The Writing Life

By Alberto Fuguet
Sunday, May 13, 2007

I'm writing this piece in English.

I don't want to be translated this time.

For the record: I don't believe in translations; there is, I've concluded, no such thing. There are only adaptations that compress or expand or sift a whole culture into another, while trying to retain its shine.

Ezra Fitz, my latest translator, has done a remarkable job of transforming my Spanish into an English that I can read without being reminded every 10 lines that it was written in another language. Or, what can be worse, that it was written by anyone but me. Not a nice feeling. I could have asked him to help me with this piece, but I preferred not to. Not because I didn't want to collaborate with Ezra, but because I wanted to take a risk, see what it would be like to go it alone, not have that little line under this piece that says "translated by. . . ."

Of course, there is nothing wrong with "translated by. . . ." I'm very happy to be available in Dutch and Finnish and -- coming soon! -- Polish. I have no problem being translated into languages I can't speak or read. I just don't like the idea of being translated into English because, after all, it's a language that was once my own.

Here's how it happened: English is my real language. Better said, my mother tongue. It's the first language I ever spoke. You see, I used to speak in that perfect Valley English of Encino, Calif. But then I returned (went for the first time, actually) to Chile, the country of my parents. I didn't know Spanish at all and was just starting puberty -- a bad time to be an immigrant. We went south on vacation and never came back. I had to learn Spanish fast.

Then I noticed something.

In Chile, I was a gringo. To be American in a continent where Americans are regarded as bullies, imperialists and fast-food cowboys was not what a young boy wanted to be, but there was no doubt about it: In this new language with its puzzling accents and weird letter ñ, I had an accent. I quickly realized that when you write, there is no such thing as an accent. So I guess I became a writer not because I wanted to tell stories -- I became one in order to survive, fit in.

To not have an accent.

But before I became a writer, I had to become Chilean, and, to be a Chilean, I had to conquer the language, excel in it. Not just the written one, but the spoken one, too. Along the way, I met people with accents. Older people. A Jewish grandmother of a friend in California spoke with a thicker accent than Henry Kissinger. In Chile, I bumped into an old Lithuanian who, after 50 years, spoke as if he had arrived yesterday.

Didn't accents ever go away? Was this a sort of curse for leaving home?

I worked hard, did my best to erase the English from my head, heart and tongue. Eventually, I succeeded. I began to talk in perfect Chilean, and, as an unexpected side-effect, I began to write, think and dream in what people down here call "the language of Cervantes."

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