste them, even though can follow the action.

But on the bus the other day I thought to myself that it wasn’t such a surprising feeling, either. Read literary fiction & you see the writer working within or against the language (I’m glossing DeLillo, I just realized — ‘matching with the language’). You have to have a sense of how sentences look when they’re readymade, the coloring of certain words, what the clichés are, or the equivocal signalings that signify an unreliable narrator or the rhetorical flourishes adopted by pedants or what barbed overformality looks like — and in English you’ve absorbed all of these distinctions & weights & flavors from thousands upon thousands books read or alluded to. It’s easy for me to forget just how little I’ve read in Spanish. More than a half-dozen books? Certainly not more than a dozen. A dozen — stack them up and they make a sad little pile set against those thousands upon thousands of English books, the blue Hardy Boys boxed set that was the first book you ever read on your own, big doorstop Michener wheezings, those bent & thumbed Lord of the Rings paperbacks, the time in high school you didn’t like My Ántonia . . . To say nothing of the books I’d say now I love (but with those there’s always a little bit of posturing).

That’s one of the enormous disadvantages of learning Spanish like I did, by bullshitting to people over beers & teaching teenagers & watching daytime television & reading the newspaper sometimes. In this language I’m talkative but not literate. Maybe this gets compounded by the tendency, if we like to think of ourselves as well-read, to cut our teeth on, I don’t know, Cortázar or Borges (or Marías) instead of the boundless & fecund soil of run-of-the-mill fiction they sprouted from. Imagine (in belated honor of his birthday), James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man being the very first book you tried to read in English.

All of which is a long way of saying that Corazón tan blanco has been teaching me a lot of new words, in part because of the narrator’s analytic formality — saying ambos, which I’d never heard before, instead of los dos (both), calling marriage el contrato — and, mostly, in a series of sequencies mired in the past, in looking at photographs of the dead, that seem to be summoning up a more elaborated & colorful language than what was being used previously, more descriptive, using words whose mystery is perhaps unjustifiably enhanced by my unfamiliarity with them.

I don’t know if you find, as I do, that sometimes you plow through foreign language fiction & depend on context to pick up on words & that other times you find yourself looking up practically every word, suddenly sucked in to wanting to know exactly what’s being said, wanting to make sure that you’re really, really understanding what’s happening — and I don’t know whether this has to do, actually, with part of the book itself that we’re reading or whether it depends on us, on our mood, on how lost we’re willing to feel.

I’m reading with a paperback U of Chicago dictionary published the year I was born, & some words it just doesn’t have. I’ve managed to find definitions for the following after writing them down here, but with no internet at home these were mysteries to me for a week: difuminarse (softening, losing clarity, blurring); picaflor (hummingbird, known also as colibrí, pájaro-mosca, or chupamirto, but in this case, a womanizer); atezado (tanned, browned by the sun); irguiendo (raising the head, straightening the back); paulatina (gradual).

Picaflor was particularly frustrating because the narrator’s father repeats it — “yes, I said picaflor” — and the narrator later reflects that his father had been choosing his words carefully. That entire chapter, the two of them talking on the night of his wedding, is actually really well done propulsive tension even in the midst of circular digression, a momentum, a motion building up to a final word: Cuando tengas secretos o si ya los tienes, no se los cuentes. — Y, ya con la sonrisa devuelta al rostro, añadió: — Suerte.

Other examples, from my notes (I don’t know how interesting this is to anyone but me): Nudo is a knot, join, union, bond, or tie — in a play it’s the turning point. Pulcro (neat, trim), carlajada (peal of laughter), atolondrarse (to confuse, muddle, perplex — here, reflexive, it means to mingle, like in a crowd), jactado (bragged, boasted), apaciguada (appeased), silbido (a whistle or hiss).

My latest attempt to describe how Corazón tan blanco is working on me: Marías’ fiction as pearl-making. The fictional world, at first a tableau illuminated, as if by a camera flash, by a shocking & specific moment of violence, is added to & added to, filed in, elaborated, becomes more and more complex & self standing, a living thing in fits & starts, not secrets kept from us & then revealed, exactly, but entire histories that we don’t notice we’re not being told because each digression is so complete, so exhaustive. Or maybe not a single pearl, but stringing a necklace?

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