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On Being Translated from English to English, by Way of Spanish

By Eduardo Halfon

I was born into Spanish but grew up in English. I was born in Guatemala and lived there until we moved to South Florida with my family, the day of my tenth birthday, in August of 1981, and I immediately fell into this new sound, into this new identity, called English. I grew up in English. Discovered girls in English. Drank beer in English. Got high in English. Studied engineering in English—well, sort of, in North Carolina. I wouldn’t move back to my country and language of origin until twelve years later, by which time I had already graduated from college, and almost forgotten my Spanish. I could understand it, but I could barely speak it. I began to work my way back to it then, slowly, arduously, because I had to. A road back that perhaps inadvertently also took me straight to the center of language: storytelling. I never meant to become a writer. I’m an engineer—always will be, I suppose. But something about my identity, and my origin, and recapturing that piece of me that was left behind somewhere when I turned ten, brought me back to my mother language, and to books, and to literature, and to stories.

Although I write my stories in Spanish, my thought process while writing is always bilingual; that is, as I write, I’m thinking in two languages, or thinking from two languages, or perhaps thinking toward two languages. As I write each sentence or phrase, I say it in English and Spanish—I actually say it out loud in both languages, listening to how the various word combinations sound in each language, if they work or don’t work well together or which one sounds best (I’m doing it now, in fact). Sometimes Spanish gives me the solution; other times the English version is better and sort of imposes itself onto a foreign language; but most of the time English and Spanish blend together, forming a type of hybrid. And what emerges in the end, I guess, is a strange version of Spanish: a Spanish rooted in English or a Spanish floating in English or a Spanish molded by English. In any case—my own private Spanish.

What happens, then, when one of my stories is translated into English, back into English, so to say, by way of Spanish?

A translation is always an adaptation. I know that. Any literary work, when moved away from its original language, from its original linguistic foundation or grammatical structure, can never be the same work. Even if that translation is done by the same author, what he or she is doing is adapting the original work into a new set of words and symbols and semantics.

I’ve observed this process several times from a distance, without much ado or without much opinion, when my stories have been translated into Dutch, or Portuguese, or Serbian, or Italian, or even French. But to observe one of my stories being translated into English, to observe up close how someone else—whoever that is—adapts one of my stories back into my other language, back into its other language, well, it’s kind of like being forced to watch your mother undress. Fascinating yet appalling. Mesmerizing yet ghastly. Every bone in your body is screaming for you to run off, to close your eyes, to look away, else you’ll be turned into a stag and torn to pieces by your hounds. Yet you can’t. You can’t utter a word. You can’t do anything. Not even watch. But then, later, there she is again, all dressed again. It’s your mother again. Perhaps in different clothes. Perhaps even in nicer clothes. But she again smells sweet like your mother and scolds you sternly like your mother and kisses you gently on the cheek like your mother. All the things, of course, any good story should do. In any adaptation. In any language.

Read Eduardo Halfon's "Never Any End to Hemingway" and "The Polish Boxer."

Published Sep 26, 2011   Copyright 2011 Eduardo Halfon

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