Thursday, April 5, 2007

Imperfectly Bilingual

When I was born (in Mexico City), my mother spoke to me in English and my father (and the general population) spoke to me in Spanish. By the time I learned to talk, I did so in both. To this day, if my father and mother are both in front of me, I will speak in Spanish to one and English to the other, which often means I switch mid-sentence. I don't realize I'm doing it.

And yet I am here to tell you there is no such thing as being "perfectly bilingual".

What my brain does is it compartamentalizes (under the circumstances, I sure hope that's a word). I count in Spanish, then translate into English. If I think of my father or brothers or sisters or certain friends or my country, I think in Spanish. If I think of work or other friends or my Mom or a Hollywood movie, a book or my current life, I think in English. My point is that swiftly moving from one to the other - even at the speed of thought - is not the same as thinking in both.

I went to college in Mexico, and for several years authored a column in Spanish in El Universal Newspaper, in the cultural section. I wrote about whatever I wanted, with no impositions, so it was more pleasure than work.

I came to the U.S. about nine years ago, and began for the first time to work in English, to use it steadily throughout the day. The transition from living in Spanish to living in English was not as easy as people who know about my upbringing would assume.

I realized, to my mild surprise, that I could write in English for work, but I couldn't write for pleasure. I mean, technically I could. But it wasn't what came naturally. That column had given me years of practice in Spanish - but I had never done it in English. The fact is, one language is for certain things, and the other for others, and my brain keeps it that way. Language is not task-transferable just because you speak more than one.

I decided to write this blog, among other things, to force me to write for pleasure in English. The first blog entries were difficult for me, stilted, and I worked hard to make sure they didn't have the feel of a text originally intended for Spanish that had then been translated. It's become easier. Writing and language are like any other muscle. You exercise and gradually it becomes less of an effort.

If I were to be completely honest, when I write in Spanish I feel the result is a better reflection of what I'm trying to get across. In Spanish, something inside of me comes through in a way that perpetually evades me in English. Luca, who knows me well and reads everything I write, and to whom I've written dozens of letters, sees it too. I find this terribly frustrating - like you feel when you can't find your keys.

My texts in English have an unintended precision, a tone that is somehow clipped, pragmatic, at least when I compare it to the way it looked when it was still in my head. My texts in Spanish are always prose, but more poetic, softer around the edges, spirals instead of squares, ultraviolet. They come through me, not from me. In English I know, even when I pose it as a question. In Spanish I wonder, even when I try to make it a statement. My Spanish is for a love letter. My English is for a teacher.

I'm telling you all this because a few people have lovingly suggested that I sometimes write blog entries in Spanish. My first thought was - I must! But after careful consideration I've grown somewhat adverse to the idea, for two reasons: one, because this blog has a purpose, and I would be straying from it. Two because I'd be effectively misplacing the cardinal rule I work by. Know your audience. Don't shut your audience out.

The only time I've written in Spanish in this blog was to express a tearing, possibly unrequited love for my country. I felt writing it in Spanish was intrinsic to the story. If it becomes pertinent to do so again, I will - but I probably won't be doing it with any regularity. Estimados amigos: If you are among those who wish I would write in Spanish, I am so very grateful for the suggestion. I hope you generously resolve to continue reading this blog anyway.


Miguel Cane said...

Dear Dushka,

I think I can sympathize with your language notion, I've gone through the same, time and again.

However, one thing I have clear: this is your very own blog. You should write in the language you choose, wether be english, spanish or even chinese (I gather you've got a certain knack for languages).

We would still come and read. Oftentimes, and it has been proven, it's the words, not necessarily the language they're written in.

Very fondly,

PS: Hi to Luca, btw.
PPS: I had the same editor you did, did you know? The very best, he is.


Ben said...

Dear Dushka,

I would love to read you in Spanish because I love reading you in your second language, just imagine what a delight it would be for this fan of yours.

But I understand your reasons for keeping this blog in English. It's your blog and you have to stick to your own rules and I respect that.

Moreover, I face the very same dilemma every time I find myself in front of a blank page. In one hand, Spanish is the language I heard and used everyday until I moved to New York seven years ago. It is the language I love. And it is a beautiful and passionate language (only if it is used correctly, though)

In the other hand English is the language I have been using almost everyday of my life since May of 2000. It is a powerful, undeviating and precise language. It is easier, at least thats how I feel it, to convey a message through English than Spanish, but sometimes it doesn't feel to come out of the heart.

I will still come and read, that is for sure, and if somebody needs help reading you I will certainly do what I can to assure that your beautiful words are read.

Best regards, hugs and kisses


Dushka said...

Miguel, Luca says hi back and yes, I know all about the editor we have in common. My mom talks about you all the time.

Ben, thank you for your visits. Love and kisses right back!

Carol Miller said...

Since I write in both languages and am a translator, as well, I can sympathize. I also speak hopscotch and know the feeling of going back and forth, almost in the same sentence. I learned Spanish as an adult, however, and yet sometimes I find the words come more easily and more naturally than English. I think the brain has to be disciplined to work various languages, switch back and forth, and structure one or the other for purposes of text, so that the words are natural and don't sound translated. This is very difficult. I just interviewed a subject in Spanish, am writing his text in English, and presume it might be translated back to Spanish for publication. Where does that leave the text? Ideally, it should sound natural in either language. But then there are academics who want a "strict" translation, with no margin for lyricism. They want it as literal as possible. This presents another problem. I guess you're left with a case-to-case basis, but one thing is true: the more you use your languages, the more fluent you become.

Dushka said...

Or, the more thoroughly confused you become. Depends on the day.

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