from the blog Endpapers
Blog entry: 11th November,
Some thoughts on
For two weeks, I have been taking Spanish lessons for an hour each day with a private
tutor. My vocabulary is mushrooming, aided, no doubt, by the presence of glaring
advertisements on the streets, watching television and overhearing conversations that are
slowly beginning to sound less like water bubbling up from a fountain. I am especially
grateful for those fruit and vegetable shops that label their produce with thick black
texta on coloured card: cebolla (onion), zanahoria (carrot), repollo
(cabbage), manzana (apple). The signs make clear what it is that I am looking
The vegetable shop on the corner, right near my apartment, is run by a round, crinkly
faced old lady who laughs every time I ask for something and then repeats the word in an
accent that I am guessing is provincial (there are many different variations of Latin
American Spanish and many differing ideas about which is clearer, most elegant, etc).
Recently she has been getting me to select what I would like - yet she still hovers about,
laughing and saying things that only she understands, while I marvel at the complexities
of performing such a simple task in a foreign city, a foreign language, with a foreign
To cast an utterance in this new language is a hit-and-miss experience. Yesterday it was
difficult, today, a little easier. Sometimes on a good day there are bad moments. And so
It has been many years since I first began to learn French - I had forgotten how difficult
it can be to memorise verb conjugations, to listen and understand the different ways
different people pronounce words, to struggle to even find the most simple words to stand
in place for the more difficult words that you have not yet acquired. (Last week, when M
went to pick up the washing at the laundromat and was charged doubly, he found himself
being able to only say 'thanks'. He lacked the words to complain.) I had forgotten how
difficult it is when the words you have are shiny, squeaky and too, too new. You can only
utter them as single units, tenously connected, rather than run them together, intimately
knowing what does and doesn't sound right.
The struggle to speak in this new language has been an explicit reminder of the symbology
of the word. Words stand in place for that which is not there, for that which the hand
cannot hold. For a couple of weeks, my Spanish self has been suspended in the present,
lacking the words to speak of the past and lacking the words to speculate on the future.
But I am perfectionistic, and greatly aided by my knowledge of French, which is a similar
language to Spanish (particularly the rules of grammar), I am finding myself rapidly becoming
in this new tongue. Gaining the ability to articulate new selves, more selves. Banging
impatiently on the door, wanting to be admitted into the system.
All words are symbols, but some words are talismans. If you catch them in your hand for
awhile, they permit you to access new networks of language and meaning.
In Spanish, unlike in French or English, there are two verbs that mean 'to be': ser
and estar. Ser is used to refer to essential or inherent characteristics
of a thing or person, while estar is used to refer to more temporary conditions
or states of being. For example, soy escritora (I am a writer - ser) and
estoy cansada (I am tired - estar). Simply being myself has become more complicated
than ever before. While there are some easy rules to follow that dictate which verb is
appropriate to use in a particular context, I find myself constantly assessing whether the
descriptive I intend to use is permanent or fleeting. Sometimes I feel that by merely
expressing something about myself, I am evaluating what to be this self means.
Of course, to be is never static - it is always means occupying shifting,
changing, flowing, uncertain, muliple positions. But ser and estar are
talismans. Words I can grasp, words that latch onto other words which have colour, weight
Whether it is feeling that precedes language or language that precedes feeling is a
question that is very vexed. Sometimes I feel as though I am constrained by the boundaries
of English, my language, as if the sprawling, anarchic whole of it is circumscribed by
invisible electric fences; at other times I feel as though my thoughts and desires are
extended by language. Certainly codified by language. Some days words seem to fall across
my path and it is as though I have found a long-lost pair of glasses. I become a little
less myopic. Able to see and speak and know with perhaps a little more clarity than usual.
Translation is a process that I find endlessly fascinating, namely because translators are
only able to search for equivalents: the properties that any one system is based on cannot
be replicated in another system. A couple of months ago, I translated an interview with a
French theatre director into English. It was difficult to capture the spirit with which
she was speaking, the timbre of her words, in English. At times I felt as though her words
were heavier in French and even though her manner of speech was not complicated - with
clear and simple syntax - it was very sophisticated. My English translation could only
circle around the French. It became a separate text, a text of different dimensions.
This same problematic process happens with the self, only we human beings are far more
complicated than the texts that we write. I am yet to really uncover who my
Spanish-speaking self is. I'll post more as I find out.
Jasmine Chan's blog Endpapers is at http://jtchan.blogspot.com/