How Being Bilingual Taught Me to Be a Writer

As I’m writing this, it’s still Memorial Day, and I’ve been thinking a lot about words and their true meaning. About memory, and loss, and the act of remembering. I’m reminded of one of my favorite epigraphs:

From The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano:

Recordar: To remember, from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart.

To me, there’s beauty in this definition, not just because of what it says but how it’s said. When we struggle to find meaning—in words, in actions, in holidays that retail giants muddle—all we have to do is go back to the roots, the origins. We might find that a word like “remember” can be best defined by another language, a fact which I find strangely poetic. For a writer, words are tools we use with the utmost precision, but translation (or the futility of it) reminds us that there are some things so intangible only experience or instinct can express it.

Words (Palabras)Growing up with two languages taught me to respect both the power and limitations of words. When I first came to U.S. I spoke only Spanish—it wasn’t until the start of kindergarten, a year after I’d been here, that I began to learn English. At that age, language is like a switch; one day it just flips on and illuminates everything around you. I caught on so quickly that my mom, who spoke more English than I did when we first arrived from Peru, soon found herself asking me and my sister to translate:

Como se dice “sinvergüenza” in English?

Someone who’s shameless.

Yes, but there isn’t just one word? 

I can’t think of just one word.

And what about when you mean it playfully?  

I don’t know. Maybe you laugh as you say it?

Come se dice “friolenta” in English?

Someone who’s always cold.

Yes, but what’s the word for that?

I can’t think of just one.

And on and on the conversations would go, several times a week. To this day, my mom will still ask me to define a word or expression, and every once in a while the scenario plays out in reverse: we’ll find a word in English can’t quite be summed up in Spanish.

This constant testing of language is fascinating to me. It’s probably (and I can’t believe this is only now occurring to me) a huge part of why I became a writer. Growing up with two languages, I learned two forms of expression. I learned about voice, and perspective, and that words do more than describe what already exists—they often mold what has yet to be defined.

Let us never forget the true meaning of the words we use, nor underestimate their power.

 

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

16 thoughts on “How Being Bilingual Taught Me to Be a Writer

  1. “words do more than describe what already exists—they often mold what has yet to be defined.”

    Such a lovely way of putting it. And I agree that foreign languages encourage us to think about and appreciate words in new ways.

    • Thanks, Kristan. I’ve been noticing they also bring out different parts of us. The side of me that comes out when I speak English is slightly different from the side of me that speaks Spanish…

  2. What a great post, Natalia! My mother-in-law is bilingual, and she is always having that same debate in French to English translations. (Or vice versa!) I love to hear her explain phrases that don’t quite translate or explain meanings that are sometimes lost in translation.

    • Thanks so much, Kristy! I took French (briefly) in high school and thought it is such a beautiful language. Even the small amount I learned helped shed new perspective on words and culture.

  3. I love this, Natalia. I think about Spanish a lot, actually (especially right now because I’m reading CHASING THE SUN–it’s wonderful). One thing I’ve always loved about Spanish is “ser” versus “estar” — permanence vs. transience. We don’t have that subtlety in English. Like if I say, Soy triste, I’m saying I’m a sad person, but “Estoy triste” is I’m feeling sad right now. I like that distinction. (And, I got that right, didn’t I? That’s the way I’ve always understood usage, at least. :-))

    • I love this comment 🙂 That is such a beautiful point. It reminds me (again) of my mom. When I was young every once in a while she’d look at me and ask, “Eres feliz?” Not just “estas feliz?” as in right now, in the very moment, but AM I a happy person, day in and day out. She’d emphasize how important this was to her, and it made me appreciate the difference between feeling something and being something.

  4. Great post, NS. My Mom says that a lot about language, too. Somethings just don’t translate easily from one word to the next in languages. I love your examples!

    • Thanks, Mahesh! I had the hardest time coming up with these examples, funny enough. Something about being on the spot (I know there were a million examples growing up, but in the moment when I had to think of just ONE…)

  5. “sinvergüenza” is in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. By context, it’s obviously somewhat exasperated and somewhat playful. 🙂

    Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises, uses “aficion” (from which comes “aficionado”), and there is no word in English that means the same thing. I think it’s close to “informed passion” (very distinct from just enthusiasm).

    Natalia, here’s my question: How did you make the decision to write in English rather than Spanish? Was that an “of course” decision, or did you consider both options? I guess this came to mind because I was just reading about Nabokov, who wrote magnificently in English, of course, but who always mourned the loss of his beloved (I think he said “infinitely pliable”) Russian language.

    Anyway, I’m curious, because it’s not a decision I’ve ever had to make myself (to quote Bruce Willis, I only speak two languages, English and bad English 🙂 ).

    • I love this question!

      You’re right in that it wasn’t really a decision. Though Spanish is my first language, I learned to read and write in English (and from that, I quickly translated those skills to Spanish). But I was so young when I came to the US that my entire education has been in English. That makes it my dominant language, the one in which I feel I can really play with words, in which the flow comes more naturally.

      I can relate to Nabokov “mourning” a language, because though my Spanish is far from gone, it’s also not as instinctual as English. I think and process the world in English; Spanish is my language for family, for home, for instances when I visit Peru and realize my accent is slightly different from the Peruvians who’ve lived there all their lives. Or I realize that I don’t know the current Peruvian slang, or even find myself lacking certain words in my vocabulary. (What’s funny is when I occasionally realize, even after all my years of living here, that I don’t know a certain word in English—like ladle, for example, which I learned about 5 years ago, since my whole life I’d only used the Spanish word for it because it’s a word normally used at home.)

      With Chasing the Sun, it never occurred to me not to write it in English, just as it never occurred to me not to incorporate Spanish words here and there, because while I’d processed and created the story in English, there are certain parts that in my mind, I heard very clearly in Spanish. So I went with what felt right in each instance.

      • Your point about “ladle” reminds me of something I read once. Why do so many types of meat have different English words when they are alive (cow, pig, deer) than when they are good (beef, ham, venison). It’s because at a certain point in England the people who were raising and killing the animals spoke a different language than the ones who were being served at table.

        I’m not bilingual, but I have always been interested in it, which is probably why I made sure my detective character speaks several languages. 🙂

  6. What an interesting post! It seems to me that you are right: Growing up with two languages really must develop the tools one needs as a writer. My grandma, whose first language was Italian, turned out to be a very talented writer (in English). I am now raising a bilingual daughter (French-English) and reading your post has given me great encouragement. Thank you!

    • I think it’s wonderful that you’re raising a bilingual daughter. My mom, who never let us speak to her in English when we were little, (she’d interrupt us when we tried, claiming she couldn’t understand us, though she very well could) said that we’d thank her for it one day, that being bilingual is a gift. And she was right.

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