Thursday, 5 June 2014

Poem about translation 20: Bilingual/Bilingüe

A poem about translation in honour of my flying visit to bilingual Catalunya:

In some ways, a poem about bilingualism is a poem about non-translation. Translation is, as a rule, for people who *don't speak both languages. Bilingual and multilingual subjects are able to switch back and forth, deploying their languages as needed. Code-switching would be in this sense the antithesis of translation; it pre-empts the need for it.

From another angle, bilingualism constantly contains the potential for self-translation. Today's instalment in the occasional Poems About Translation series is "Bilingual/Bilingüe" by the US-based Dominican poet Rhina P. Espaillat. It's a poem about the intergenerational tensions that can accompany growing up with more than one language: "English outside this door, Spanish inside," he said, "y basta".

I like the way the poem enacts the integration of the two languages in graphic form. The speaker is committed to both languages, and the bracketed phrases in Spanish mark moments of self-translation. The brackets are for her Spanish-speaking self, not her father's; they mark an experience of boundary-crossing. The polysyllables singled out from the rest of her speech - "testaruda," "orgulloso" - give a sense of her revelling in the sounds of her father's language. Poetry, "mis versos", provides a way to embrace the tension between the languages. In the last stanza the brackets disappear, fusing English and Spanish, Espaillat's voice and her father's.

You can see and hear Espaillat reading the poem here:

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