Lying in Translation: Notes Towards a Truthful Memoir–Brooke Champagne

In the grocery stores, dime stores, department stores of the New Orleans East neighborhood where I grew up, my grandmother stole and I lied.  It became part of the rhythm of our days:  Lala brought us into the English-speaking world, where the Americans talked like chirping, or was it squawking birds—I can’t pin down the analogous word, but I knew she didn’t like the sound of it, ese maldito ingles—and she spoke only Spanish, so I served as translator.

Very quickly I learned I must lie. Because at TG&Y off Michoud Boulevard, Lala deigned to purchase household items like toilet paper or detergent, but stole whatever tchotchke it was I wanted. In the check-out line the cashier might ask how we were doing, to which Lala would reply in Spanish, “I’m fantastic, you dummy, because I’m stealing from you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” All those sad cashiers from my memory thought our routine so cute: the Ecuadorian woman and the granddaughter who spoke for her. That nice lady who complimented their haircuts, or the orderliness of the store. The woman who, no matter what inexplicable foreign sounds were coming from her mouth, was, according to her granddaughter, always having a nice day.

Lying in translation was simply part of my childhood. I couldn’t tell the world the truth about who Lala was. At home she was my world, and I hers—mi amor, mi vida, mi tesoro—but in public she made me cringe. She couldn’t even speak English, and it didn’t matter that she declined to learn by abstention because she hated the language so. All the world’s books, as far as I knew, were written in English. In this language, learning happened, so in my estimation, Lala refused to learn. I identified Spanish with fierce love and anti-intellectualism, and English where rules were made and followed. My English expanded through school and the limitless stories and worlds offered by books. My Spanish had one character, one plot, one god, and that was Lala. She both admired and begrudged my time with reading, and I knew the day would come when I was forced to pick a language. The more ensconced I became in the English-speaking world, especially when I was at home with Lala, the more of a traitor I became.

Sometime in my adolescence I permanently defected to English. I spent the first ten years of my life speaking Spanish every day, and in the subsequent twenty-five years I may have spoken three months’ worth of the language. I learned to love American boys and men in English, but because of Lala, I thought for some time I’d never be able to grapple with complex ideas in Spanish. In Spanish I only felt. In Spanish one was either the betrayer or the betrayed. Spanish was my dreamy past, and English the a more certain, stolid present and future.

The irony is that when I became a writer I had no interest in writing fiction, or at least in fictionalizing our story. I didn’t want to create a zany Hispanic grandmother performing zany stunts. I had to write her. But through force of childhood habit, I was out of practice in telling her truthfully. And for all the “what is truth in memoir?” debates surrounding this genre, I think the foremost strategy for writing it is pretty straightforward: try not to lie. Tell the truth as you remember it: don’t make more or less of anything or anyone, including yourself. For me this has been complicated by not only my early propensity to lie, but that the truth as I remember it happened in Spanish. Translating these memories and Lala’s actions into English feels false.

In considering this false feeling, I’m reminded of a moment in Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Hunger of Memory, when as a boy he’s asked by a friend of his, a gringo, to translate what Rodriguez’s Mexican grandmother has just yelled out to him from her window: “He wanted to know what she had said. I started to tell him, to say—to translate her Spanish words into English. The problem was, however, that though I knew how to translate exactly what she had told me, I realized that any translation would distort the deepest meaning of her message: It had been directed only to me. This message of intimacy could never be translated because it was not in the words she had used but passed through them. So any translation would have seemed wrong; her words would have been stripped of any essential meaning. Finally, I decided not to tell my friend anything. I told him that I didn’t hear all she had said.”

What Rodriguez expresses here is the untranslatability not of language, but of people and their intimacies. I feel already the person I’ve sketched so far is more Latina imp than Lala. How to capture her largeness, her generosity followed by her startling moments of pettiness, without allowing the reader to hear and understand her voice directly? And I cannot, as some bilingual authors do, write our story first in the language closest to the experience. My Spanish is no longer, and perhaps never was, that strong. Today I can still tell Lala I love her and narrate the changing details of my life; I can still make her laugh. But if she were unable to hear, I couldn’t write any of it for her in a language she could understand.

*

In his 1800 essay “On Language and Words,” philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proposes a specific marker for the mastery of a language: when the speaker is capable of translating not words but oneself into the other language. This issue of retaining one’s personality and authentic self across languages remains troubling because in my distance from Spanish, I’m not sure how much I can accurately define who I was when I lived in that language, or who I am within Spanish even now. I recall my young, primarily Spanish-speaking self as devoid of personality, as completely dependent on Lala’s love alone, as a vessel in which the only thing more powerful than the will to please was the silently-brewing mutiny over my leader and her language.

When I think of who I am in Spanish now, when I speak it with Lala, I wonder if I’m still more who she would like me to be—the loud, brash, fearless woman she once was—than I actually am. In Spanish I search more vigilantly for the humor, the absurdity, the magic of living, I find colors and sounds bolder and more daunting, I hear in every sentence a song. It’s an exhausting way to live, which may be why I don’t do it (or speak it) often. To be an always-on vaudevillian in one’s second language is no small task.

With that in mind, let me translate a joke from Spanish.

Last winter I visited Cuba to prepare for a writing exchange this summer between my students at the University of Alabama and Cuban students at the University of San Geronimo in Havana. As part of our exploration, a colleague and I visited the Tropicana Club, famous for its lush tropical gardens, stunning light shows, and nearly-nude dancers.

We arrived early and as I was served my first drink, an icy Cristal cerveza in its tall green bottle, a bird shat all over the left side of my head, shoulder, dress. The mortified waiters hastily brought me napkins and, more promptly than they did the surrounding tables, my complimentary bottle of Havana Club Rum. Everyone apologized profusely: disculpeme, perdoname, que pena. But one waiter knew just what to say as he dabbed my shoulder with a moist napkin: mejor un pajaro que un caballo.

Better a bird than a horse.

And the waiter’s joke made me laugh. Made me forget all about the bird shit. But the more I’ve thought of the joke since, what it would be like if someone told it to me in English after I’d been shat on by an Alabamian bird, I don’t think it would hold the same weight. I don’t know if it would be as fun. Magical realism isn’t just a writing genre in Latin American cultures: it’s a way of seeing the world. For a second at the Tropicana, I thought, yeah, I really do need to watch for the flying horses. No: los caballos que volan.

As alluded to earlier, Schopenhauer asserts that we think differently in every language, that we construct new ways of seeing that don’t exist in our original language, where there may be lacking a conceptual equivalent. A further inference might be made, which is that we feel differently in every language, too. A bird will more readily shit on me in Spanish, in the language where I’ll more readily laugh at it. It makes sense for me to momentarily fear flying horses in Spanish, as ludicrous as that sounds when I’m translating it now.

*

When I write about Lala, I could tell just the facts: when she was five years old she watched her mother die of tuberculosis, choking on her blood; she was taken in by three vindictive aunts who chopped off her hair, made her kneel on rice so often she rarely had skin there; she’s a raised eyebrow away from five feet tall, but in my memory she’s massive, capable of flooding the kitchen and drowning us with her tears when she cried, and she cried often, in her fear and her anger that I didn’t love her enough. In her I saw all those sad stories manifested in her body. She could literally drown me. I did my best not to make her cry.

That’s the problem with facts. The truth of how I read her and felt about her slips in around them.

*

Translating words and phrases from Spanish to English, while a vigorous academic exercise, isn’t my greatest difficulty in writing about my past with Lala. What’s most confounding is finding a way to translate her actions. What if I told you of one of the specific ways in which Lala loved: how she kissed me as a child, kissed every place, every powdered part? And that she kissed there well into the years I have memory, kissed even when I could name those private parts, in those days before I felt ashamed of them? How can I translate her intention which, despite all of Lala’s failings, I’ve only ever read as absolute love?

I can tell you that in English-speaking MFA workshop critiques, Lala’s love has been compared to the destructive, perverse one found in Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, the memoir in which the narrator recounts her love affair with her biological father. What happened to me was abuse, I’ve been informed, and was advised by some peers not to write about it. Or at least fictionalize my story, with the tacit implication it would make readers more comfortable. Is it through these kisses, they asked, that I want to be known as a writer?

Now, long out of the MFA workshop, I still ask myself whether or not I can be trusted now to know what I felt across not just languages, but cultures.

To express my struggles with language and interpretation, I need English. To express the most important parts of myself, how I learned to love and how I learned to be, I need Spanish.

But what does it mean if my facility with Spanish isn’t what it used to be? Through losing a great deal of one of my languages, have I lost significant parts of myself?

*

Now just one more story (or is it a riddle, or a joke, a puzzle?), one that Lala told me dozens of times growing up. It’s the refrain of my childhood: el cuento del gallo pelon. The story of the bald rooster. Here’s how the story often went:

Lala: Do you want me to tell you the story about the bald rooster?

Me: Yes!

Lala: I didn’t say anything about yes. I asked you if you wanted to hear the story of the bald rooster.

Me: Please, just tell me!

Lala: I don’t understand what you mean by please. I’m simply asking if you want to hear the story of the bald rooster.

Me: I want to hear the story! You’re getting on my nerves!

Lala: Here you sit talking about nerves and stories when I’m trying to tell you my story of the bald rooster.

And on and on this non-story would nightmarishly go. Through this story neither teller nor listener ever leave the question—the story is never finished. It requires perhaps the devotion of a child to continuously ask for more when resolution is this improbable, and a lover of language to begin the circuitous dialogue in the first place.

This story, as is turns out, is an appropriate metaphor for my work on the Lala memoir. I’ve been writing parts of it for eleven years, off and on. Friends say “tell me more, tell me more,” and I respond, I am telling it. Lala. Memoir. What are you writing? I’m writing it. This story. That story. And on and on the dialogue goes with no resolution.

I don’t know if there’s any solution to the “how do I write this memoir?” dilemma other than to write first and worry over potential problems later. If there’s a solution to my own, it may be in its tentative title.  Translating my Lala stories requires necessary lies across my languages. Though translation may be maddening, may feel false, may require stops and starts, the alternative is the silence Richard Rodriguez answered with when asked what his grandmother had said.

My grandmother is called Lala. I want to tell you what she said and what she did. How her love could be frightening, and sublime. Through the best words I can find, if not always the exact ones, I’ll try to show you.

Works Referenced

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York:
Random House, 1982. Print.

Schulte, Rainer and John Biguenet, eds. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002. Print.

Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Louisiana Literature, among other journals. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays, and her memoir about her grandmother, Lala.

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55 thoughts on “Lying in Translation: Notes Towards a Truthful Memoir–Brooke Champagne

  1. I never understood how translation of language could require us to also take into account the feelings and innuendo involved, until I read rhis post. As I think about it, so much meaning would be lost to the pallet. Being a grandchild of migrants from Germany, I get it now. My grandmother spoke German till the day she died and I wouldn’t have had her any other way. I suppose if I had to translate her character would have been quite an endeavor.

    As far as the other, a child knows only love without filters. I can see how both relates to “translation” and your story. I believe that dropping the burden of lies to recount her, is the best course. After all, she remains true to herself without considering your role. Her legacy deserves to be painted on her terms.

    Loved your honesty.

    Peace

  2. Beautifully written. This is writing that takes on that most difficult of tasks, articulating the unwriteable, the indescribable and somehow – obliquely and magically – making sense of it. Have you read Ariel Dorfman’s “Heading South, Looking North – a Bilingual Journey”? He tackles a very similar theme.

  3. What a beautiful tribute to Lala.. It takes a lot of courage to leave all that is familiar to you and come to a new place as a poor woman. You should be proud that she was indeed a woman who chose to live on her own terms, something that she was not always able to do. Stealing for her was merely a survival skill, not truly a malicious activity designed to hurt anyone. I think so much of her character would be lost in translation.

  4. I hope you manage to find a balance between the feeling and the intellect. How do you explain feeling in a language that is intellect? Just trust yourself, speak as if you are Lala and write from your heart. Mix the languages up if you must. It’ll come together. Do it with love.

  5. This post speaks to my heart. I’m a Xhosa-speaking woman from South African struggling to translate the story of my upbringing into English in a manuscript that will hopefully be published as a memoir. When translating conversations that took place in Xhosa into English, although I’m fluent in both languages, it feels as though so much is lost in translation. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Well done! It was a fun and informative read. The difficulty of this task is beyond me since I am monolingual. However, I understand some of the journey and struggle since I too am in the process of memoir writing. I post them in a series called memoir mondays. Take a look when you have a chance.
    http://windycitywardrobe.com

  7. Fascinating. Please please, tell us the rooster tale. Don’t fret over all the problems forseeable and unforeseen, over the prim cautions of MFA programs, just tell the tale. It is already fantastic.

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  9. You write beautifully. Lying to create a public image is very familiar to me. I do not have a story like yours; I did not grow up like you did, but I know about lying to create a public face. My false face was created to hide the family that I belonged to behind closed doors and to hide the little girl I thought was unacceptable and bad. It is hard to come out and expose the real stuff. Wonderful piece!

  10. You are a very talented writer, I love your courage and honesty. I too am publishing memoir and I know it can be difficult to put yourself out there to the world, especially if you have such an emotional journey as you do. I find your story all inspiring! Thank you for sharing!

  11. I had to share this because I enjoyed it so much.
    I could not nail down one specific part that struck me till I read it for the third time and this is what got me. I too was a translator, very similar stories. Breathless.

    “Lying in translation was simply part of my childhood. I couldn’t tell the world the truth about who Lala was. At home she was my world, and I hers—mi amor, mi vida, mi tesoro—but in public she made me cringe. She couldn’t even speak English, and it didn’t matter that she declined to learn by abstention because she hated the language so.”

  12. This is really a piece of enjoyable reading with a sensible insight ! This I thinks shows that some things we are made to learn and some things we learn ourselves and that is the journey of life either way.

  13. Beautiful writing. I love your name; it sounds like a fictional character, which I am sure you are not. Looking forward to reading more of your essays. Thank you.

  14. Reblogged this on TheGrazingWanderlust and commented:
    The passion hidden in the language is absent and lost in translation. The words lose their true meaning and become bland and ordinary. The reason I love languages such as Italian and Spanish is because they are spoken with such fervor. The languages are beautifully spoken, the way they roll off the tongue with such ease and grace. “We think differently in every language, that we construct new ways of seeing that don’t exist in our original language, where there may be lacking a conceptual equivalent. A further inference might be made, which is that we feel differently in every language, too. “

  15. Reblogged this on reflectionality and commented:
    I think the issue of remaining in your truth in memoirs applies to more than just language. Every family has a secret language; a code of what is understood and said / hidden. The author lives in that context intrinsically but there is fear in conveying to a reader the sublime and the gross, knowing that you cannot affect how they internalize your portrait. This is exactly certain stories I’d like to tell remain unfinished. Writers can have no fear, and I’m still battling it.

  16. Thank you for sharing the idea of having childhood memories in a language that is partly forgotten, and partly never learned.

    I’m glad that you rejected the advice of peers who would craft your image of yourself as a writer the way that they might edit a tome.

    I send my best wishes as you learn to translate Lala’s story into a language that your readers understand. When I write, though I am a native English speaker who rarely heard other languages as a kid, I, too, feel like this is my greatest challenge as a writer. Perhaps I am speaking the wrong language for telling my stories. Perhaps I, like you, am still learning to speak a language of truth.

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  18. This piece reminded me of my Portuguese husband’s granny who passed away only a month ago, a few weeks short of her 90th birthday. She lived in a farmhouse in the hills of Loule, grew her own vegetables and owned a motley crew of pigs,chickens, ducks, dogs,goats and a donkey and still picked carobs until the day she died. Being English and uptight (not really) I struggled every time we visited Portugal and my husband reverted back to his native language, sharing laughs and jokes with his family that were completely lost in translation to me. I started to hate going there, as to me, in our shared life in London, he was English. This all changed when we paid a visit to his granny, one late night, without the rest of the family tagging along in attendance. She cooked us the most amazing meal with the simplest of ingredients, sang songs round the fire and shared out a jug of wine and then told my husband to tell me it was one of the best nights of her life. We didn’t need a language or words to bond then and even though I still didn’t understand a word of what she said in the cold light of day I knew it didn’t really matter. Incidentally, both of his grannys thought nothing of touching my breasts whenever I came near them and commenting on their rather large size with some admiration. rather than being offended or feeling abused by the experience I merely found it amusing. Your memoirs made me feel warm inside and if they are available to buy please let me know as I will sign up for them tomorrow. Love and best wishes.

  19. Perhaps meaning gets lost in any re-telling. How does one “tell” of the feeling and the “passion ” through mere language whether it is a native speaker or a translation. I love your post; it is authentic and real. That is my goal.

  20. I recently started blogging my own memoirs. It is very hard to put oneself out there for the world to sese when confessing things that are less then ideal. Then there is the worry of judgement. Its nice to know other people talk about their lives too. Putting themselves out there. I enjoyed reading your story in this post.

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