This is no. 118 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I’m told I used to go very quiet as a small child when we traveled from the United States to visit our family in Brazil. For a handful of days I wouldn’t say a single word. I’m not sure how I communicated during that time, or how I got away with not communicating. Then, all of a sudden, I’d speak nothing but Portuguese. Once the holiday season ended we’d fly back to the wintry Northeast, where I’d attend school—kindergarten, elementary, I’m not sure how old I was—swiftly falling into the same silence. Concerned teachers would call my parents, who would reassure them I’d be back to my old self in no time. And I would: to English-speaking Julia with a hard “jay.” Similarly, there’s an entire twelve months of my life, around the age of seven or eight, that seems to be missing from my memory. It was the year we moved from small-town America to big-city Mexico, when I went from bilingual to trilingual. What memories I do have of those early days feature a schoolmate telling a suddenly-gringa-Hulia in floral leggings: Tu aliento apesta. I remember the hard work of trying to tease meaning out of the girl’s whisper—italicized here not for its foreignness but its cruelty—how it sounded almost Portuguese but not quite, meaning almost like something I should’ve been able to understand, and yet…
Next thing I knew, or next thing I can recall all these years later, is sitting at a table speaking Spanish with a group of friends who wanted me to speak English to the new girl, the new gringa—I remember her name, Jennifer—and feeling deeply, paralyzingly shy about having to use this, my old language, my second language—chronologically speaking, at least—to performatively forge a new friendship.
Translators are taught from the get-go that they should work exclusively from their learned languages into their mother or native or first tongues. The assumption is that you must know—and are possibly only able to know—one language intimately, the language you’ll be writing your translation in, while you can simply have expertise in the languages you translate from. Historically this expertise has been academic rather than domestic, schoolbook rather than on-the-ground. There’s a lot of talk these days about what this means and whether the terms I mention above (mother, native, first) accurately reflect language acquisition. In fact, monolingualism as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon, socially engineered in the eighteenth century, around the same time as the creation of nation-states.
(I woke this morning to the sudden thought that my languages may very well be like monozygotic triplets, though the image that came to me first was of cracking an egg and finding not one but two or three yolks—Spanish, Portuguese, and English nestled together behind a protective membrane.)
Traditionally, the translator has been conceived as someone or something—a bridge, a vessel, a conduit, often an empty or inanimate object—that connects two separate, monolingual experiences. This presumes several things. First, that languages are separate, pure, and watertight. Second, that there is distance between them. As a bilingual or multilingual entity, the translator is seen to be well-positioned to breach this distance—like a coat thrown over a puddle?—yet they should also be able to quickly unbreach it—pull up the drawbridge!—so that the final utterance isn’t tarnished by “foreign” influence: so that it sounds natural, fluent, and seamless.
But what if there was never a distance to breach in the first place?
I can only speak for myself, though I wonder if other translators who grew up as I did, with their languages double- or triple-yolked, relate to some of my impulses: to never presume that the translation must be clear and didactic, because I’ve spent a lifetime stumbling between spaces I don’t fully understand, in which I’m not fully understood; to infiltrate English with other languages, as English has done to so many foreign tongues, and in doing so to never italicize them, a choice that strikes me as an act of hospitality; and finally—though this list is far from final, only a learning process—to delight in the ripples that the translation process leaves in the final product, in the bones of the source language that jut beneath the skin of the English translation.
The second time my family moved to the United States, I was a teenager. One day my eight-year-old brother’s teacher sent home word that we were to restrain our other languages around him because he was struggling to read at the same rate as his peers; Portuguese and Spanish were banished from the dinner table. It helped his English, but the Spanish that he’d once spoken like a homegrown Mexican began to gather rust, and I wonder these days if there might have been a way to accommodate both, if his teachers should have nurtured his literacy differently. Similarly, I wonder if we should be making efforts to meet translation halfway. Not as a seamless, accessible, fluent, natural product, but as a multilingual space that is dynamic and glitchy, and allows for ambiguity and multiplicity—a space rich with the half-known.
Julia Sanches is the author of more than a dozen translations from Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan into English. Her translations and writing have appeared in Granta, Literary Hub, the Paris Review Daily, and the Common, among other publications. Her recent translations are Mariana Oliver’s Migratory Birds (Transit Books, 2021) and Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost (And Other Stories, 2021). Born in São Paulo, she lives in Providence.Thumbnail: Georgia Durrant