What language do multilinguals think in when they create?

I’ve recently been hanging out in a literary translation rabbit hole. It started with children’s literature, when I started noticing the contrast in treatment of the Spanish language in translated and bilingual books for kids (and ranted about it here). This must have switched on my awareness of the often hidden role of literary translators, because I started looking into the lives and work of the translators whose names are embedded in the information on the back of the title page, among publisher credits and ISBN numbers and Library of Congress catalogue information.

The Grand Rapids Public Library deserves a nod at this point, because they have a significant World Languages collection where I continue to find books in Spanish – both originals and translations – that I want to read. GRPL has a number of books by Valeria Luiselli in English, translated by Christina MacSweeney, but only one that I could find in the original Spanish: Papeles falsos, a collection of essays. If you haven’t heard of her yet, Luiselli is a writer born in Mexico whose work has started to win awards and gain international recognition.

In my rabbit hole of late, I read a few interviews with MacSweeney, including the one that I linked to above, but I also did some research on Luiselli. She is identified as a Mexican author, but from what I can gather she is an adult third culture kid whose childhood was spent in several different countries and who attended international schools. And she currently lives in New York.

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Not the most relevant GIF, but this came up when searching “third culture kid” and it was too good not to include.

 

Just as simply saying that Luiselli is a Mexican author obscures the complexity of her background, I realized that referring to her books in the “original Spanish” or the “English translation” is imprecise, as well. In this interview with BOMB Magazine, Luiselli explains that she learned Spanish and English at the same time and often writes in both languages:

“I often write in English and then self-translate into Spanish, and vice-versa too. It’s a messy process, but that messiness creates a space for more clear, lucid things to emerge. Not always, though. Often I just dwell for long periods in this completely confusing space, not knowing which language I should write in. I go back and forth and it’s very unproductive, until one day something happens and I’m able to write, at least so far. That’s what happened to me with Sidewalks and Faces in the Crowd.

Also, when my writing is getting translated, I rewrite a lot, and work on it with the translator. I often bring those modifications back into the original. So the ghost of translation always haunts the original.”

There is something alluring to me about those true original texts, written in whatever language Luiselli’s creative thoughts first came into being. In my personal experience as a reader, I’ve only seen the two languages unabashedly juxtaposed in untranslated Spanish dialogue in Cormac McCarthy’s border fiction (and reflected on it here), mixed together for a specific satirical effect like in “Pollito Chicken” by Ana Lydia Vega, or eloquently mashed-up in poetry such as that of Tato Laviera. (Here is a link to Laviera’s poem “Spanglish,” published online by the Poetry Foundation.)

What language do multilinguals think in when they create is the question I used for the title of this post, but I think the answer might be obvious: whichever one comes to mind.

 

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