A Stupid Dictionary
I bought it years ago in an old bookstore, whose owner warned me: “It’s a stupid dictionary. If you’re interested, I’ll give it to you for a good price.” I bought it because it was cheap and I was drawn to the idea of owning a stupid dictionary. In my house I opened it and searched for the definition of house: “Regular construction, usually with a roof and windows, of different materials and shapes, which defends the human being from the weather and outside dangers.” It seemed to be a very sensible definition. I checked the Royal Academy Spanish Dictionary, which defines “house” concisely: “Building for dwelling.” I reread the definition in the stupid dictionary and, indeed, compared to the succinctness of the RASD, it was a bit excessive. Why a “regular” construction? Can a construction be irregular? And why reduce the house to a defensive space? The definition of the RASD was unimprovable. Nothing of regularity or irregularity, nothing of roofs and windows, nothing of defending oneself from the outside. I searched for “yard” in the stupid dictionary: “part of the home, of different shape and size, with plants and flowers, usually surrounded by a fence and for the pleasure of those who inhabit it.” I searched for “yard” in the RASD and read: “ground where plants are grown for ornamental purposes.” Concise and to the point, and flowers aren’t even mentioned. I closed the stupid dictionary and put it in the bookcase. It erred on the side of being loquacious and imaginative, but it was nothing stupid. Certainly, of greater stupidity is a dictionary that, when talking about a yard, doesn’t mention flowers and includes “plants for ornamental purposes,” which will compel more than one reader to conduct a new search, while “flowers” is even understood by children. But the use of such laconic definitions that so often imprison us in an endless circle of definitions isn’t so stupid either, because isn’t it true that we all understand the word “flowers,” because maybe, except for children, nobody fully understands any word, neither with the help of a dictionary that, teeming with common sense, seems to be stupid, nor with the other that, for some complete deficiency of it, seems even more so.
Poetry And The Face
According to linguists, inside those babblings prior to learning his mother tongue the child is able to utter the sounds of all languages, an unlimited ability forever lost as soon as he starts to speak. By providing us with language our mother tongue suppresses those sounds foreign to it, as if there were a battleground between all languages inside the child and the one crowned winner immediately proceeds to abolish even the slightest impression of the others. Thus, the happy interlude in which the child rehearses every potential emission of sound ends with his entry into the world of speech. But something inside us doesn’t forget the joy of such babblings, when we were perhaps the most creative ever. Poetry, with its rupture from semantic and phonetic uniformity, is our greatest attempt to revive this articulatory freedom, that paradise from which we were expelled by the language we speak. Before it says what it says, to communicate an idea or an experience, a poem is a rupture from accustomed diction, a liberating babbling, reminiscent of a language—our true mother tongue—that supplies all possible articulations, that’s to say all our grimaces. Yes, because the pleasure we receive from rhyme and the alliterations, consonances and assonances of words, the rhythm that comes from repetition and the variations of a word, is the kind that leads us to stretch and contort our faces, like someone looking for the most primitive face, perhaps one the arpeggio of language had at its disposal only once. That’s why poetry workshops should work on mimicry and facial dilation, along with the emission of all kinds of sounds, the more guttural and strident the better, in order to widen the spectrum of our emitting apparatus in tandem with our ear and, in this way, realign forgotten muscles and nerves to diversify our face, prematurely fixed by our mother tongue. Poetry, therefore, as a reviver not only of prose and language, but also of our semblance.
The Perfect Note
I’m fascinated by the story of that man whose wife asked him to write a note for their son who had been absent from school. While she hurries to finish preparing to leave for school with their child, the man wrestles with the note at the dining room table: he removes a comma, puts it back in, crosses out a sentence and writes a new one, until the woman, who is waiting at the door, loses her patience, rips the page from his hands and without even sitting down scribbles a few lines, signs her name and runs out. It was only a school note, but for the husband, who was a well-known writer, there was no such thing as a harmless text and even the most insignificant thing posed problems of efficiency and style. He wanted to write the perfect note, the man confessed in an interview, and I’m not surprised, because a writer is someone who faces the failure of writing and makes this failure, so to speak, his mission, while others simply compose. We can stretch this anecdote out and imagine someone who, noose in hand, about to hang himself from a roof beam, prepares to write a few parting lines, picks up a pen and writes the proverbial phrase that he doesn’t blame anyone for his death. Up to that point things are going well, but he decides to add a few lines to apologize to his loved ones and, because he is a writer, he stops composing and starts writing. Two hours later we find him sitting at the table, noose forgotten on a chair, crossing out adjectives and revising the same sentence over and over to give it just the right tone. When he finishes he’s exhausted, hungry and the last thing he wants to do is commit suicide. Style has saved his life, but perhaps it was because of style that he wanted to end it; perhaps one of the reasons for his action was the conviction that he was a failed writer and perhaps he is, as are all those who intend to write the perfect note, which are the only ones worth reading. They write to justify that they write, the pen in one hand and a noose in the other.
The Taciturn Mute
I was once told about the following error in translation. In a foreign novel a character was left speechless when something unusual happened. Where the author wrote “was speechless,” the Spanish translator preferred the word “was struck dumb,” which would not have been bad had the character in question not been deaf by birth. The translator struck dumb a deaf mute. This is about clumsiness, but not a mistake, because being struck dumb is said in the figurative sense and, therefore, can also be applied to deaf mutes, who, as we all know, use sign language, equally full of figurative meanings as ours, and consequently they have the same rights as us to be “struck dumb.” In other words, there are mutes who speak more and mutes who speak less; therefore, it is possible to imagine a dialog in which one mute complains to another mute about the excessive loquacity of a third mute, and says: “So-and-so talks up a storm,” and the other mute, who is a deaf-mute by birth, replies: “Yes, as soon as he starts to speak, you want to cover your ears,” an absurd phrase of course, since it would be more logical to say “you want to cover your eyes,” since the language of the deaf-mute is a language of signs. All this shows us that two deaf mutes who complain about the verbosity of a third one, who is just as deaf as they are, are talking, or using their voice, like all of every one of us. The fact that in this case their voice has been replaced by gestures, does not make it less voice, and they are not one iota less speakers than those who do “speak,” and they demonstrate this precisely when they speak nonsense, that is speak figuratively, without which there is no comprehensible human language. But there is something else, which is that while non mutes can’t manage to understand that some mutes are more “mute ” than others, or that there are mutes of few words; while we cannot conceive of a taciturn mute, or a mute who is suddenly struck dumb, or someone who is deaf that cover his ears, we will be unable to understand anyone who is different from us.
Why We Translate
Perhaps people from centuries to come will ask how it was possible in our time that there were so many translations, and because of them no language on the planet, not even those spoken by only a few individuals, remained completely detached from the others. The linguistic poverty they will have to live with, a result of two or three master languages, if not only one, will incline them to see our time as one submerged in an inexhaustible idiomatic soup, made up of innumerable languages and hundreds of thousands of translations connecting all of them, from the most widely spoken to the remotest ones, translations often resulting from other translations. They will admire this exercise abounding in metamorphosis, cerebral mimesis and marvelous identification. They will even think that translating from one language to another was our endless preoccupation and our principle entertainment. With only two or three functioning languages on the entire planet there will be no shortage of those who will doubt that during our time hundreds of thousands of languages could exist, articulated through complex family relationships, combined with another large number of dialects derived from these languages, dissimilar enough to complicate the communication between regions and adjoining towns. They will then ask themselves how it could have been possible to live in a world like that, move through a world like that, fall in love in a world like that, and once they were shown that in fact things had occurred this way they will conclude that the number of translators needed to bear this monstrous linguistic diversity must have been enormous, immeasurable, and that translation in all its facets must have occupied practically every nook and cranny of our day to day life, and when historians prove to them, documents in hand, that it wasn’t entirely like that, and that only a microscopic portion of the population dedicated itself to these tasks, they will shake their heads, thankful they were born in a time so distant from ours.
Translated by Curtis Bauer
Published in Spanish in El idioma materno [The mother tongue] by Fabio Morábito, Sexto Piso 2014
“The Perfect Note” and “A Stupid Dictionary” published in World Literature Today, September 2017