How Translated Fiction Reconnected Me To My Native Language: And Why Translation Matters

How does a native-born Mexican whose first language is Spanish admit that he has never read a full-length novel, or any kind of literary work, in his mother tongue? How does he then explain that he would actually struggle to read such a book? I’ve had to do it on several occasions and it’s never fun. Usually I’m struck with guilt and shame that despite having roots in a country with a rich cultural history and a beautiful language, I have found myself firmly settled in an entirely different cultural and linguistic landscape. I’m talking about American culture and American English, of course.

To clarify: My family came to America when I was 5 years old; so yes, I do speak Spanish. But there is a huge difference between hearing and speaking a language, and actually reading and writing in it. Also, my education was entirely in English, so I never gained much reading fluency in my native tongue. Not to mention that society at large demanded that I speak, think, and dream in English. As an impressionable child who was eager to please, how could I not comply and immerse myself in this strange but exciting new language that presented endless opportunities?

I readily absorbed the rhetoric of American exceptionalism and of the value of the English language until one day, as an adult, I sat down on a whim to read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez for the first time. In Spanish. Let’s just say that I will never forget the shame and anxiety I felt at not being able to fully understand the language I was born into. But after I got over this shame, I picked up the English translation of the novel and proceeded to read one of my favorite love stories ever.

Who Stands To Benefit From Translated Fiction?

This is my very long-winded and personal way of saying that translated fiction matters very specifically to readers like me. For people who struggle to read in their native tongues, translated fiction allows a way to explore the rich and complex narratives of their language through English translations. Without translations, I would not have easy access to Mexico’s contemporary writers, who are producing brilliant work every year. Not enough of them are being translated, unfortunately, but the ones who have been make me proud to be Mexican. Writers such as Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, and Jorge Volpi showed me a side of Mexican culture I would have otherwise been ignorant to, had their works not been translated into English. I still have complicated feelings about being unable to think and read critically in Spanish, but I have come to terms with it. I’m also diligently working on improving my reading fluency, so that will relieve some of my anxieties in the future. In the meantime, I will continue to read the literature of my home country in translation!

Translated literature also matters for the monolingual, English-speaking children of immigrants who have a tenuous connection to their parents’ language. In America, for example, the children of immigrants sometimes grow up to read only English fluently. Or more commonly, the children of first-generation American citizens grow up to speak and read only English. As generations pass, the connection to the home culture and language slowly begin to loosen. But the connection is always there, their parents or grandparents being a constant reminder. This gives their identities an intricate duality that is approximated by the duality of translated fiction, which exists in an indefinite space between two languages and cultures. Reading the literature of their parents’ or grandparents’ country in translation is one way they can experience the history and spirit of the motherland. No matter how many degrees removed from the original source, the connection that translated fiction provides is invaluable and should never be underestimated.

Translated fiction is also important for literary travelers and for readers who actively seek out the diverse stories of our world

For people like me, who are not satisfied with reading only about their small corner of the world, translated works offer illuminating glimpses into other cultures and experiences. As readers we should be seeking out diverse reading experiences consciously because they will prove to be both intellectually and personally fulfilling. In the context of reading translated fiction, I really do mean read your world, not only your region or continent, despite how many languages and cultures it may contain. By all means, read translations of works originally written in German, French, or Italian, but also in Vietnamese, Hindi, or Korean. The more languages and countries you can explore in your reading, the richer your life will be. You may not be able to afford trips around the world, but diverse and eclectic reading habits that include translated fiction are just as important to achieve personal growth.

Reading about the cultural customs, traditions, and attitudes of a country written by natives in their native languages is certainly the ideal, but a well-done translation is the next best thing.

A good translation transports us to a foreign land and makes it feel less foreign by book’s end, perhaps even familiar. This unique form of communication between cultures can potentially begin to shrink or even erase the cultural boundaries that divide us and create so much conflict in our real world. Fortunately, we continue to see increasing globalization despite the conflict and discord we see almost every day. With any luck, a more global society will also bring with it a greater demand for translated works, which we all stand to benefit from.

The wonderful Nazahet of  ReadDiverseBooks

The wonderful Nazahet of ReadDiverseBooks

This guest post was written by Nazahet Hernandez of ReadDiverseBooks. Naz is a book blogger who cares passionately about diversity in literature and promoting books written by and about people of colour and other marginalized voices. He loves creating reading lists, recommending diverse books to people, and tweeting while at work. He lives in the wonderfully vibrant city of Austin, TX. You may contact him on Twitter (@_diversebooks) or through his blog

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