Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Writing Life... Gringo/Latino.

me pidieron q escribiera algo sobre "la vida escrita" o "la vida de un escritor", una sección ya mítica de Book World, el suplemento de The Washington Post. Escribi acerca de la traduccion y lo hice en ingles.

aqui va

Sunday, May 13, 2007; BW11

The Writing Life

Look, Ma, no translator! A Chilean writer tries his hand at accent-free prose.

By Alberto Fuguet

I'm writing this piece in English.

I don't want to be translated this time.

For the record: I don't believe in translations; there is, I've concluded, no such thing. There are only adaptations that compress or expand or sift a whole culture into another, while trying to retain its shine.

Ezra Fitz, my latest translator, has done a remarkable job of transforming my Spanish into an English that I can read without being reminded every 10 lines that it was written in another language. Or, what can be worse, that it was written by anyone but me. Not a nice feeling. I could have asked him to help me with this piece, but I preferred not to. Not because I didn't want to collaborate with Ezra, but because I wanted to take a risk, see what it would be like to go it alone, not have that little line under this piece that says "translated by. . . ."

Of course, there is nothing wrong with "translated by. . . ." I'm very happy to be available in Dutch and Finnish and -- coming soon! -- Polish. I have no problem being translated into languages I can't speak or read. I just don't like the idea of being translated into English because, after all, it's a language that was once my own.

Here's how it happened: English is my real language. Better said, my mother tongue. It's the first language I ever spoke. You see, I used to speak in that perfect Valley English of Encino, Calif. But then I returned (went for the first time, actually) to Chile, the country of my parents. I didn't know Spanish at all and was just starting puberty -- a bad time to be an immigrant. We went south on vacation and never came back. I had to learn Spanish fast.

Then I noticed something.

In Chile, I was a gringo. To be American in a continent where Americans are regarded as bullies, imperialists and fast-food cowboys was not what a young boy wanted to be, but there was no doubt about it: In this new language with its puzzling accents and weird letter ñ, I had an accent. I quickly realized that when you write, there is no such thing as an accent. So I guess I became a writer not because I wanted to tell stories -- I became one in order to survive, fit in.

To not have an accent.

But before I became a writer, I had to become Chilean, and, to be a Chilean, I had to conquer the language, excel in it. Not just the written one, but the spoken one, too. Along the way, I met people with accents. Older people. A Jewish grandmother of a friend in California spoke with a thicker accent than Henry Kissinger. In Chile, I bumped into an old Lithuanian who, after 50 years, spoke as if he had arrived yesterday.

Didn't accents ever go away? Was this a sort of curse for leaving home?

I worked hard, did my best to erase the English from my head, heart and tongue. Eventually, I succeeded. I began to talk in perfect Chilean, and, as an unexpected side-effect, I began to write, think and dream in what people down here call "the language of Cervantes."

Am I bilingual?

Not at all. I only wish. I'm unable to translate myself, and I'm very bad and slow at translating others.

Do I know English?

Yes. Some people believe there is such a thing as bilingualism. I have my serious doubts. One can speak, even write in different languages, but one of them must dominate. And in my case, by now, it's Spanish. I am a Spanish-language author and, more important, a Chilean. In the United States now, I have an accent. I stumble on spelling and, though I may talk all day in English, at the end of the day, I will need to revisit things in Spanish.

That said, I do miss English and have retained a number of tics. I love to see movies in English and read English-language books in, well, English. I tried Philip Roth in Spanish, and no, it didn't work for me. I also don't understand -- literally -- books that have been translated through another language into Spanish. Orhan Pamuk en español is a bore who can't capture my imagination, but in English his adapted Turkish soars. Same with Japanese. I can't read Murakami in Spanish. The retranslated prose gives me the creeps.

Another strange handicap I have from childhood is the alphabet. I'm not able to recite it swiftly, automatically, in Spanish. When I have a dictionary in hand, say, and need to remember if G comes before H or K, my brain goes directly to English, and I have to translate the results. The answer I guess is that I learned my ABCs but never read the essential children's textbook in Spanish, El Silabario Ilustrado. I arrived, I suppose, too late.

I sometimes feel the need to write in the language of my childhood. On my blog, I tend to post a lot in English, which, in South America, is considered snobbish. My little scribblings in my writer's notebooks are, usually, in English, as are my to-do lists. When I have to talk to someone whose Spanish is not too good, I go straight to English.

In the end, I guess I'm writing this piece en inglés because I knew I would be less self-conscious tackling personal questions such as: Why write? Or: Confessions from my writing life. I know when I use English, I return to my childhood. I'm more pure, more honest -- or maybe just more naive. Some emotions are easier for me in English than in Spanish. It's easier in general to be emotional en inglés. In English, you open your heart; in Spanish, you are taught early on to hide it. And Spanish, especially literary Spanish, is much more solemn and important-sounding.

For me, English is a lost paradise. A place I don't associate with books or loss or loneliness or violence. As you can guess, I've had a rougher time in Spanish, which, of course, is neither the language's nor the country's fault. It has everything to do with timing. I transformed myself into a Spanish-speaking person at exactly the time when I began to grow and things around me began to crumble. So English remains there, far away, and yet close, untouched, unblemished -- smelling of sprinklers, Slurpees, summer sweat and the aqua-blue chlorine of swimming pools that perfume the California night. ?

Alberto Fuguet: Gringo Latino

Although he is an established novelist and film director -- named by Time magazine as one of the 50 most important Latin Americans for the new millennium -- Alberto Fuguet is best known for what he is not: He is adamantly not a writer in the vein of Gabriel García Márquez. He stands fiercely against the notion that magical realism is all Latin American literature can do. In 1996, he co-edited an anthology called McOndo, in which he poked fun at García Márquez's fictional world of Macondo (and all its imitators) and celebrated an entirely new breed of Latin American, more in tune with condos and grit and " Amores Perros" than with moldering mansions and flying girls.

He was born in Chile in1964, but his parents soon moved to, as he calls it, "the very Brady Bunch setting" of Encino, Calif. His mother was a bank teller, his father was a delivery man for Wonder Bread, and so, although Fuguet returned to his parents' country at the age of 12, he was an all-American kid, fed on Ding Dongs and a steady diet of Hollywood dreams.

In Chile, he sought out cheap English-language paperbacks and read James Michener, Irving Wallace, Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins, preferring them to the writers of the emerging Spanish-language boom. After winning a few short story contests and joining workshops led by Antonio Skármeta ("Il Postino") and José Donoso ( The Obscene Bird of Night), he embarked on his own literary career, which has produced such critically acclaimed novels as Bad Vibes (Mala onda) and The Movies of My Life (Las peliculas de mi vida).

Peeved by any characterization of him as a "foreign" author -- he gets this in Chile as well as here -- he has set out to write books that are bicultural in spirit, representative of the hip, hybrid fusion the Americas have become. "I felt there were many books about Latinos turning into Americans, but not many about gringos turning into Latinos." His Web site,, is a delightful mix of hemispheric sensibilities.

His hope, he says, is "to erase all tags." But that, as we know, might require a Marquesian plague of forgetting.

-- Marie Arana