The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 3, No. 4

Planting Sticks and Grinding Yucca: On Being a Translated Writer

by Julia Alvarez

For years I told my North American friends who were reading Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Nicolas Guillén, and Gabriela Mistral in translation that they were missing out on so much. I suppose that it was my way of feeling important in the culture of the United States. So often I felt left out in the margin as a "minority writer," like a character in a novel who comes in only to serve the heroine her breakfast of toast and tea. But by being able to read Spanish, I had access to treasures my mistress did not even know about!
    I admit I was proud to claim excellent writers as my own literary padrinos y madrinas. But in fact, by writing in English, I had joined the tradition of another language, and if I were to apply my argument to my own work, my Spanish-language readers would miss a great deal if they did not read me in English. As with most self-serving arguments, however, I did not explore the fine print of what I was saying, no doubt suspecting that were I to do so, I would not be able to agree with myself.
    I remember when my agent told me that she had sold foreign rights to my first novel in Spanish. Great! I told her, wanting to sound grateful. I was flabbergasted that after years of writing, anyone wanted to read, much less pay for my writing. But I was also terrified. I had already had enough problems with the reactions of my immediate family to the English version--phones hung up, a book party boycotted--and now I was taking on the whole extended familia, who did not know any English, but would now be able to read my work in Spanish. Gone were the days when I could step into the houses of my Spanish-speaking tías and find my book of poems proudly displayed on their coffee tables. How could they know that the book contained poems to lovers? What would they have said if they had read the sonnet that begins, "My gay friends ask, so are you gay or what?" or the title poem that describes one uncle as "fondling my shoulder blades . . . as if they were breasts"? As I sat there, listening to my aunts gush at the fact that I, their niece, had written a book, I used to say a silent prayer to la Virgencita. No matter what She thought of me, She had been most kind to ensure that my poetry had not been translated into Spanish.
    But now my novel was going to be translated into Spanish, and I would lose the protection of writing in a language the majority of my relatives couldn't read. After some sleepless nights, I decided I would call up my agent and give her my earlier, self-serving argument about how I didn't believe in translations. Too much would be left out. "Traduttore traditore," as the Italians say. Translators are traitors.
    Of course, I was forgetting that many of the great classics that form the foundation of my thinking and understanding as a human being, I had read only in translation. From Homer's Odyssey to the Bible, Tolstoy's novels to Dante's Divine Comedy, Sappho's poetry to Basho's haiku. Anyhow, I did not call my agent and back out of the Spanish publication of my novel. I realized that to be a writer, I had to have the courage to be read as well as to write honestly. And one of the advantages of having a large, extended familia is that I can always find someone to agree with me. Predictably, my family divided into two camps: family members who thought the novel was very good and family members who thought the novel was not so good because the characters who reminded them of themselves didn't sound very smart or had been described as "tedious" or as having "a smile bought on sale at a discount store." One uncle, so I heard, was upset because he could not find his counterpart anywhere in my book.
    My second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, did well in foreign sales. Suddenly, I was being read in Norwegian, Italian, Greek! My best friend's daughter, who married a Dutch man, told me during her visit to Vermont that she was reading In de Tijd van de Vlinders. She had a wink in her eye as she said this. "Oh," I said, wondering if this was a work I should have heard about. When she saw the baffled look on my face, she burst out laughing. She had already read my novel in English but was now reading it in Dutch in order to practice her new language. "How's the translation?" I asked her, because of course, except for Spanish, I couldn't read myself in another language. "Very good!" she said. A few years later, I met a bilingual reader who told me he thought the novel was much better in the Spanish translation than in the original. I did not know whether to feel complimented or not.
    How does it feel to be in another language, especially one that I don't read? It must be akin to having your children traveling in far-off countries and wondering how they are faring and how strangers are responding to someone who is so much a part of you but who is not you. When I went on a foreign tour with In the Time of the Butterflies, one of the treats was meeting my translators and asking them what was most difficult to take from one culture to another. "The smell of guavas!" was one wonderful response from the German translator of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. There is an atmosphere, a sensual presence that a language creates just in its sounds and rhythms that is bigger than the sum of its parts or the specifics of what is being translated. And the truth is that certain authors move into a new atmosphere better than others. I've always felt that Neruda translates much better into English, with his playfulness and plainspokenness, than Lorca, with his reliance on the blood-pulse and the rhythms of Spanish to enchant his readers.
    How exactly my books are changed by being in German or Italian or Swedish or Dutch, I'll never know. On the other hand, I do know all about the process of translation. While I write in English (and read and dream and make love in English--my husband is American), I am constantly doing a little internal translation between my native being and the self I've created out of immigration and experience, chewing gum and guavas. My older sister has told me that she doesn't know how English-only readers can appreciate my books. For instance, she noted, when I have the papi say that he has been working hard all day grinding yucca, my American readers probably picture a man with a grater and a manioc root, working away. But in fact, the expression "grinding yucca," in our Dominican Spanish, is a colloquial way to say "working very hard." I remember my French translator faxing me with a question on how to translate "All my little sticks fell down." It makes no sense in English, she noted. She was right. The expression is a direct translation of the Spanish "Se me cayeron los palitos," which is a way of saying "I've had some bad luck." Since the character in my novel was a Dominican man playing the lottery, he would express his loss in this way. An American would probably say, "The shit hit the fan!" or "I'm up a creek without a paddle."
    I am constantly going back and forth over borders with my work, so translation is natural for my characters and stories. But thank goodness, the work of translating from the imagination to paper stops for me once I've written my books. Then other translators take over, and for that I am glad. Translating is, like grinding yucca, hard work! As Mark Musa, who has translated Dante into English, once observed, "A translator has to be faithful without seeming to be, a type of faithfulness that is akin to being a good lover." I am grateful that my work has found so many good lovers. To think that my novels have crossed so many borders fills me with happiness. Every writer is greedy for more readers. We want to reach everyone with our books, no matter where they live or what language they speak. As Nikki Giovanni once observed, "I am speaking, not in English, but through English to reach you." We all share the same human body, the same vocabulary of feelings, the same baffling experience of being alive on this fragile planet, and successful translations affirm that basic human fact.
    So how do I feel these days when my agent calls me up to tell me one of my books will soon be translated into another language? I feel supremely lucky. I feel as if all my little sticks are not just standing, but sprouting new leaves and opening new flowers.