Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Book Talk In Any Language (Featuring Guest Post by Peter Taylor)

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Friends – please keep whispering in my ear! I love the book lists, the book recs, the bookish news you send my way. Today I’m passing some of it along, before sharing a guest post by a lovely young writer, Peter Taylor. Finishing up a gap year in Bolivia, working on his Spanish, he’s been thinking about what gets lost in translation. Sincerest thanks to him and the friends who sent me links in the last couple of weeks – Brent Moody, Christi Turner, and Laura Currie.

Brent Moody reminded me that April 23d was World Book Day, now celebrated in over 100 countries worldwide. In the UK, costumes are involved (come to school dressed as your favorite literary character – or even as a lego ninja if that’s what uppermost in your mind). Hail Brittania!! Brent also noticed that the UN designated April 23d “Spanish Language Day” (he’s bilingual and pays attention to these things).

Brent, a dermatologist and surgeon in Nashville, spends his days treating cancer patients. He’s also running for the Tennessee State House. You’ll never hear me talk politics at Bacon, but I will note that Brent is a sensible, moderate, smart person who is also – blessedly – a listener and a healer.

World Book Day is very wholesome. Healthy. Well-intentioned. Vanity Fair offered something a little sharper this week, “The 21 Most Overrated Books Ever (and 21 Books to Read Instead).” My friend Christi Turner sent me the link to this tasty article (thanks, Christi!).

Jay and Christi Turner

Here’s my favorite smack-down on the list, not so much because of the “overrated” book but because of the brilliance of the alternative:

Overrated: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

Instead: The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

From Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation:  “My father loved The Old Man and the Sea, so I tried to love it. It left me unmoved. Mostly, I kept hoping the fish would get away without too much damage. (When my grandpa pushed me to catch a trout at a fish farm, I threw the rod into the pond.) I’d rather read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. This series of vignettes about a grandmother and granddaughter living on a remote Finnish island is not just heartwarming: In its views of both Nature and human nature, it teaches us what it is to be in sync with the world. All of Jansson’s adult fiction is deeply humane and beautiful.”

As an aside: The Summer Book is one of my favorite books Of All Time. See Bacon post here.

Being attuned to the natural world is something I aspire to. It’s sometimes hard in our urban, fast-paced livesMy friend Laura Currie sent me a list of promising books coming out of a place deeply connected to seasonal rhythms – Chautauqua, New York.

Laura and Brad Currie and kids at Chautauqua

At Chautauqua, a summer community in upstate New York drawing over 100,000 visitors each year, you can dip in and out of arts performances, lectures, interfaith worship and programs, and – of course – the lake. (I’ve not been but yeah would like to.)

Recently, Chautauqua’s been giving an annual book prize: “The Chautauqua Prize, awarded annually since 2012, celebrates a book of fiction or literary/narrative nonfiction that provides a richly rewarding reading experience and a significant contribution to the literary arts.” To read about this year’s 7 finalists, click here.

Most intriguing to me:

In her memoir of friendship, literature and New Orleans, The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading, Anne Gisleson creates a guide to living curiously and fully. In a testament to the power of reading and community to reconcile with loss, The Futilitarians is “brutal, heart-breaking, magnificent,” one reader wrote. Another reader lauded Gisleson’s voice, “intensely her own. She is intuitive and highly observant. … Her real subject is the human experience, and she explores it through literature, philosophy, and her own stories.”

Living curiously and fully – for some – means living abroad. Peter Taylor debuted at Bacon in the fall of 2018, writing a very popular post considering Why We Read, and he recently sent me another essay from Bolivia. I enjoyed the latest installment in his story and think you will too! What reading journey are you on? Peter got me thinking…

From Peter:

One afternoon during sophomore year of high school, my friend William and I were talking about reading novels in their original language, sitting at our usual study table outside of the office of a favorite teacher, Dr. Seay. “The Stranger, The Three Musketeers, Madame Bovarythere’s so much great classic literature written in French,” I said. I don’t know if I should just go ahead and read them now in English or if I should wait.”

As one of those rare teachers who yields not only an encyclopedically passionate command of the material he teaches but also the real ability to connect to his students, Dr. Seay would often join our conversations from his office, sometimes in depth but sometimes with just little remarks that could change the nature of our talks. This time, Dr. Seay’s contribution was brief and decisive: “You should wait.”

Though I was sure Dr. Seay’s method wasn’t the only way to go, I could immediately tell it was my way: I wouldn’t attempt to read any French literature unless I was reading it in the original language. Even when my mom mentioned to me how much she loved The Count of Monte Cristo or when my sister bought me a copy of Les Miserables as a Christmas present, I held true to my decisive declaration. Aside from a few novels I tackled my junior and senior years once my French had gotten better, I still have yet really to dig into what drew me to the language in the first place, and the dozen or so books my French host family gave me still loom quietly in the little space on my bookshelf.

When I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera the next summer, I quickly made the same decision about reading further novels in their original Spanish, convinced I would learn Spanish in college. How could I dare read Garcia Marquez’s supposed masterpiece A Hundred Years of Solitude in English if I could do so one day in the original language?

My ideas were met with different responses. Coach Kamm, a Spanish teacher and one of my cross country coaches, assured me that there was no reason I couldn’t just read A Hundred Years in English now if I wanted to, that the Spanish version would always be waiting for me when I was ready for it. One of my French teachers, though, Madame O’Connell, understood my  decision to hold off. “I’ve always thought that reading a book in translation is like ‘looking through a glass, darkly,’ as the saying goes,” she told me. “If you can’t read the original language, then reading in translation can still be wonderful. But if you can get to it in the original language, you’re getting the richer experience. And that’s the most wonderful way to read.”

As I read more and more throughout high school, exploring as wide a variety of writers and books as I could, I more or less restricted my reading to works originally written in English. My attitude changed when I decided during the second semester of my senior year with some newfound free time to tackle some of the big Russian masterpieces: Fathers and Sons, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment just to name a few. The Russian masters captivated me so much that I wondered how much I was missing from these legendary books by reading them in translation and wondered how I could bridge the gap with other languages.

When I decided not to go straight to college and instead spend the upcoming year in Bolivia to volunteer and learn Spanish, I felt for the first time that I had the time and energy to explore my interest in reading untranslated works. Reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s insightfully passionate memoir In Other Words the summer beforehand, where she writes about her obsession with reading, speaking, and ultimately writing in Italian, armed me with even greater motivation.

Before I left for Bolivia in August of 2017, I set myself a goal: before I got home, I would read Love in the Time of Cholera in the original Spanish, ideally with a fluidity as close to my English reading as possible.

When I arrived in Bolivia in September and began Spanish classes, I told my teacher about my goal. When as a class we went to a book fair in the middle of October, the book I made absolutely sure to buy was El Amor en Los Tiempos del Cólera. That evening, when I cracked the book open to see how far away my Spanish was, I made it through a paragraph looking up half the words before I set it down. El Amor en Los Tiempos del Cólera I decided would be the light in the distance, a milestone to be achieved only by stopping at numerous checkpoints along the way.

I started with El Alquimista, a novel by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho often read by beginning Spanish students for its simple style, straightforward plot, and similarity to the original Portuguese. Having read the book in English translation when I was younger, I didn’t look at the novel as an exploration into literature as much as a practical teaching tool. Almost as if I were completing exercises in a textbook, I looked up every maldita palabra I didn’t know and copied each of them into a little graph-paper notebook I had bought. Even as the reading went slowly, I felt in my diligence that I was learning and ultimately abandoned my tentative plan to read Harry Potter y La Piedra Filosofal. I was ready to tackle real literatura hispanohablante.

On the recommendation of Senor Paolicchi, the head of the language department at my high school, I bought two collections of short stories: Ritos by the Argentine Julio Cortazar and the Mexican masterpiece El Llano en Llamas by Juan Rulfo, focusing on the latter one honestly because it was shorter. What I thought had been a grind with El Alquimista seemed like reading English compared to Rulfo’s prose, which was filled with an overwhelming abundance of common Spanish words that I had yet to learn. A ten page short story about Mexican farmers would yield four or five complete notebook pages filled with new vocabulary, so much of which seemed impossible to distinguish in their similarity: arrodillarse, arrepentrise, agacharse, agazaparse, acuclillarse. Whenever I surprised myself by knowing the meaning of a word that had been unfamiliar two stories earlier five or six complete foreign ones would strike me with the full force of their unfamiliarity, often in the span of a single sentence. Yet despite the discouragement I felt on nearly every page, I plugged on, continuing to scrawl every word I encountered in my notebook.

When I finally finished the book in late January, alternating it with my still voracious English reading, I felt a sense of accomplishment uncontested all year except for when I first cleaned my room and changed my bedsheets without being asked. Unable to contain my excitement, I texted friends at home, raved to my host family, and spent a Spanish class telling my teacher about the stories. With this first milestone, I decided I was ready to take my Spanish reading even more seriously. Recalling Lahiri’s example of swearing off English-language literature six months before she moved to Rome, I swore off my own beloved English books and pledged to myself to read only in Spanish until I got home in June. Reading a Spanish book would no longer be an ordeal but just another step, however small and slow, towards my ultimate goal: El Amor en Los Tiempos del Cólera.

Throughout February, I continued with two of Garcia Marquez’s novellas Una Crónica de Una Muerte Anunciada and El Coronel no Tiene Quien le Escriba as well as Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, one of his short story collections. While I may have cheated a bit and sneaked a few English books in there, I found myself remembering the words I looked up more easily than I had with El Llano en Llamas. Each book I read a little more quickly and a little more smoothly than the previous one, and by the time I had grown a bit tired of reading so much Garcia Marquez I was ready for a full-length novel: Como Agua Para Chocolate, Laura Esquivel’s bestseller. Halfway through reading it, I stopped writing down the words I looked up. I didn’t see the need anymore.

Unencumbered by the frustration and lack of confidence that had defined my experience with El Llano en Llamas, Spanish-language literature now seemed open to me as much as any book I might buy at home at Parnassus. After reading two more classics, Allende’s Paula and Vargas Llosa’s El Hablador, I even let myself take a chance on La Tregua, a novel by the more obscure Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti on the recommendation of a bookseller I had befriended. I still looked up words – but infrequently, and with annoyance at the interruption of the story.

Last week, I started El Amor en  Los Tiempos del Cólera. One day, having ridden into downtown Cochabamba for work only to find out that it had been canceled for the day, I sat myself on a bench in the plaza principal and re-engrossed myself in the love triangle of Fermina Daza, Florentino Ariza, and Juvenal Urbino in late-nineteenth-century Colombia. At some point in the morning, as the pigeons flocked next to the singing fountain and I tried not to let the moment slip from the present into my memory, a realization washed over me that I wasn’t “reading in Spanish.” There were still words that I needed to look up, and the story went by more slowly, but these challenges didn’t discourage me anymore. Instead, they were just a part of the experience of reading this beautiful novel.

In her essay “Teach Yourself Italian,” Jhumpa Lahiri finds that in pledging to read Italian, “The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel, every unknown word a jewel.” Despite the  level of Spanish I’ve reached, I still feel the same way: every sentence still poses its own set of challenges, and every page turned feels like an accomplishment. As confident as I am with the language, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to the same level of comfort with it or any other language as I’ll always have with English. But the more Spanish I read, the easier it is to accept such limitations, not only eventually to overcome them but also to savor them, relishing every word like I’m a kid again, just discovering the joys of a well-written story. Reading Spanish opens a whole new yet of possibilities that make me more excited about books than ever before.

As I look ahead to my upcoming four years in college, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is what I want to dedicate myself to learning. I want to learn more languages, to expand my perspectives into the unknown through as many linguistic and cultural avenues as possible. But I’ll still keep reading Spanish, the linguistic home of my first real literary adventure. Next up, Cien Años de Soledad. A Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m excited. It’s supposed to be pretty good.

*      *      *

Postscript from Peter: I’d like to dedicate this post to three people in particular: Dr. Ed Tarkington, who inspired me to carve my own path and tell my own story; Mr. Ben Trotter, who gave me the confidence to pursue any language as far as it might take me; and Dr. Rick Seay, whose eighth-grade Latin class gave me my first taste of my love for foreign languages and whose words “You should wait” changed my life in the possibilities it opened for me.

*      *      *

Peter Taylor is a 19-year-old Nashvillian currently wrapping up a nine-month gap year in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the fall, he will begin studying Comparative Literature at Princeton University, whose Creative Writing department includes Jhumpa Lahiri. When he’s not reading or writing, he can be found listening to the band Dawes or rewatching the movie Midnight in Paris.

2 Comments

  1. I loved this post! Wow, what an ambitious goal, Peter, and I’m impressed with your perseverance despite early challenges. I’ve read a few of those books in English, and I imagine they are so much more beautiful in their native language.
    Jay and I trekked around South America about 25 years ago, carried backpacks and traveled light. We had times when we were desperate for books in English, as we definitely did not have enough command of the languages to read in Spanish or Portuguese (only enough for pleasantries and directions). I remember even buying one book despite the paperback being torn and the last 25 pages or so were missing (I don’t recommend this unless you are desperate. It was out of print so I never got to read the ending).

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Christi! Thank you for the sending me the terrific link! And I love that you and Jay made that journey together…too funny (and awful!) about the book with the last 25 pages missing!! xoxo

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