I took six years of German growing up- even passing the AP test in high school. Unfortunately that didn’t fulfill the language requirement for my BA, so I took two years of French in college. Then, for other reasons, I ended up spending a couple years overseas in Slovenia learning that language. And after loving the one college linguistics course I took (and with Germanic, Romantic and Slavic languages “under my belt” in varying degrees) I seriously considered studying linguistics when it came time to choose a major.
Alas, I didn’t. I was already much further along on a History track, and had pantloads of science classes I was trying to complete as a pre-med student on top of my regular major. So linguistics fell by the wayside. Perhaps someday, when I retire, I’ll go back and bone up on the study of languages through continuing education courses. After my architecture degree, that is. Or maybe before it. Who knows.
Anyway, why do I bring all of this up? Because there’s a part of me that still gets a strange thrill when I come across other languages in my reading. No, I don’t mean actually reading in a foreign language, although I’ve dabbled in that,too. No, I’m talking about dialogue written in English that captures the feel of another language, and transports you out of your own culture for a time, by way of an implied direct translation, rather than a transparent translation. Take this exchange in The Old Man and the Sea :
“I'll get the cast net and go for sardines. Will you sit in the sun in the doorway?”
“Yes. I have yesterday's paper and I will read the baseball...”
“The Yankees cannot lose.”
“But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.”
“Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.”
‘Read the baseball,’ ‘the Indians of Cleveland,’ ‘the great DiMaggio’… all of these phrases will clang around clumsily in a native English-speaker’s ear, but that’s precisely what makes them work for me. They reinforce the authenticity of the dialogue as it was imagined to have occurred- in Spanish - with Spanish phrasings, Spanish word order and Spanish color. Hemingway had already done this elsewhere, of course. Take this exchange from For Whom the Bell Tolls :
“You have a curious idea to sleep in the open, don Roberto,” he said standing over there in the dark, muffled in his blanket cape, his carbine slung over his shoulder.
“I am accustomed to it.”
“When are you relieved?”
“There is much cold between now and then.”
“I am accustomed to it,” Fernando said.
“Since, then, you are accustomed to it-“ Robert Jordan said politely.
‘A curious idea to…’ and ‘much cold’ are both charming Spanishisms, but I really love that last sentence, where the unfinished thought, the trailing off into silence, is itself an implied idiom. And even if you’ve never heard the specific phrase or idiom that’s implied, the point is that your recognize that there is one. The author knows it, because the characters spoke it. It transports you across cultures and into their heads. Pearl Buck is another author who does this. Here are a few random lines from The Good Earth :
“It is an anger to me.”
“Well, and he may even be killed.”
“Well, and it is like the old days.”
“Well, and if it must be so, let it be so.”
I swear, for a solid week after I read that book, I had to consciously avoid beginning my own real-world dialogue with the ‘Well, and…’ affectation. (“Well, and if the car needs an oil change, I’ll take it in for an oil change.”) But this same sense of foreignness can be conveyed in other ways, too. Just listen to the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station as he relays his poorly understood Spanish conversations to the reader:
“The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole, although here I was basically guessing; all I knew was painting was mentioned with some bitterness or regret. Then without a transition or with a transition I missed she was talking about her travels in Europe and then I heard her say New York and college and she paused and as she paused my breath caught because I realized what was coming.”
The guesswork, and the multiple potential truths make for a humorous situation. But it’s another effective way of illustrating that gulf between the reader’s culture, and that of the book’s characters. And I love it when I come across this stuff.
Another post for another day: how should such passages be translated back into the characters’ original language? Should they retain the intended idiom? Or should they retain the feeling of foreignness? I could be convinced of either, but I’d probably say the former. I'll have to noodle on that one a bit.