My first boyfriend was an exchange student from Colombia. His name was Carlos, and he taught me how to salsa during a fire drill.
Lucky for Carlos, we had a few classes together. I say that he’s the lucky one because I had become good enough at Spanish to quickly translate what the teachers were saying, and without me, he would have fallen behind. I totally got the short end of the stick in that situation, because I had never been an in-class talker, and I had to morph myself into one, violating my own sensibilities. My sense of helping the helpless was stronger.
Carlos wrote me notes in Spanish. I hated his squat fat American girl handwriting, so I broke up with him after a week and a kiss. I made one attempt to write him a note too, but my small wild slanted script was too convoluted for a kid who barely knew English. I thought about going the all-caps route, but no, I thought; I wasn’t going to change myself for any man.
We drifted apart, me and Carlos, especially after Mrs. Hemmerly physically separated us in physical science because she couldn’t be sure that we weren’t sharing answers when I translated and he asked for clarification. And guess what? Carlos got a little better at English without me.
On the side, however, I continued to write letters in Spanish to Javier, my Bolivian brother-in-law’s nephew who lived in La Paz. He was dapper, this kid, and he had adorable dimples. Most importantly, he thought I was the-bomb-dot-com. My brother-in-law’s parents were living here at the time, and I got to speak Spanish with them. I was getting pretty good, learning the euphemisms and nuances. I wanted to study in Puerto Rico—I was sure of it—but that never happened, which is a whole other story.
Spanish has left me now—most of it, anyway. It’s odd to me how a language can die in someone, leaving only ghostly remnants. English wouldn’t do that to me; not without a magnificent head injury. A second language, it seems, is like a woman who marries into a family and takes their name, embraces their traditions, accepts declarations of the family’s love—but deep down, she knows that she is not really one of them, and that a swift divorce would render her insignificant. Spanish knew it would never mean to me what English does, and I don’t blame Spanish for skedaddling when it grew tired being my second fiddle.
I am envious of multi-lingual people, especially multi-lingual writers, like our own Marcus Speh and Jürgen Fauth, whose English is indubitably elegant and precise despite their German roots. And translators have my utmost respect, especially the first Japanese translator of Finnegans Wake, Naoki Yanase, because where do you begin to interpret a novel that melds 40 languages and provides enough of a challenge for English readers? Language fascinates me, how it can unite with the same power it can isolate.
Kevin Spaide tackles this challenge in “Words,” where language extends beyond words and sentences: it’s the difference between thriving or shrinking. It’s survival and understanding. It’s acceptance or rejection, comfort or cold. I don’t know if I can find the language to express how much I love the last paragraph, how Spaide speeds time without giving the impression that he’s doing it just to wrap up the story. This paragraph is a evidence that words are simultaneously capable and inadequate when it comes to the job of expressing profound things.
“The Cave” is Atticus Review’s first translation. Toshiya Kamei translated Fernando Iwasaki’s uncomplicated and stunning leap from youth to adulthood, navigating through forgettable obscurity to get from one place to the other. The metaphor is nearly indistinguishable from the reality, and the succinctness of the story magnifies the jolt of the last line.
Translating the self—the hard work of introspection, of deciphering outside noise from inside truth—is, no matter the language, profound and limitless, as Caitlin Thomson shows in “She Talks To Herself and Nothing.” There are no letters to send home when an old language is forgotten and rendered useless.
I like to think that this is why poetry, songs, stories, novels, and art have power. They are new languages to uncover—languages that really do the job of saying what we have tried to express in other ways, but something was off. We get better, too, and as we learn, it’s like we’re discovering our own private versions of Linear A. As we chip away, we are heard, and that’s a damn miracle.
One of my favorite Eagles songs is “The Sad Café,” and even as a kid, I understood what Don Henley meant when he sang, “We would sing right out loud / The things we could not say.” The medium is the message.