Watch Your Language

(At the end of  “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)

Tim: It’s hardly the first book to to this, but Oscar Wao includes a lot of untranslated Spanish in the text. I remembered enough to get the gist of most of it, but I was wondering if you ever had difficulty knowing what was said, or if you even looked up translations?

Debby: Look up translations? I feel insulted!


Okay maybe I didn’t know what a few of them meant. My Spanish is pretty rusty. It didn’t bother me not knowing all the time, though. I liked the intermingling of culture through language. The author was trying to give us a sense of “Domincana” and a very significant part of that is communicated through language. I felt that most of the instances where I couldn’t translate, the narrator was using slang, or communicating a feeling that is strongly connected to the Spanish word more so than English. It had a good vibe.

Tim: Oh, come on, I wasn’t trying to insult you. But there were just a couple places where I felt like I was missing something. It wasn’t often, and I can’t even remember where they were now, they were just a line here or there. But in the moment it did occasionally feel like I wasn’t getting all the nuance, in part because some of the times I did understand the Spanish I got more out of it.

Debby: No, I can appreciate that feeling. I did feel like something was escaping my grasp, but I liked it. The exotic mystique that the language brought to the novel. I thought it contrasted with Oscar well– he didn’t have a great handle on the language, nor the dancing or womanizing or anything remotely romantic. Spanish is romantic and commanding the language offers a kind of power that Oscar never really had until the end of his life.

Tim: That’s true, I hadn’t really thought about the power of the language itself. And I did like the way it was strategically deployed, I guess I just fell on the other side of the coin in that I didn’t want the mystery, I wanted to be let in on the secret.

This is going on a bit of a tangent, but I was really intrigued by Oscar’s relationship to his writing throughout the book. There are occasions (rare ones, but they’re there) where it’s suggested Oscar actually has some talent. But more often he’s fighting the noble fight, writing away, believing he was doing something of value even though there’s little evidence of it. Kind of depressing, personally, isn’t it?

Debby: But isn’t that the lifestyle of “great” authors? People who feel “called” to it, rather than people in it for the money or for the fame? We never hear about him trying to get his work published. We never see him comparing himself to Tolkien or Martin or Card. He simply feels compelled to put things on paper. Wait. Are you calling it depressing because that’s what WE’RE doing? Writing just to write? Isn’t that what art is? Doing something for yourself, inspired by your “inner being” and not caring how its judged by the rest of the world? I think we’re super cool, Tim…

Tim: Oh, we’re definitely super cool. Don’t you agree, readers? Declare your love for us in the comments!!!

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