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The Truth Bordering Fiction—Excerpt from Our Interview - Part Four

What happened when fiction collided with life - Part Four

It’s a complicated history. My family is, I don’t think, very much different from a lot of families in the sense of how Spanish was dealt with at a certain point. My two older brothers, much older than I am, grew up speaking only Spanish in the house, and when they went to school didn’t know a word of English. They were going to Catholic school and the nuns came knocking on the door one day and asked why my brothers didn’t know any English, and my mother explained, “Well, we just don’t speak very much of that here at the house.” And she told the nuns this in English and the nuns said, “Well, you speak English well enough.” From that point on, they only spoke English at home but between themselves would speak Spanish.

So it was…odd: we were hearing Spanish, but we weren’t necessarily being addressed in Spanish or if you were addressed in Spanish, by that point, you would answer in English. So the language was very fluid in that way and I don’t mean that to be a positive thing but again, it wasn’t something that you’re thinking about at the time. The question of language, I think, is one that weighs heavily, I think, with all my writing, in the sense that the truth of the matter is that all my characters are primarily speaking Spanish. The characters in Amigoland are speaking Spanish probably 95 percent of the time, but there is very little Spanish in the book itself. So how do you tell a story about Spanish-speaking people without it being 95 percent Spanish and for it still to communicate what it needs to?

And so it took quite a bit of time to sort of understand that the sort of the cadence and the sort of the rhythm of the language to understand how they would use language metaphorically, how they would use language to state a point and not say certain things or say something very slyly and for it to mean more than what is there, and all in an effort to get a little closer to the language. One thing that I personally don’t like to do is to put Spanish in there just to sort of spice up the language. From very early on, with the first book, I asked my publisher not to italicize any of the Spanish. Now, there’s bits and pieces of Spanish in there but particularly for the border, I felt that to italicize was to make it into something foreign and on the border, Spanish is not foreign, okay? Neither is English, for that matter, and both languages just flow back and forth, so that was a request I made.

But it’s an issue that’s very present in my mind, with the story “Domingo” in the Brownsville collection. This is a Mexican man who has crossed over illegally and works in Brownsville as a yardman so everything is told through his perspective. Well, I wrote this story originally in Spanish, the whole thing, top to bottom, the whole—everything that happened in the story was written longhand in Spanish. And then I went back through and I translated my own words and as you know, there’s a big difference between translating something and adapting something.

If you adapt something, you maybe lose sections that don’t cross over as smoothly. Well, here, I tried to go word for word and simply translate it, keeping some of the awkwardness in places as long as it was readable and coherent to keep it there and in an effort to get closer to the way this man was thinking.

And so for instance, there was a particular scene in that story where he’s been working at this lady’s house and it’s lunchtime and they bring him a sandwich and he sits out by the pool and there’s like an umbrella, sort of a canopy thing he sits under and he imagines that this is the way the wealthy people eat. But as I wrote it in Spanish, the phrase that I’d always heard was “gente de dinero.” And so in the story, it’s “people of money.” This is the way people of money live. And so it’s a slightly awkward translation but it gets a little closer to the character himself.

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