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.

giphy
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.

 

Two recent encounters

I had two recent encounters with Spanish mixed right smack dab in with English as part of the American experience. Just like that!

The episode of This American Life from November 8th featured a story about Chris García (who also happens to be a comedian), his father, and a conversation they had while driving along a familiar route through Los Angeles. Chris and his father speak Spanish/Spanglish with one another, and although Chris narrates the story and retells their conversation in English, you can catch snippets of their original conversation which Chris recorded on his phone. The story is quite touching so I won’t give much more away about the content or context of their conversation, but there were a couple of things I found interesting from a linguistic point of view:

  • Chris refers to his father as “Dad”
  • Chris responds affirmatively with “uh-huh” and “yeah”
  • Chris states the number 218 as “dos eighteen” (then “dos uno ocho,” but never “dos dieciocho” or “two eighteen”)

The choices we make when code-switching are always fascinating to me. Using English words or phrases that make more sense than their Spanish translations in the context of driving around L.A. (e.g. “ride” and “high school”) was no surprise to me, but I was especially intrigued by the code-switching in the middle of expressing one single number. (I could just be behind on my scholarly reading.)

My other encounter was in All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. To me this was a very American novel, full of cowboys and ranches, bootstrap ambitions, and descriptions of sunsets across the untamed West, but perhaps unlike other samples of traditional Americana there are stretches of dialogue in Spanish without translations. (Either McCarthy himself is bilingual or he collaborates with someone to write the passages, and so far the internet hasn’t helped me to figure out which it is.) The main character is a Texan who grows up speaking English and Spanish and who crosses the border into Mexico and back. Another interesting aspect of the book is that several of the Mexican characters located in Mexico are portrayed as completely competent communicating in English. The speech of others is portrayed as broken or with an accent. Overall I found McCarthy’s treatment of dialect and idiolect as varied and realistic, rather than monolithic and stereotypical.

As a bilingual reader, I felt like a special member of a particular audience that McCarthy knew would have a certain sensibility and that would comprehend his novel without the aid of outside sources (such as the many websites featuring translations of the Spanish passages). That’s probably just a stretch of both my imagination and my ego, but you never know…

McCarthy has written a number of novels and screenplays that take place along the US-Mexico border, of which several have been adapted for film including All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men.