Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memoria de mis labores tristes

On the flight home from China Owl sat next to a man reading the newspaper in Spanish. Owl read over his shoulder for a few minutes (she has no shame) and then gave up because he was going way too fast. After the flight took off, the man popped open his laptop and pulled out a hefty dissertation in English. When his battery died, he whipped out a book in Italian. At this point Owl could no longer read over his shoulder and she fell asleep. When she woke up, he was reading poetry in French.

Owl nearly spontaneously combusted from jealousy.

The flight attendant spent a lot of time smiling at the man and slipping him extra peanuts. Owl was convinced it was because he was a polyglot and not because he was tall and distinguished looking.

Jet-lagged out of her mind, hurtling through thin air wrapped in metal and clouds, Owl decided she too would become a polyglot. Because polyglots are made, not born, verdad?

So the thing is, Owl spent nine years in school studying Spanish. All of it is a blur except for her last year. This was the class roster:

--girl who went to a Spanish immersion elementary school
--girl fluent in Italian
--girl fluent in French
--girl dating a Mexican student she met while teaching ESL classes
--linguistic genius #1 (aced all sorts of spelling bees)
--linguistic genius #2 (absorbed Spanish at her nanny's bosom and went on to become a beast at Chinese)
--resident school genius


Owl, um, kinda bribed her way into the class because she was flunking Economics and this was her only other option. It was the year of shame and stealth. By stealth, Owl means googling English translations of the assigned reading and praying to five gazillion deities before each exam.

To this day Owl associates studying foreign languages with  trauma and despair. 

Owl's dream of becoming a polyglot died a quick death the moment she got over her jet-lag.

But a few weeks later Owl picked up Rimbaud's poems at the library. Owl has been enchanted by Rimbaud ever since she read this review in the Economist.

Owl prepared to be dazzled.

…Yeah no.

Owl can not believe that Rimbaud, the gorgeous golden boy known for his filthy filthy mouth filled his poems with rhymes like stream with dream and fair with air. Maybe these rhymes aren't a linguistic crime in French. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Or maybe Owl got a really shitty translation.

Owl's going with that.

But she’s not sure if that’s true. Maybe golden boys with filthy mouths really like puerile rhymes. Maybe that's irony! Or something. Owl has no idea because the frustration of being unable to parse out the translation from the writing is messing with her thinking process. In school, on the rare occasion that Owl understood a piece in Spanish, she compared it to various English translation. And the gap between the two was always disturbing. 

Some translators focus on word-for-word translations, sacrificing elegance for accuracy. Others craft an elegant piece, and end up with well, an elegant piece, that's more like a second cousin than a twin of the original. Translators fight a good fight, but they always leave their mark.

Owl is not going to learn French. Not unless she gets run over by a train, and gets reincarnated as a polyglot. Or a French speaker. Owl loves Japanese writers and Chinese folktales and Hindi verses, and there is no way she's going to pick up all three of the languages for her reading pleasure.

But Owl's already devoted nine (mostly fruitless) years of her life to Spanish.

Accordingly Owl went back to the library. She poked around the Spanish section of the library, got frightened off by hefty nonfiction tomes, nixed translations of famous English novels (somehow seems counterproductive) and finally found a slim volume by Gabriel García Márquez.

Márquez! How can you go wrong with Márquez? And short Márquez too, because slogging through the verbal diarrhea that’s Love in the Time of Cholera in English gave Owl feverish hallucinatory dreams.

Owl flipped through the summary and picked up something about an old journalist, something about Márquez's first novel in ten years and she was happy.  Márquez reminiscing on his beginnings as a writer. Adorable.

Later that night Owl picked up her book and began reading. She started with the title. Because titles are good places to start:

Memoria de mis putas tristes

Memory of my sad whores.

How the hell did Owl miss that?

First line:

“El año de mis noventa años quise regalarme una noche de amor loco con una adolescente virgen.”

For a very happy moment, Owl thought "regalarme" meant to remember—an old man remembering his first night of 'amor loco' with an adolescent virgin. Then she checked. And found no, nope. "Regalarme" means "give myself." In other words:

"In the year of my ninetieth year, I wanted to give myself a night of crazy love with an adolescent virgin."

Owl has been reading steadily, book in one hand, laptop open to google translate in her lap. So far she has learned many words for brothel and many ways to request the services of a prostitute and this is not what Owl was expecting, this is not what Owl had in mind, and…

Owl wonders: will any of this get extra peanuts the next time she flies?


  1. This had me laughing SO MUCH!!

    That polyglot is lucky he has a flare for languages. I wish I did too. Someday, I hope I get to read a piece of my regional literature in the original...I sadly can't speak my own State's tongue! :-/

  2. I know right? He made it look so easy too. For a moment I really thought, 'oh hai, if I apply myself I TOO CAN POLYGLOT!'


    I've actually never read anything by an Indonesian writer which makes me sad...:( I can't even aspire to read in the original tho. Btw, how do you get by if you can't speak your state's tongue?

  3. Oh man, when I went to Thailand the girl who was assigned to be "den mother" for the foreign exchange students (and me) was in the middle of studying Dutch (on top of vet school!) and I think she listed a couple other languages she knew *other than* English and Thai. Elbereth, that deflated my "oh hai I'm totally bilingual!" ego rather quickly. x_x

  4. I'm convinced people like that were secretly zapped with a lab ray in the womb.

    Also dude, I'm totally jealous of your bilingualness. Esp. after three months of studying Chinese. It's all gone. It's been four months and ALL OF IT IS GONE. It also somehow took the few scraps of Indonesian I have with it. HOW?

  5. Maybe it will get you extra peanuts next time. Just change the word for "prostitutes" to "peanuts."
    On second thought, depending on the phrasing, that might not go over well...