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A Little Respect, por favor

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

For the last couple of decades, multiculturalism has been a revered concept in this country.  Little children in kindergarten are taught that difference is to be not only respected, but admired.  Authors from places no one heard from before write about those places and rise to bestseller status.  And authors from right around the corner, not to be outdone, buy airplane tickets and do years of research so they too can write authoritatively about places and people heretofore ignored.

It is mostly a good thing.  But unfortunately this regard for other cultures often does not extend to their most significant artifact:  their language.

I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver\’s The Lacuna, published in 2009 by HarperCollins.  The first part of the book takes place in that most colorful of foreign lands, Mexico, in the colorful 1920\’s and 30\’s.  And it involves the era\’s most colorful trinity, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky.

The author has done a huge amount of research, and has surely traveled in Mexico.  There are endless virtuosic details about the temperament of tides, the smells of food, the sounds of monkeys  that she had to witness in person in order to transcribe them.

To intensify those bright hues and make them seem even more \”real,\” she does what many other writers do:  she lards the text with Spanish words.  Open the first third of the book at random, and your eye immediately jumps to the italicized words and phrases sprinkled over the page:  pez volador (flying fish), el tiempo cura y nos mata (time heals and kills us), sergente…wait–what?  No such word in Spanish.  She must mean sargento (sergeant).  Just a typo that nobody caught.  But no, sergente appears in page after page–it\’s not a typo.

Then there are the accent marks.  Sometimes they are put where they\’re needed.  Often, they are neglected.  And sometimes they are applied where they don\’t belong, for sheer effect.

Worse than the accent problem are major grammatical mistakes such as–to mention just one–lo fugar (which makes no sense) for lo fugaz (which means, that which is fleeting).  Strange how that last  consonant makes such a difference.  The main character is given several opportunities to reflect on the fleetingness of things in general, and every time the mistake is repeated.

If the writer could not trouble herself to straighten out her Spanish, surely HarperCollins could have spared a few hundred dollars to hire a graduate student to proof for language errors?  Literate Spanish speakers are as close as the nearest college. We\’re not dealing with Serbo-Croatian here, but with a language that some say will soon be spoken by more Americans than English.

I have often laughed at the way restaurant menus scatter accent marks randomly over their lists of entrees* for flavor, the way chefs sprinkle thyme over the wild-caught salmon.  But The Lacuna is not a menu, and HarperCollins is a premier publishing house.

Obviously, neither the writer, nor the editors and publishers cared enough to make sure that the Spanish was correct, and that is a depressing thought.  Americans are enamored of multiculturalism, but multilingualism doesn\’t seem quite as romantic, and it is a lot of work.

I would have much preferred the book to use English throughout, reserving Spanish for proper names and where absolutely necessary.  It\’s the use of Spanish as a decorative artifact that offends me, and that surely has Sor Juana Ines* de la Cruz, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and other Mexicans of genius writhing in their graves.

(* Both words need accents, but my software doesn\’t allow it.  But then, I\’m not HarperCollins.)

11 Responses

  1. Oh, that would infuriate me. I find I am rather intolerant if I, a simple reader, find inaccuracies in a book that an author should have identified.. I couldn't finish a book that was narrated by the character, starting as an embryo talking at the moment of orgasm – yes, even pre-conception! I couldn't get past the first page or two. The rest of my bookclub loved the book. I refused to read it! I've probably mentioned before that I've also steadfastly boycotted Lonely Planet Guides since I found in one of the Bangkok guides that they had referenced a favourite restaurant run by an amazing charity) – Cabbages and Condoms – (as a brothel. Every expat in Bangkok knew that. Every Thai knew that. It was famous. Clearly, even elementary research is skipped when writing these books!

  2. mrb, but only if the publishers didn't impose any deadlines!Mali, I find that even in books written exclusively in English the quality of editing has declined. You are so right that errors and inaccuracies are distracting–like a beautiful smile with spinach caught between the teeth.

  3. It would have been better all in English. I think about the books in translation I've read–Marquez, Borges, etc.–and their texts aren't peppered with Spanish phrases. Good text shouldn't need that. Of course I feel the same about people, in person, who slip into another language when their audience doesn't have the same background. If you are fluent in the language shared by the people around you, stop showing off. I don't mean in cases when, say, my friend Carlos talks to his mother in Spanish while we're there–I mean when people decide to just throw things into conversation knowing everyone else is lost. French, Spanish, whatever.

  4. I know what you mean. I was taught that to speak to another individual in a language that the rest of the group doesn't share is as rude as whispering in someone's ear in the middle of a group conversation.

  5. I just finished The Lacuna and have been racking my brain why she would choose the Italian sergente over the Spanish sargento. Was there something I missed. I surely would hope this was not merely a mistake.

  6. It is an advantage to have several languages – and Google to carefully look up anything else I might need (occasional bits of Latin). It drives me crazy when people use Spanish incorrectly – it's not that hard to get it right! Except I do write a single character who gets things wrong on purpose.

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