Lost and found in translation

Illustration of a plate of conchas
Aarthi Muthukumar/File

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On special occasions when I was younger, my mom would have immediate attention from me and my brothers by saying only two words: pan dulce. Whenever this Mexican sweet bread was mentioned, I instantly pictured the colorful rolls at the panaderia, waiting behind glass doors to bring smiles and sugar rushes. Even when I wasn’t certain of the literal translation behind these swirly desserts, I could still visualize each word and savor whenever I said them. As a Latina growing up with English and Spanish spoken in my family, I often found that the latter language filled my sensations when the former fell short of sensory satisfaction.

Mainstream ideas of linguistics focus much of the time on the connotations and denotations of what we say. Despite these interpretations, I find myself resorting back to the way Spanish words bring depth beyond English’s comprehension. I know from school and dictionaries that language has defined meanings, but I learned from my experience of speaking Spanish how words also have tastes, smells, sounds and sights. In some cases, what we say holds the potential to even encompass laughter, love and tears. It is through pragmatics that the world no longer appears confined to one assimilated tongue, but instead embraces the idea of profound meaning in the profoundly simple.

My introduction to the English language really did begin with a dictionary. While it likely wasn’t Merriam-Webster material, the hands-on alphabet book I had as a drooling 2-year-old never failed to keep me preoccupied. I would read the book upside down — a clear sign that I always wanted to find more meaning behind words. However, it took me a few years to realize that the spice to my language wouldn’t come from turning the book right-side up (although that probably needed to be done anyway). 

The fondest memories I have of the Spanish language come from my family. I would catch snippets of conversation from the phone calls my mom made to her mother and father, listening intently to decode what the adults were talking about in Spanish. My grandfather on her side always called me preciosa whenever it was finally my turn to hold the phone and break the distance between us. I realized early on, however, that it wasn’t solely the language that fueled my heart. On my dad’s side, my grandfather referred to me with the English word beautiful, yet hearing this still made me think of the porcelain Lladró pieces from Spain that would greet me whenever I saw him. To this day, no one else has called me preciosa, and I keep the Lladró I was given of ballet dancers on the highest shelf of a bookcase. 

Growing up with Spanish-speaking influences bound me to family and propelled me to read more literature from the language. When I realized my attachment to poetry in English, Spanish poems also weaved their way into my mind and heart. Oftentimes, they did so even more than the likes of Emily Dickinson or William Butler Yeats. The former could personify harrowing Death, and the latter would intertwine colors “of night and light and the half light.” Even Edgar Allan Poe’s golden sand from “A Dream Within a Dream” felt both comforting and despairing all at once. These words had opened avenues for how I viewed the life behind and before me.

Yet in spite of their perpetual possibility, they seldom reshape impossibility and my soul the way poetry in the Spanish language continues to do. Life is no longer simply viewed but rather inhaled, felt, tasted and liberated. From one of his poems, Pablo Neruda writes, “Quiero hacer contigo lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos,” which translates in English to “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” What Google translate doesn’t tell you is that hacer can mean to do or to make, and quiero can indicate want, like or love. Suddenly, the line paints a picture of love dancing with cerezos made from the passion and life of springtime. 

If I’m craving words beyond the sensual and romantic, I can reread “Dulzura” by Gabriela Mistral. Dulce in Spanish means sweet, but Mistral’s poem explores more complexly the sweetness of a mother. Her rhyming lines “Es tuyo mi cuerpo / que juntaste en ramo” translate to how the body of a child comes from the mother — who put it together in a perfect bouquet. The poem’s title brings to mind the taste of pan dulce I always associate with my sweet mama, who put me together in a little bouquet and introduced me to a world that isn’t described in one tongue. What poetry, preciosa, porcelain and panaderia all share are the endless ways Spanish connects me to the people and memories I love. While I could try to describe such sentiments to you in Spanish, I’m afraid the translation just wouldn’t be enough.

Adriana Temprano is the diversity, equity and inclusion committee chair. Contact her at [email protected].