Chocolate Caliente, Por Favor

If you limit your reading to contemporary bookclub novels, you may not experience the speed bumps caused by passages and words rendered in the original language (VO) and not in comfortable English. However, my experience suggests that even a limited advance into canonical literature or the wide-world of global writing will assuredly trip-up a reader with a passage in a strange language or a latinate phrase every lawyer or botanist knows, or an awkward translation that demands comparison to the original language.

Around the world most educated people speak more than one language. In some areas, where a foreign country might be just over the bridge, multiple languages are a must. I grew up less that twenty miles from Mexico and it was common to have enough familiarity with Spanish to avoid dangerous or embarrassing moments. Most of this country, however, does not enjoy the flexibility of an alternate language.

Actually, that’s only partially true. Those people who at some time were considered immigrants to the United States often retain their native language while assimilating the mysteries of the English language. One of my favorite memories was of a Mexican family visiting the local Starbucks. Mom was ordering but her English was shaky so her nine year old, between snapping her gum and rolling her eyes, clarified the requests in stone cold unaccented valley-girl barista argot and then turned to her grandmother to explained the order in perfect Spanish.

We should celebrate this diversity. It’s sad and wasteful in that many Americans consider speaking a foreign language as being un-American.

But the subject here is actually reading in a foreign language. Would that we all could read French novels in French or Japanese poetry in Japanese. More to the point is whether we are stumped by a passage rendered in a foreign language, possibly even skipping over it and totally missing the author’s intention?

This reminds me of a question I tend to ask; it’s not necessarily focused on translation and I have used several examples through the years when asking it. To be a bit more contemporary: when you read A. S. Byatt’s excellent novel Possession, did you read all the poetry?

Even in college I admitted that when reading Russian literature I would mentally slur the Russian proper names. I guess I still do it with unfamiliar languages, especially those using unfamiliar letters (my Chinese is embarrassing). However, when I do stop and carefully enunciate foreign names, I get a little pop of joy every time I say it henceforth.

With today’s rapid access to information over the internet, no one should be at a loss when a foreign word or phrase puts the breaks on your reading. Or if you’re still (like me) old school, maybe you have a number of dictionaries close by to decipher the tough ones.

3 thoughts on “Chocolate Caliente, Por Favor

  1. I have to admit, the long Latin passages in The Name of the Rose got passed over by me. However, I do read poetry, song lyrics, etc. if embedded within a text (I still haven’t read Possession, it’s on my shelf, I’ll get to it). I gave up reading John Grisham and his contemporaries a long time ago, but I remember one of his was set partially in Central/South America (detail are a bit hazy). I found it very annoying that any time someone spoke Spanish, he would write the Spanish then immediately follow it with the English.
    A similar question: do you read all of the footnotes?


    1. I agree about the Spanish being followed immediately by the English translation but what if you’re reading a Hindu novel? Kathy Acker comes to mind here, not to mention The Cantos.

      Yes, read Possession soon: it works both as a romance novel and as an ersatz treatment of literary obsession. There are two books I claim as stimulants to my grown-up reading: one is Possession and the other is All the King’s Men.


      1. Good point.
        Ironically, I’m actually reading All the King’s Men now (started it on Saturday). This is my end-of the-year “big book”.


What are your thoughts on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s