Save the Spanish

So, let's talk about my English-speaking friends: One friend in Galveston told me that he doesn't check my blog anymore, because I use too much Spanish. Can't read it, he said. Another was a little more inquisitive, a little more willing to do some work. Asked me how she could learn Spanish, I recommended Babelfish, the Altavista translator. At least, that way bad translations of most languages of the world are a click away. Then, this week, a new pal told me to "save the spanish." Meaning leave it out, no lo uses, sácalo pues.

Pero a pesar de estos comentarios, voy a seguir escribiendo en cualquier idioma que se me dé la gana. Even if just to mess with the English speak-easy folks. How interesting none of the Spanish-speakers have complained about the English yet. But no, all the Spanish-speakers I know already speak English or want to very very very badly.

Moorishgirl writes in an article in the Boston Review about native speakers of one language making the decision to write in another. The list of writers who switch languages is most compelling, as well as the conclusions drawn from their decisions:

Joseph Conrad, for instance, did not write in Polish, his mother tongue; instead, and after 20 years of world travel, he settled in England and embraced its language in his work. Milan Kundera chose French rather than Czech for his later books because he wanted to free himself of expectations and censorship. Elias Canetti, whose native language is Ladino, opted for German, though he lived most of his life in England and Switzerland. But for others, the decision to give up their mother tongue was not a choice at all. It was the inescapable result of colonial education—witness, for example, the vast literature in French that came out of Africa in the wake of France’s century of hegemony: Assia Djebbar, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Camara Laye, and Léopold Sedar Senghor, to name just a handful.

What is striking about these shifting linguistic allegiances is that they tend to favor the language that is culturally dominant on the international scene.

My point exactly. While there is a long tradition of writers shirking their less-dominant mothertongues to use another more-dominant language, I cannot locate a similar tradition that would operate in reverse. English speaking writers deciding to write in Spanish being the most obvious example. But Russians who switch to Kazakh, Germans who switch to Turkish, French who switch to Arabic, Spanish-speaking Peruvians who switch to Quechua, the list could grow further. Does anyone know of cases like this that escape me? Me fascina la posibilidad de cambiar de idiomas, como ya sabrán ustedes.

In an interesting endnote, a conversation with Jen Hofer in Tijuana this summer on this very subject has kept me thinking. As I understood her point: Writing in Spanish for a native English speaker is very difficult: instead of knowing ten ways to express something in English, knowing only six in Spanish. And then the big questions: Is it a colonial move for a speaker of a dominant language to take over a less-powerful one? To move into it and claim it? Is it a form of imperialism? The benefits of "moving up" the language food chain are obvious, but the politics of it are messy. Accusations of selling out or of not being true to your roots or your people. But what would be the benefits of "moving down" (even the term is ugly and locked in an imperialist way of thought)? Is switching down an imperialist move? A way to exoticize oneself? A cop-out pues?

Don't know myself, but I do know having the questions in my head has propelled me towards imagining a liberatory practice of translation, rather than trying to dissappear into another tongue. Pero seguiré escribiendo en español aunque, claro, no voy a salvar el idioma. Because the little misunderstandings que brotan when the languages trip over each other, los valoro tanto tanto.

7 comentarios:

Jocson dijo...

I didn't think my little comment would have made such an impact; nor did I realize it came across as a suggestion to excise the Spanish from your blog. Apologies. I meant "save" as in "except" and I only meant to underscore my own sad deficiency with the language, which I once spoke with some fluency, but which has sadly gone the way of puffy shirts and Duran Duran. Please, please, please keep the Spanish - if only so I can practice the dregs of what's left of my own.

On another note, however, when Filipino writers who customarily write in English choose to write in Filipino, it's mainly a political and nationalistic gesture, and no one really pays attention to them anyway... All the major Filipino writers write in the language of the occupier, which is the language of the academy and the law: English. It's only stuff like comics, the Bible, and tele-novelas translated and transcripted from the original Spanish that appear in Tagalog. It's a class thing, too, I guess...

La Scimmia di Filo dijo...

i don't really think is a matter of colonialism (or being nice to the "subordinate") nor a colateral effect of the melting pot; i'd rather think more of the instability inherent to language as a sign of identity, of speaking as a manner of inhabitating our life. whenever we speak, we are putting language into crisis: all our hesitations, circumlocutions and faux pases stand for the fact we will never be able to "own" any language, included the one that's supposed to be our mother tongue. i challenge anybody to assure the property of the language (s) he or she speaks.

i won't tell you writing in spanish (a very good spanish btw) means you're moving down: i'd actually think more of the way spanish links to your life, your affections, and your profession for instance. i'm almost sure that being a spanish speaker has enrichened your english, and therefore your writing (and i'm not thinking exclusively about the "spanglish" stuff), as long as it perhaps has emphasized your mother tongues' properties, qualities and limits. i guess thinking critically about your language has contributed to your literature in a positive way.

un abraxo juan, a ver si un día de estos me linkeas.

jp dijo...

antonio - wow. read what you said incorrectly. or perhaps it linked with other thoughts already in my brain. de todos modos, me hizo pensar más y provocó este post. así que, parece haber sido valoroso en sí el malentendido.

noé - ay, hombre, escribes en inglés demasiado bien. comparado con tu inglés, mi pobre español parece ser de lo más chafa. oye, un día de estos, te quiero contratar para que me escribas uno de mis pinches "papers". en inglés o en español, harías mucho mejor que lo que yo podría hacer.

y gracias por los comentarios. creo que le diste en el clavo. la verdad me encanta lo que dijiste. es que cuando estuve en tijuana, hubiera podido decir algo así pero ya a tanta distancia, no se me salen cosas tan profundas y acertadas. pero bueno, hay que intentar.

y claro, ahorita mismo te linkeo. disculpa el descuido.

chuck dijo...

the fact that you struggle with and theorize and take pleasure in this undecidable bilinguality shows that you write with a difference, which means something more than any one of these possibilities that you list (what it means to write in the so-called wrong direction, if you will). keep at it, jp.

grizzlybird dijo...

didn't jose maria arguedas write in quechua? i think he did. when i think about this issue i also think of paul celan, who moved to france but didn't shed writing in german after the wwii holocaust -- and how his biographer suggests this language that was for him mother tongue and opressor, drove him to his suicide.

you are somebody who lives in two languages, seems to me you WOULD write in both. also, you have a community who can read in both languages, or at least some of each.

last week at mda, where i teach kids from around the world, one boy was so frustrated trying to write in english i suggested he write in arabic. he wrote on the computer, on a special arabic website that has the correct keys, and then didn't make much sense. he knew enough english to realize that. i told him we could play with the translation, but he was so angry at it he deleted it.

grizzlybird dijo...

btw, my post wasn't meant to be one long post, they're sort of slight sequitors. three separate, related ideas.

una de dos dijo...

KEEP writing in Spanish!!! yeeeeeeeeeeey Viva el español y el inglés y el alemán,italiano, francés... tú express your self