Thursday, June 9, 2022

A Word's-Eye View - A Guest Post by Lawrence Schimel

Learning another language will literally change how you think--something I think can be healthy and helpful to all writers and creators.

For instance, one of my favorite words in the Spanish language is "escampar" which is a verb to describe when the sky clears up after it rains (usually, although it can just be changing from cloudy to blue skies). While I had seen that happen many times before, it was only once I had the vocabulary for this action that I began to recognize this moment as having an existence of its own. It was only by naming it that it came to life for me, and changed how I view the world even if I lack equivalent vocabulary to talk about it in my mother tongue, English.

I am constantly being surprised, while translating, when I run into a conundrum that reveals how the underlying worldview from one language/culture to another is so different, as inherent in what words exist or don't exist, or what they describe. 

Some years ago, I took part in a poetry translation workshop in Slovenia with a group of poets from different countries in which we all translated one another into our languages, using English as the bridge.

And I was surprised and delighted to learn that Slovene has a dual case in its grammatical structure, "you and I," in addition to just the first person singular ("I) and plural ("we of three or more"). Neither English nor Spanish uses this, but ever since I discovered this fact, it's changed how I think and also how I write. Now, I am always aware if a we is an intimate we (a you and I we) or a more general group we (three or more). Obviously, I knew that both kinds of "we" existed before learning that Slovene distinguishes between them, but it was only by my exposure to Slovene that I became aware of this distinction, that solidified it for me.

And because my worldview was changed as a result, my writing was forever changed afterwards–even though neither of my primary languages, English and Spanish, use this as part of their grammars. 

I had already noticed that I write differently in both Spanish and English. And one major aspect of that, for me, is how Spanish uses four different words for what in English is just one: you. I have much more specificity and control, as a result, in Spanish, especially when addressing poetic subjects in poetry, say: tu (informal singular you), usted (formal singular you), vosotros (informal plural you), and ustedes (formal plural you). (And there are regional variants in other Spanish-speaking countries, too, like Argentina, which uses "vos" instead of "tu".)

So whenever I am writing in or translating into English, I find myself at a loss for words when trying to use "you" and having only one vague, general term instead of the specificity and nuance my brain wants to be able to avail itself of, that Spanish offers me. 

And at the same time, I am constantly being forced to consider questions of gender, and inclusive language, because of the differences in how English and Spanish work. Spanish is an inflected language, which mean all nouns are assigned a gender, either male or female. There is no existing neutral form which means that individuals are having to invent new language or grammar to try and be more inclusive, and to reject an artificial and historic cisheteropatriarchal binary even on a linguistic level, which likewise colors thinking when using that same language with its limitations.  

We often have blindspots that we're not even aware of because we lack the vocabulary to discuss them--or the language we use colors our view--and as a result, we don't often stop to recognize or think about these things.

One of these biggest of these is how privilege affects both our thinking and our vocabulary. Ableism, for instance, is so ingrained in English (and also Spanish) that we have the word "disability" without ever having its un-negatived state: it is so taken for granted there isn't even a word/concept for being able-bodied. (Or how we use "blind spot" ableist-ly in non-anatomical situations.)

I recently translated into English a middle grade memoir about a boy from Andorra, a landlocked principality in the Pyrenees, who was born without part of his forearm, and who when he was 9 years old built himself a prosthetic arm out of a LEGO set.

cover of "Piece by Piece: How I Built My Life (No Instructions Required)" by David Aguilar  (Author), Ferran Aguilar  (Author), Lawrence Schimel (Translator)

The book is titled Piece by Piece: How I Built My Life (No Instructions Required) and is written by David Aguilar with his father, Ferran Aguilar, and forthcoming in October from AmazonCrossingKids. One of the first issues that came up when I read the book, before starting the translation, that I had to consult with my editor on, was how we would handle the Spanish word "manco." Because Spanish has a term that means having only one-arm or one-hand (or to be missing one arm or one hand). Curiously, Spanish also has the term "tuerto" for being only one-eyed, but doesn't have a term for having only one leg/foot.

But English lacks vocabulary for all of those three states, so I was left not just with a linguistic question but also a philosophical one, confronting inherent ableisms that were so ingrained in one of the languages I think with.  

Figuring out how to deal with the word manco in the translation was important because not only does it feature often as a simple, everyday word/concept in Spanish, and one which is very integral to this memoir, but David also has a delightful sense of humor and makes a lot of jokes and plays on words throughout the book, some of which riff off the word manco. Like "mancopedia" to refer to someone as an "encyclopedia of being one-handed."

David also rejects the term "disabilty" and instead uses "diff-ability" for "differently-abled" (which fortunately was constructed exactly the same).

Which takes us back to the ableism inherent in both Spanish and English, in which the word "disability" exists, but the status of being able-bodied is so taken for granted that there isn't even vocabulary for it.

Translating this memoir was eye-opening in that I didn't just need to re-create all of David's wordplay and dad-jokes in the translation, but it made me stop and think about how each of my two primary languages conceives bodies and what we can do with them.

This is why, beyond opening the possibility for communicating with more people, and reading stories written in other languages, I stated at the beginning that learning language is something that I think can be helpful for all writers and creatives because of how access to new vocabulary will create new ways of thinking about the world or offer different insights about how you already think and speak about the world. Which can only add nuance and understanding to our stories, not just how we conceptualize them but how we shape them, word by word.


Lawrence Schimel is a bilingual (Spanish/English) author & anthologist who has published over 120 books in many different genres. He won a Crystal Kite Award for his picture book Will You Read a Book With Me?, illustrated by Thiago Lopes, and his books have also been chosen for the White Ravens and by IBBY for Outstanding Books for Children with Disabilities (three times). His children's books featuring rainbow families, Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime!, both illustrated by Elina Braslina, have been published in 46 editions in 37 languages, including Romansch, Welsh, Icelandic, Changana, isiZulu, and Luxembourgish. He is also a prolific literary translator, both into Spanish and into English, of more than 130 books. He lives in Madrid, Spain, where he founded the SCBWI Spain chapter and served as RA for the first 5 years. 

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