Leyendo en español

This month seems to be the Month Where I Talk About Books (not to say that March, or April or May won’t also be Months Where I Talk About Books. If you hadn’t noticed, books are kind of a big deal for me).

Anyway, for the past few weeks I’ve been having kind of an adventure in reading. For the first time in about a year and a half I’m attempting to read a novel in Spanish: La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.It’s been simultaneously exciting and discouraging. I’ve always been better at reading Spanish than speaking it (or writing it or listening to it), and even after essentially taking a few years off from Spanish I was comfortable enough that I could get the gist without looking up too many words.

But getting the gist and getting involved in the story are two different things, and that’s where I have the most trouble reading in Spanish. When I read, I read for the story and all that, but I also often read a particular book because I like the author’s style; I like the particular way they put words together, in a way that I would never have thought of, but which seems to capture whatever they’re trying to express perfectly. If there’s one thing in common with all of my favorite authors, it’s that they have very expressive styles.

In a foreign language, style is a lot harder to pick up, because I’m not familiar with the language and its quirks and idioms. It often makes it harder to read; I can usually do okay with dialogue (although there is one character in La Sombra del Viento who tends to pontificate, and I don’t always get everything), but the rich descriptions of places and people don’t have the same power when you have to look up every third word. On the other hand, every time I look up one of those words or an idiom I expand my vocabulary, and that’s the whole reason I’m reading in Spanish at all–to improve my skill with the language.

There’s also the joy of finding idioms in another language and figuring out what they’re meant to mean. Some I can figure out from context, and some I have to look up, but they’re always fun.

A few examples:

  • “tiene el alma de pan bendito”, or roughly “he has a soul of good bread”  means “he has a good heart” (The Spanish are very into using bread in their idioms. A variation of this one is “mas bueno que el pan” (better than bread), and someone worth their salt is “worth the bread they eat”- “merecer el pan que se come”)
  • “Flor y nata”, or “flower and cream”, means basically “creme de la creme” (incidentally, an idiom we seem to have appropriated from the French)
  • And my favorite, “dar calabazas a alguien”, or “to give pumpkins to someone”, means to reject them. I just picture someone solemnly handing someone a pumpkin when they reject them. I have no idea where this idiom came from, but I like it.

I wonder if part of the reason I enjoy the idioms and little jokes and turns of phrase so much is that I’m so thrilled when I actually understand them. It’s like when I read xkcd and laugh at a science joke–part of me is laughing at the joke, but the other part is just so happy that I know enough to get it, that the joke seems funnier than it might otherwise. So, when I’m reading in Spanish and I come across a bit where the author is spelling out an accent phonetically, or makes a reference to the unreliability of Spanish trains (“el fin de la infancia, como la Renfe, llegaba cuando llegaba”), I’m especially delighted because I understand enough to recognize an accent, or to get the reference to the Renfe. It’s like a little prize saying, “Hey, you’re getting more than just the gist!”

This is just one of the reasons that I’m really enjoying reading this book in the original Spanish, instead of the English translation. Another is that reading the Spanish, I get a chance to see the rhythms of the language as the author wrote them (back to the style thing again). I found a copy of the English version, which has been great for when I’m totally lost, but I’ve noticed when I look at passages in the English version that it just doesn’t have the same feeling, the same flow. Translation can never really capture the rhythms of a language, and phrases that sound great in one language can often come out sort of clunky when they’re translated. It’s great to be able to get at least some of the author’s original voice, even if I can’t understand every word.

I’m about halfway through the book right now. Maybe when I’m finished I’ll go back through the English version, and see how it’s different. But right now I’m really enjoying the challenge of the Spanish.

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