Uncompromising: the Bilingual Mind

It’s always been difficult for me, as a teacher mostly, but as a person, to say no, absolutely not, I’m putting my foot down and won’t budge. I find it so unhealthy in the latter and necessary in the former. Definitely, this has caused some conflict at work and I’m beginning to wonder, for personal matters, if it is really the right way (at least I should lax or slacken my pace on my way to “perfection”)

I tend to associate unwillingness to poor communication skills externally and immaturity internally. I value the ability to listen to someone from ta place of empathy, receptivity, and openness; it is immature to always have your way and worse, throw a tantrum if you don’t get it. Apparently, to grow up means to convert this tantrum into violence or threat of violence. Unwillingness and stubbornness stall peace and understanding.

However, in Cisneros’ 1992 interview, in which she explains her bilingual style, she makes comments that are righteously uncompromising, in a way I admire and hold to great esteem. When the interview suggested that she translated her work internally, she corrected him: “Sometimes.” The interview agreed: “Not all of it.” She reaffirms: “No, I don’t have to.”

She bifurcates into two distinct tones: the first is palatable and the second is uncompromising. In the first she speaks to the fun of bilingual word play. For example, in a title she used the phrase literally tarde o temprano (literally translates to Later or Early). It’s fun to have transliterated nuance in a story; it pays a small, subtle homage to its native tongue. In fact, these are small honors to both languages and cultures. The phrase truly references, in the bilingual mind, to the Spanish meaning, but adds spice, flavor, and life into the English language; it just barely makes sense, even though you know it doesn’t exactly sound right. It’s truly delightful to contribute to the English language carefully selected words and phrases that fit just right enough to make sense in both English and Spanish; it’s fun to uncover new meanings; it is playful. “All the expresiones in Spanish when translated make English wonderful. I feel like i haven’t finished playing around.” With an open mind, Cisneros’ style isn’t tacky or difficult, but playful and linguistically rich.

The second response is a bit stronger and political, if not offensive: She doesn’t need to help non-Spanish speakers. There is a cultural closeness, especially around humor, that requires a lived experience to understand. There is a certain closeness to understanding the unity of the universal abuela (decked with rollers, a muumuu, and chanclas, commanding some child to do some frivolous but urgent favor) that if you don’t understand, too bad. “I’m not going to make concessions to the non-Spanish speaker,” she writes. And why should she? The machiavellian monster in me rears its ugly head: how kind are non-Spanish speakers to Spanish speakers in the USA? How often do they speak louder and condescendingly? The Spanish speaker is not dumb, they just don’t know English. A person less cultured and traveled wouldn’t know any better, but their ignorance doesn’t forgive their poor behavior. Good intentions don’t always absolve all actions. An authors’ writing is her territory. You come to her home to learn and to respect it. She doesn’t need to offer you concessions, though she will be hospitable anyway. (cafecito anyone?)

Further, it is simply ugly to translate every phrase and for a person who does speak both languages, seeing the original text is beyond words: it gives you some deep, warm feeling of hogar; it’s like seeing an old friend; a simple five-letter word causes me to smile and to remember. To monolingual persons, I’ll try to explain that each word doesn’t filter through like a learned language. It isn’t like: “take an English word, put it through GoogleTranslate, boom, meaning” nor is it “take a Spanish word, put it through GoogleTranslate, boom, English meaning” somehow in the heart of it, you just know instantly the meaning of each word in either language. It’s a beautiful thing.

To get back to the point, dar a luz is a special phrase which should end there for its glory and beauty. “The grandmother cried because I was going to dar a luz,” is enough. It should end with dar a luz, not some after-thought: “I was going to give birth.” In Cisneros opinion, it’s clumsy and unstylish to compromise: “I’m not going to do that for the person who’s monolingual, but I will try to weave it in such a way in the rest of the story so they don’t lose it.” This is the perfect mix of uncompromising and compromising. She refuses to translate, but she gives enough context for understanding. In the end, we

It is a slightly offensive idea. But consider this perspective: for centuries, Anglo-authors have employed such allusions and techniques. Why now cry that the monolingual reader feels left out when it’s done by the less represented, the voice of other non-White, non-English speaking cultures? Is it uncomfortable to feel as helpless and confused as the non-English speaker confronting the loud, slow voice of English speakers? Is it uncomfortable to not understand “the inside joke” ? Hopefully, this exposure is educational: it exposes people to the feeling; it leads to understanding that Spanish is not malicious, it is home for some people. It teaches the reader some patience and empathy. The next time they confront someone of a different culture, maybe instead of a threat they will see that there’s beauty to gain from diversity. Think back to how translation exposes new meanings and new understandings; think back to the play. This is how we grow.



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