Pile ’em slightly lower

As mentioned last week, I have obliged myself to read and review a pile of unread books I have accumulated before I buy myself another. Pain, as Freddie Mercury observed, is so close to Pleasure.

The first one up is Eduardo Mendoza’s Mauricio o las elecciones primarias .

I really can’t be bothered writing a full review of this. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book a lot, but most of what is there on those two links (in Spanish) gives a far better summary of the book than I could hope to.

When it comes to reading in another language, I always find myself mildly unsatisfied when I finish a book, however much I might have been bowled over by it. Part of this is because if you’re not a native speaker of the language in question, you are always aware that there may be lots of things you are missing in the course of reading the book. Even if you are at a level where you can understand the meaning of the words without having to look at the dictionary, you still feel a degree of separation from the words and the subject matter.

To illustrate: if the author is conveying the innermost thoughts of a protagonist from that protagonist’s point of view, you can try and empathise with the protagonist, but since you speak a different language, there is a limit to how much you can identify with his words. If I am reading a story in English about a man who says:

“What yer man needs is a good kick up the hole.”

I will probably be able to infer certain things about what has led that man to say those words at that moment in the story. I might be familiar with the place where the man finds himself, and might be able to judge if the man has issues, whether of class hatred, of inverted snobbery, an inferiority complex, or whatever.

The problem with reading in a foreign language, however, is that unless you’re so acquainted with that language and the culture that has produced the text that you can confidently say “I know why he said that thing there, and I know why the author is making him say this”, then you are saddled with the sensation of missing out on things.

Of course, most acts of reading entail having to put up with this sensation to some degree. The point is that this is heightened when you’re reading in a language that is not your own, and about a culture that may not feel like your own. If a non-native Spanish speaker is able to say of Mauricio o las elecciones primarias:

“Because a) I speak ah, very fluent Spanish and; b) I am well acquainted with the peculiarities of the Socialist Party of Catalonia of the post-dictatorship period, with its worker priests, come-all-ye singers, petits parvenus and so on, and with the spirit of the times in pre-Olympics Barcelona, I am more than able to interpret this book in keeping with the meaning that the author has intended, without missing a single reference.”

they would be either a) a cultural titan; or b) a bit deluded.

This is not to say that you need to be acquainted with such detail in order to get something out of the text. On the contrary: the text -as is the case with Mauricio o las elecciones primarias– might address universal concerns that transcend the specifics of language and culture: love, death, power, politics and so on. And if language constituted a barrier so great as to make it impossible to apprehend the intended meaning of the text, no-one would bother translating anything.

At this point, I’m not quite sure where I am going with this post. I might take up a couple of the loose ends when I write the review of the next book in Spanish – La velocidad de la luz (The Speed of Light). The next book for review, however, is The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen, which I’m half way through and enjoying very much, thank you.

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3 Responses to “Pile ’em slightly lower”


  1. 1 Donagh February 27, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    ¡Qué chévere! As Chávez would say…

  2. 2 Kevin February 27, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Are we to argue, then, that all qualified translators are cultural titans?

    For the moment, at least, I feel conversely on completing a piece of foreign literature. I feel a stronger sense of satisfaction when it’s foreign. Once the novelty of comprehension passes, so too will that particular brand of satisfaction.

  3. 3 hughgreen February 28, 2007 at 7:45 am

    Are we to argue, then, that all qualified translators are cultural titans?

    Depends what sort of qualification the translator has, I imagine.


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