When I was young I used to think that all schoolchildren went to visit Spanish missions or places like Old Town.
  • When I was young I used to think that all schoolchildren went to visit Spanish missions or places like Old Town.
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I’ve often wondered what it is like for my neighbor, whose husband speaks only a few words of Spanish, to stumble in her big slippers into the coffee-scented kitchen and never hear her husband say lovingly, “¿Como amaneciste?” (How did you wake up?) Perhaps he says to her, con cariño, “How did you sleep?” And that is enough. It’s obvious by my neighbors’ actions that they love one another. Perhaps nothing is lost in the translation; the caress of the words is the same.

My father-in-law used to tell the same joke every time we went to visit. After we knocked on the door, he would call out, “Who is it?” Through the screen door, we would speak into the dark interior of the house, “It’s us.” Then he would laugh and say, “Don’t strain your voice.” When you live on the border of another country, when you live in the presence of more than one language, communicating sometimes feels as if it is through a screen or a sieve. Translators of books struggle with this problem on an academic and aesthetic level, but what is lost — or gained — in the ordinary daily exchanges between two languages, two cultures, two people?

In our eagerness to embrace multiculturalism, to belatedly validate difference, we have sometimes forgotten to reaffirm the many things we, as a species, have in common. When a jailer crosses racial, political, religious, and linguistic lines to call the prisoner he is guarding “sister,” or when Isabel Allende and a woman in India communicate about their grandchildren without a common language, we are reminded of what we share as human beings. Steven Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, writes, “Cultures surely differ in how often their members express, talk about, and act on various emotions…[but] the evidence suggests that the emotions of all normal members of our species are played on the same keyboard.” Nevertheless, Pinker notes, “Who but the Jews would have a word, naches, for luminous pride in a child’s accomplishments? And does it not say something profound about the Teutonic psyche that the German language has the word schadenfreude, pleasure in another’s misfortunes?”

There are words in Spanish, as well, that have no absolute counterparts in English. Tocayo, for instance, means someone with whom you share the same name. My Larousse translates tocayo as namesake, a word we rarely use in English and not in the same way.

If I meet someone named Susan, she will happily exclaim that we are tocayas. (I have changed the ending to reflect female and plural status.) Since I am on the border of Spanish, as opposed to being of it, I know the meaning of tocaya, but when I try to affix an emotion to it, I am uncertain. Does sharing the same name with someone a priori establish a fraction more intimacy between my tocaya and me? Does the fact that we both walk around experiencing the varied world under the same name mean that our relationship to the world has more similarity than, say, my relationship to the world and Alice’s?

I love to think of words as possessions. I tell ESL students, once they use a word it belongs to them — a bird in the hand, a morsel in the mouth. But what does it mean to possess a word and not its nuance? It’s like knowing the lyrics of a song but not what they really mean, or knowing a math formula but not being able to arrive at the solution.

Language can be currency or liability along the frontera. Chula Vista, the city in which I live, is situated 11 miles north of the Mexican border. A person must pick his or her way carefully through the linguistic minefields here. Yesterday I went to Henry’s to buy some vitamins. Beside me in the aisle I heard a woman speaking Spanish to the clerk. I understood the customer to be asking the clerk if she could order a certain brand of vitamin. The clerk, who had long dark hair and whose badge read Rosa, called over another clerk and said, “Would you explain to this woman that we don’t have the brand she is looking for but we could order it.” The translation began, but the Spanish-speaking shopper interrupted sharply in English, “I understood perfectly what she was saying.” Rosa, looking as piqued as a salesperson is allowed to in the face of a client, replied, “But why didn’t you speak to me in English?” The woman answered, “I thought you spoke Spanish.” Gradually, things got resolved in both languages, because the assisting clerk kept speaking Spanish to the customer, Rosa continued in English, while the customer, as a point of honor, kept up her part in both languages.

Later, in the checkout line, the same woman approached the cashier who was helping me — and who had a long line of foot-tapping shoppers — and asked in Spanish if she could have change for a dollar. The cashier said with some irritation, “I think what you’re saying is you need change, but it will be a while before I open my register, so try another checker.” At which point I, who am always foolishly compelled to leap into silence or linguistic gaffes, said to the woman, “¿Que tipo de cambio quieres?” I suddenly felt self-conscious because I belatedly recognized that this was the woman who spoke English, and because I had used the familiar instead of the polite form of address. The woman said to me in English, “I just need change for the telephone.” Then we exchanged the only sure coin of the realm. Although you cannot judge a book by its cover, you would at least know what language it is written in. In this region, it is a mistake to look at someone and assume what language they speak or wish to speak. Aside from communication, language becomes a question of diplomacy.

Bob Dylan’s early lyrics capture the cultural genuflecting politicians do to win votes.

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