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Translating a Person

Alejandro Zambra
85 Snaps

1.

The gringo was twelve years old, like nearly all of us, and his name was Michael González or John Pérez or something like that: a common English first name and a last name that was equally common in Spanish. He had grown up in Chicago with Chilean parents, so his Spanish was almost the same as ours and his English sounded like the movies. Fascinated, we’d ask him to speak English for us at recess, and the gringo was shy but also happy and patient, so he’d play along. Like a magician revealing his simplest tricks, he’d ramble on in a hushed voice about any old subject, and he even answered our questions, which were all basic: How do you say pico? (dick); How do you say zorra? (pussy); How do you say culiar? (fuck).

One day, after a group presentation, the English teacher decided that Michael’s (or John’s) pronunciation was deficient, and she gave him a five out of seven. It took us a minute to realize the teacher didn’t even know the gringo was a gringo. She was a thirtysomething woman with a chubby face and a cheerful demeanor, her eyebrows smeared with blue eye shadow, always just about to smile or smoke. We loved her; she was nice, much warmer and more approachable than most of our teachers. That afternoon several of us tried to explain her mistake. She wanted proof, but the gringo was feeling especially timid, hiding away behind his notebooks. Finally, when the silence was becoming unbearable, he stood up and launched into a surprisingly loquacious soliloquy, much louder and faster than he tended to speak at recess, his face bright red, as if speaking English were something to be ashamed of, and there was also something desperate in his incomprehensible—to us—torrent of words. He spoke for about five minutes, and I didn’t understand anything except for the word Chile, which made an appearance every so often. “I didn’t know you were a gringo” was all the teacher said, in an effort to hide her humiliation. 

The episode now strikes me as essentially comic, but at the time it seemed tragic and we tried to file it away immediately, because the teacher’s sudden seriousness represented a threat. We preferred her—needed her—to be happy: it was much more important that she return our love than that we learn English. 

From music or movies or just from the ambient noise, I had or thought I had a certain precarious familiarity with the English language. I was excited about studying it, and although there are so many things about that time that I have forgotten or distorted, I have a clear memory of the pleasure—the pride—that came from stringing together a sentence and achieving the miracle of communicating in another language. One day, however, I got carried away by my damned enthusiasm and I raised my hand automatically mid-question, with only a vague idea of what was being asked. I found myself facing a dead end, and I tried to find a way out by uttering the word alimentation—I had the paradigm in my head of words like pronunciation, information, and generation, and I steeled myself to run the risk. The results were disastrous, because the teacher let out one of her contagious guffaws, then said, calmly and sweetly: “That word doesn’t exist.” 

There was a painful outburst of shouts and laughter, and I immediately imposed upon myself the quite reasonable punishment that I wouldn’t participate in that class again for the rest of the year. I also decided to keep my distance from the gringo, who had no skin in that game but was still the official representative of a language in which I was a miserable failure. By the end of the year we only said hi to each other, though always with a friendly smile. One morning, though, we ran into each other two blocks from school, and the prospect of walking together and being pretty much forced to talk was uncomfortable for both of us. But I think by that point my shyness was already false, so I set off talking about any old thing, and he livened up too. He told me he was leaving the school because his family had to go back to Chicago. I told him I would miss him, though I didn’t know if that was true, and he seemed happy I’d said it, but maybe he didn’t care. I asked him what he thought now about the English teacher. He said he liked her. Just to throw fuel on the fire, I asked him if she was, in his opinion, a good teacher. He said yes. I reminded him of the incident at the beginning of the year, and, imbued with an air of calm, in a tone somewhere between philosophical and melancholic, he told me there were many ways of speaking English. Then I reminded him of my own incident, but the gringo didn’t remember it. I didn’t believe him; I thought he was just saying that to be nice, but apparently he really didn’t remember. Minutes before class started, when we were already seated in our opposite corners of the classroom, he came over to tell me that he was almost sure the word alimentation did exist, that it was an old-fashioned word that wasn’t used much, but it existed. That possibility had not even occurred to me. At recess we headed for the library and asked for a dictionary. “I’m almost sure that word exists,” repeated the gringo in a nervous murmur while we furiously turned the pages. And there it was; we found it: I think the word alimentation even shone in that giant old dictionary. 

 

2.

When I was fifteen, at a party, a group of blond boys from a bilingual school—in my memory they appear as caricatures of rich jocks—started to speak in loud English about their momentary enemies: us. We got the general idea—they accused us of being dark, of being ugly, of being hoodlums—but we didn’t understand enough to answer them. I was impressed when I heard them speaking so easily, and it made me livid, of course, not to be able to understand, or to understand so little. We were kicked out of the party after shoving those boys a few times, and since we got back so early to the house where we were staying (Parraguez’s), no one was home, so we opened a few bottles of wine we found in the storage room. As we celebrated what must have been the first or the second or at most the fifth time in our lives we’d been drunk, we thought it was funny to imitate those English-speaking fancy-school boys, and that’s how a longstanding and lamentable tradition got started: every time we got drunk, we started to speak English, and we even used the expression “speak English” as a euphemism to allude to those drunken nights. 

Some years later, in 1998, I applied for a job as an international phone operator, and I claimed I spoke English at an intermediate level; my experience speaking, though, was limited almost exclusively to those ludicrous conversations as the parties wound down. I didn’t know English, but neither would it be precise to say I was entirely ignorant of it. I had wanted to keep learning, but without real desire, because the idea of improving my English went against the impression that it was more worthwhile to study tae kwon do or violin or palmistry or anything else, even another language, because English was always around anyway. It was almost impossible not to absorb a few rudiments just from the atmosphere, and that, combined with the two class hours a week over six years of school, fostered my sense that I knew something, or that, in any case, it wasn’t urgent to keep studying English. What’s more, the constant lectures about the importance of English in today’s competitive world took away my desire to learn. I wanted to learn English so I could read novels or watch movies without glasses or better pronounce lyrics by the Kinks or Neil Young, not so I could get ahead in business. 

Luckily, the job wasn’t difficult. I managed to communicate reasonably well with most of my colleagues scattered around the world, and I didn’t even get nervous when I had to talk with my counterparts in Paris or Amsterdam or Tokyo, because we all spoke more or less the same bad English. But when I had to call the office in London or Chicago or Sydney, it turned into a struggle, because then I had to speak, as we said, English-English. We personified our communication problems in the figure of Brad, an arrogant phone operator in the Chicago office who missed no opportunity to manifest how awful he found our English or our service or our existence. “I had to talk to a Brad” or “I got a couple of Brads today” meant that we’d had to engage in an unpleasant and slightly humiliating conversation. In my case, the Brad was almost always Brad himself (the original). “There are many different ways of speaking English,” I remember telling him once, secretly proud of quoting the gringo. Brad didn’t reply. 

Around that time, as a convoluted way of improving my English, I started translating poetry. It was just a way to quiet my own internal pangs at the boss’s urging us to improve our English. Now that I think about it, my immediate past held four semesters of Latin, which we learned by translating, so taking on English as if it were a dead language was more or less natural, I suppose. Sometimes I didn’t even translate, anyway: what I did was just take notes that would allow me to read Auden or Emily Dickinson or Robert Creeley more deeply. To read Ezra Pound’s early poetry in English, for example, was to me as laborious as reading César Vallejo or Gabriela Mistral in Spanish. I’m thinking not only of the supposed difficulties but also of the reader’s frame of reference, the rhythm, the kind of concentration required. I tried to correct or adapt or “Chilean-ize” the very Spanish-from-Spain translations of Auden or Emily Dickinson put out by Barcelona publishers. As for Creeley, none of whose books existed in Spanish then, I merely tried for an initial reading. 

Somewhere, I hope, there must still exist a red notebook, Torre brand, with my Spanish versions of Emily Dickinson. There were no more than fifteen poems, each one copied dozens of times, since I thought and still think that is the best way to translate: obstinately transcribe those numerous, nearly identical versions until one of them takes hold and prevails. Of the many translations of those verses, I remember only my version of one of Dickinson’s best-known poems, the one that begins: “I never hear the word ‘Escape’ / Without a quicker blood, / A sudden expectation— / A flying attitude!” My translation takes the form of hendecasyllables, and somehow that makes me happy and ashamed at the same time. I feel as if the poem is “normalized,” naturalized, fenced in. I remember I wanted to translate “a quicker blood” as “el ritmo de mi sangre se acelera,” but then I lost the rhythm. I also remember how much I struggled with the first line of each quartet. 

The habit of reading in English gradually extended from poetry to prose. I read stories and novels, but I cheated at first, because I was really re-reading texts that I already knew and adored in Spanish translation, like The Subterraneans, one of Jack Kerouac’s less-celebrated novels, and one that I find magnificent, especially its devastating ending. 

I remember the trip from Puerto Montt to Parral on the slow budget train, when I read a novel in English for the first time with no dictionary (I know it sounds like “no hands”). The satisfaction that I was reading quickly arose every once in a while with all its distracting potential. The experience unleashed such joy in me that I didn’t even have time to consider whether I liked the novel or not. I didn’t think about it until a couple of days later. And, no, I hadn’t liked it, not at all: I’d confused understanding with enjoyment. I think it was a long time before I read a novel in English and managed to feel a certain aesthetic emotion that was similar, or at least comparable, to what I would experience reading in Spanish. 

 

3. 

The same way that a movie filmed in Santiago always retains, for me, a certain documentary warmth—as if it weren’t entirely a fictional story—a film set in New York always seems, from the start, too much like a movie. That’s why, the first time I went to New York, I found it hard to take the city seriously. I was there to present two of my books that had been translated into English, but I got there a few days early and had some time to get used to the city. Those were meandering days, effusive and unreal: I felt like an actor, or more like an extra; specifically, like one of those jackasses who as soon as they get the chance sneak a look at the camera. 

The afternoon of the event, EJ van Lanen—a charming guy, who at the time was my editor at Open Letter—came over to the corner where I, terrified, was smoking my pre-penultimate cigarette. He asked me, purely out of politeness, if I was nervous. I should have replied with a little laugh, even a cough would have sufficed, but I liked EJ so much and I really wanted us to be friends, so I tried to give a more elaborate answer. I flashed on Emily Dickinson and told him: “Well, I feel like a quicker blood.” EJ thought I was going to faint and offered to make arrangements to cancel the event and take me to the hospital. My intention was not, of course, to cite Emily Dickinson; I’d simply used the resources I had at hand. I was able to communicate and make friends (and to make a fool of myself, which has historically been, in my case, a pretty effective way to make friends). But in spite of all my hours of—so to speak—telephonic interaction, my English came mostly from the poems and novels I had read. 

Panic is fought, as we all know, with distilled beverages, and after a while I was calmer. Plus, I had to speak in English only a little, just enough to give a long greeting; the main event was the bilingual reading with Megan McDowell, who read excerpts in translation. That was the night I met Megan, with whom I had exchanged only a few emails, and I hadn’t even known of the existence of Jessye, her twin sister. The two of them appeared suddenly and made me guess which one was Megan, and I guessed wrong. I asked Jessye what she did; she’s a visual artist, but that night she told me she was a translator, like Megan, only from the Chinese. For some twenty seconds I believed her; for twenty seconds I not only conceived of the existence of those two twin translators of different languages, but I even had time to get used to the idea. In any case, emboldened by all these new friends, I didn’t try in the slightest to speak well that night, and I’m sure I spoke badly and that precisely for that reason, everything more or less worked. 

I went back to New York a few times over the following years, always on short visits for work, but always with the audacity of a tourist imprinted on my spirit. I think I could write a giant tome about those trips and never get bored, but of course I would only bore everyone else. So instead I’ll skip ahead to the chapter that starts in September of 2015, when I went to live in New York for a considerably longer time, thanks to a blessed grant to work at the Cullman Center in the public library. By that time I could communicate with anyone, as long as I accepted the unsettling absence of favorite words and a general lack of consistency: the impossibility of playing with tone, or of cracking jokes. That degradation was the price of being able to speak English on a daily basis with my fellow grant recipients. I spoke better if there was no one on my radar who understood Spanish: my English worked better if I gave free rein to my histrionic side.

During those first days, I remember thinking—pretty optimistically—that I could use this chance to be, in English, a different person. I remember trying, even: to be a person who spoke less, for example. Because I speak slowly, but a lot. The feeling of having said too much (I mean this literally: the annoying certainty that I’ve uttered too many words) has been with me almost my whole life. I thought that in English I could be more direct, more solid, less tentative. Very soon, however, after just a couple of weeks, I was me again, or that precarious version of me (ever less precarious but ever more aware of my precariousness, which in some way reinforced or legitimated the precariousness). I mean that very soon I wasn’t translating myself: I was simply operating with the words I had, which weren’t so paltry but seemed so when I compared them to the riches I had in Spanish. The feeling that I was imitating someone grew ever less funny, and often became alarming. Not the imitation itself, but its condition of indeterminacy: I aspired to know, at the very least, whom I was imitating. 

 

4.

I lived in Crown Heights, just steps from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in a spacious old apartment temporarily vacated by Bex Brian and Charles Siebert, a couple of writers whom I didn’t know well, but who were and still are the best friends of my great friend Francisco Goldman, so I felt like we were friends.

As one of his many kind gestures, Charles had left a gift for me on his desk: a copy of his book Wickerby, a memoir published late in the ’90s and written in that same apartment. “The book essentially re-creates my thoughts on a September night, looking out at the neighborhood from the living room windows,” Charles told me in an email whose main subject was not Wickerby but rather the function of some service that—as long as I didn’t commit the fatal mistake of unplugging their modem in the main bedroom—would allow him and Bex to watch the Mets and the Giants live from Abu Dhabi. 

Out of curiosity and a love of symmetry, I read Wickerby on the last night of September, when I had already spent a few weeks circulating through the apartment like an intruder. The protagonists of Wickerby are none other than Charles and Bex, but twenty years ago, when they were thirtysomethings. The story, from the start, is dramatic: Bex travels to a remote region of Africa, and Charles stays in the Brooklyn apartment with Lucy the dog, and for a while all is well, but the months pass and Bex indefinitely delays her return, giving no convincing reasons. Charles doesn’t know what to do or what to think, so he decides to take Lucy on a trip. They go not to Africa but to Wickerby, which is the name of a run-down cabin in the woods of Southern Quebec, where Bex used to go as a child. 

Charles’s tone is colloquial and hospitable, but also at times strangely elliptical, as if he doesn’t want to tell the story, or as if he trusts too much in the reader’s complicity. Or rather, as if he knows that the only way to tell that story is by pretending he is talking to a silent and understanding friend—kind of like a first person that wants to be perceived as a third. Wickerby is a romantic book in the most traditional sense: the character continually projects himself into the bucolic Canadian vistas and the urban landscape of Crown Heights as if he is channeling into them all his pain, his unease, his bewilderment. 

Immediately after reading Wickerby, I was struck by a certain sorrow, or an affectionate and confused feeling tied to those characters I suddenly knew too well. I felt that inhabiting their apartment—their scenery—was a strange luxury. Suddenly I cared about them; or, more precisely, I missed them: I would have loved for them to come home unexpectedly so I could talk to them for hours and offer Lucy some treats. From that feeling arose the idea or the impulse to translate Charles’s book. I decided to translate Wickerby more or less for the same reason one decides to write a book: to do something, to stop thinking. 

To translate a person is “to translate a text that doesn’t exist,” says Adam Phillips in a beautiful essay I read not long ago. The idea is more complex, because Phillips sets out to compare literary translation with therapy: if the therapist is a “translator,” the patient, then, is a sort of text. But a person is not just one text but rather an infinite series of texts, none of which could be considered the original; a book is, in the best of cases, the text that a person once was or wanted to be, but of course it’s a multiple testament, ambiguous and full of nuances. The idea that we are untranslatable is, however, much more damaging than the idea that we are translatable. To suppose that no one can translate us is to renounce the plane of contact, to remove ourselves from the world, proud and cowering. But Charles’s trip to Wickerby was not an escape; losing himself in the forest that belonged to his wife, to his wife’s childhood, was his tangled, painful way of translating her. 

 

5.

Every morning, over coffee, before leaving—because I felt that the translation had to be perpetrated right there: at that desk, in that apartment, in that neighborhood—I would translate one or two paragraphs of Charles’s book, and then I’d set off for the library, where I would read and take notes. After lunch I reserved a couple of hours to work on my own novel, which I had decided to write in English, though I didn’t have the slightest intention of publishing it or even of showing it to anyone. Writing in English was more like part of my immersion method, so to speak, and it was also an arduous game of literacy that left me exposed to problems or dilemmas that I had more or less resolved in Spanish. 

The novel really did matter to me, and so the whole time I worked on it I felt an inevitable stylistic frustration: the poverty of the rhythm, the scarcity of words—two words, three at most, for what in Spanish I had five or six or ten—paradoxically reconciled me with literature. My novel in English took paths it never would have taken in Spanish. I felt like a guitarist forced to use only three notes, the first ones he’d ever learned. I like thinking back to those writing sessions, though at the time I suffered and was always on the verge of abandoning the novel. Toward the end of the day, when I wrote in Spanish, I felt again the pleasant sonorous exuberance, the inestimable joy of talking with my mouth full. 

I wrote my bad English novel thinking that later on I would translate it myself into Spanish, and then Megan would return it to its place of origin, the English language. And I translated Charles’s book, imagining that at the same time, in Santiago, Megan herself was translating something of mine. I even came to imagine, indulgently, that it was all a comedy of switched countries, with a featured appearance by Jessye, the false Chinese translator who’d become a real Chinese translator, and whose presence created all kinds of misunderstandings: a deliciously stupid sitcom about two translator twins lost in Santiago or Beijing or New York or who knows where. By then I knew people who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish but who had read my books in translation, which was flattering but also, sometimes, intimidating. I liked to imagine myself as Megan’s front man: I had put my name to those books that really she had written, and my job was to play along and do everything possible not to awaken suspicion. 

 

6.

One morning I received an invitation to give a reading in English. I know people who do everything they can to avoid public readings, and it strikes me as the most reasonable phobia in the world, but I love doing them or at least I don’t dislike them. Reading aloud is the only literary activity that—in Spanish, of course—feels almost completely comfortable, because I came of age doing poetry recitals, and through a process of hitting and missing, I think I ended up learning to interpret a text, in the musical sense. In general, I don’t like the practice of having actors perform readings instead of the writers (especially, of course, if they’re bad actors). But reading Megan’s translations as if they were my works was basically acting, imitating. Nor did I know which excerpts to read, because what I would read in Spanish wasn’t necessarily—in the abstract, I mean—what I would read in English. That morning, planning to choose a few fragments to read, I stretched out on the sofa to read my books as translated by Megan, which I had already read but had never re-read, the same way I never re-read my books in Spanish. 

In her brilliant book This Little Art, Kate Briggs insists on the “novelesque” nature of literary translation. The famous suspension of disbelief that operates in the reading of a novel also functions in reading a translation, where it takes on even more weight, because the question about what was actually said or written is always slightly suspended. The reader’s pact is more sophisticated; when we read a translated novel, it’s more “fictional” than a novel written in our own language. When a translation is praised, what is meant is that it doesn’t seem like a translation (except in the infrequent case when the reviewer is fluent in the original language).

Asking a writer for an opinion of the translation of his book into a language he only partially knows is like asking a dog how the cat’s food is going down. I thought Megan’s translations were excellent, but I had no way of proving it, except for very subjective images. Every time I heard her read a text of mine out loud, starting on that first, long-past night of quickened blood, I had the vivid sense she was reading a text that was entirely her own. The afternoon I spent reading Megan’s translations, that impression became a certainty, as for long passages I forgot that I was the one who had written those books. Or, to put it more exactly: for long passages I forgot that those words corresponded to something I had said/written in another language. Sometimes the name of a place or a person returned me to reality, but the illusion did its thing and always returned. 

I chose the excerpts to read in public, though the central problem remained: there was something essentially illegitimate in that reading, whose only interest was the link between the written word and the voice of the writer. For the text to work, I had to articulate or pronounce it, creating the sense that it was mine. Nor was I sure of the most intelligible pronunciation of certain words, especially certain vowels—those details that in a conversation don’t matter, but that in a reading mark insurmountable differences in meaning. I asked my beloved friend John Wray to read those fragments, and I tried to sound like him, but John is good-looking and taller than me and much blonder, so I felt as if I was fifteen again, imitating those jocks from the bilingual school. Then I asked Megan for her interpretation over the phone, and I listened to those audio files a hundred times, and then, at the reading, before an audience that I think was very merciful, I tried to pronounce the words the way Megan would, and of course I must have sounded, in the best case, like a first-time actor trying out for a role that was too big for him. 

By now there are a lot of people with whom I have spoken only English, and I like to think that I put together a language using the phrases they lent me or that I stole from them; that now, when I speak English, I imitate their voices, and from imitating them so much there are times, like in a Fernando Pessoa poem, when I feel as if my pretend language is a language of my own, a way of speaking that is mine. And I suppose that dormant within the mutant I proudly call my English, there also lurk the ruckus of friends getting drunk and the erratic conversations with that asshole Brad and the letters that Emily Dickinson sent to the world and the poems by Donne and Auden and the songs of the summer and the Seinfeld episodes I know by heart. And the novel I wrote in English, planning to never show to anyone, and that these days I’m translating, amazed at how each English phrase multiplies by two or four in Spanish. And Charles’s book, of course: I suppose my English holds several phrases from that book that I never finished translating. I abandoned it with only the last chapter to go, the final eleven pages, I don’t really know why. Surely it was so I’d have an excuse to go back to that apartment and settle in for a few hours until I finished translating the book its owner wrote. 

 

7.

My wife, Jazmina, learned English by reading Harry Potter. At twelve years old, tired of waiting for the fourth novel in the series to be translated, she decided to read it in English. She got her hands on a copy that she read immediately, though it’s more true to fact to say that her eyes passed over all the words in all the sentences on all the pages of the book, because she understood very little. She started it again right away, this time with the help of a dictionary. She wasn’t interested in the English language; she was interested in Harry Potter. 

I find on our shelves, camouflaged among manuals and encyclopedias, the copy that she read. It’s an imposing hardcover in good condition, with a minimum of ten and a maximum of thirty words underlined on each one of its 752 pages. “I didn’t read, I didn’t eat, I didn’t do anything but try to decipher that novel,” she tells me. In a month she had finished it, or finished it again, and along the way she had learned enough English to improvise a few spells or comment on a game of quidditch. Meanwhile, the Spanish edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire still hadn’t appeared. She remembers asking, in the voice of a desperate teenager, “How can it take so long to translate a book?”

Jazmina went on reading in English and later majored in it in college, and then went to study in New York, where one afternoon, out of curiosity, she went to an event at the public library, where I was giving a flawed but loquacious talk, and in the Q&A session afterward she raised her hand and asked me a question that neither of us remembers, but I do remember that her English sounded lovely—much better than mine, of course. I remember having sensed that English was her second language, but I knew I could be wrong, and I also remember thinking while she spoke that her native language was Spanish, and it was absurd for me to respond in English, but the event was in English, so we had to speak English. 

I don’t know if we’re going quickly or slowly now as Jazmina and I translate Little Labors, the excellent and funny book by Rivka Galchen. It’s the second book we’ve translated together. The first was a selection of nonfiction pieces by Daniel Alarcón—a strange case, because Daniel’s Spanish is excellent but he has written almost all of his literary works in English, though they take place largely in Latin America, in a country remarkably similar to Peru. When he writes, Daniel translates into English the Peruvian that we tried to recover in the translation, as if we were writing out some kind of original. 

When we were translating Daniel’s chronicles, Jazmina was three months pregnant and we had just moved to Mexico City; everything seemed imposing and intense and decisive, and maybe it wasn’t the best moment to set off on an uncertain adventure like working together for the first time. But it worked. Then Rivka Galchen’s book appeared in our lives by chance, though guided chance: almost all the books we read about pregnancy and childcare were insufferable, moralizing, and heavy-handedly pedagogical, but we stumbled on this book and found it wonderful and decided to translate it. 

The solitude of the translator is complete, which makes translating together, shoulder to shoulder, so reasonable. And when I say reasonable, I mean that it is beautiful. I translate while Jazmina nurses, and she translates while the baby plays with his plush giraffe and with me. And when he falls asleep we translate together, compare versions, read aloud, correct, workshop. Rivka writes with wisdom and humor about experiences that we have recently had or are having now or will have very soon, so the feeling that she is the one translating us is strong and frequent. 

“I sometimes feel, as a mother, that there is no creature I better understand than my child,” says Rivka, and then she thinks of those romantic comedies where the protagonists don’t speak the same language but they still fall in love. But she also records the fear that soon, when her daughter learns to speak, the misunderstandings will begin, or the real misunderstanding is her current sense that they understand each other completely. 

For now, at eight months old, my son strikes me as the most interesting person on the planet. Every morning I wake up around five thirty, and he has already spent a while murmuring a kind of litany. Then comes a more defined contact: he focuses on me, looks at me, scratches at my cheek. It’s his way of asking me to get this day started once and for all. He seems to know that these first two hours—the only ones fully given over to his mother’s rest—are ones we’ll spend alone, just the two of us, looking out the window at the half-dark, empty streets and playing with his books on the colored rug. 

A couple of weeks ago, he started to wave his left hand in greeting, though he doesn’t wave only at people or his own reflection in the mirror or the silent TV: sometimes I think he also waves at the day or the sofa or a certain stain on the wall or the solar system. Sometimes I have the impression that he speaks fluently, articulately, in a language I don’t know, a language that has to change every day in order to go on existing. But I don’t have the feeling of translating him, of having to translate him. Instead of encouraging him to imitate or assimilate my words, I’m the one who imitates his noises. Or rather I try to imitate them, because they’re not easy and by now they are countless: sighs long and short, timid variations on the gasp, happy snorts, traditional babbles, and others almost hummed, a sneeze-like laugh and another more like a giggle, and a long, enthusiastic razz. The thought that soon he’ll leave behind that happy vanguard of sounds to adopt the conventions of human language brings on an anticipatory nostalgia in me. Even so, I’m pleased to announce here that the first word my son pronounced, a few weeks ago now, was the word papa. He says it all the time; it’s the only word he says. He still has trouble, it’s true, pronouncing the voiceless bilabial stop p, so that for now he has to replace it with the voiced bilabial nasal m. 

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

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