A Journey of Language

Today, I have something very special for you: a guest post by Lisa Carter, a literary translator living in Canada I have befriended on the internet. She translates from Spanish into English and has quite an impressive portfolio. I learned about Blogathon from reading her blog. She agreed to write a guest post for me today about her experiences learning Spanish.

I never intended to learn Spanish. It seemed too easy. I wanted the challenge of languages like German and Russian that use the case system, have declensions, words so long they take up a whole line of text – heck, words that are written in an entirely different alphabet! Life has a funny way of unfolding, though. Here I am today, years later, hardly able to remember a single word of Russian or German, but using Spanish all day, every day, in work that I love, as a translator.

What made all the difference for me in this journey of language learning was in situ experience, living the language rather than conjugating verbs by rote or reading Dick-and-Jane-type stories in a textbook. I got that opportunity right after university, when I was hired to work at the Canadian pavilion in Seville, Spain, as part of Expo ’92. It was the perfect introduction to Spanish. I could soak it up in the narrow, winding streets where gypsies sold flowers, sit on the steps of the Cathedral and listen to impromptu Flamencan songs, muddle my way through everyday transactions like buying groceries and going to the bank. I could then come home, exhausted, and speak English to my three housemates.

There was something about the rolling sound of Spanish that found its way into my heart during the year I was in Spain. I left knowing my next destination would be Latin America. I would put my degree in Applied Linguistics to use, teaching English, and I would become fluent in Spanish.

These were pre-Internet times. I had to find overseas job opportunities in resources at the public library. As I narrowed the possibilities down, I wrote to schools in Colombia, Mexico and Peru. I tore into every reply, anxious to see if I had been hired. But something was different the day the envelope arrived from ICPNA in Trujillo, Peru. I held it unopened in my hands, looked up at my sister and said, “I’m going to teach English in Peru.”

That’s where this language became firmly embedded in my heart, in my soul, in my very being. Over the course of the seven years I lived in Peru, Spanish became the language of everyday banalities, employment, entrepreneurship and love – love of a people, a place and a culture.

It wasn’t always easy. I spent the first several months listening, absorbing the language. I spoke only when absolutely necessary, grateful to be in an English cocoon all day at work. I kept my eyes downcast in social situations, afraid to engage. Thank goodness most occasions in Peru are filled with loud music and dancing; I could participate without having to open my mouth.

As time wore on, I would spend the day with newfound friends. They had me practice tongue twisters to improve my pronunciation: El carro corre por la carretera a toda carrera. They prattled and laughed, prompted and encouraged. By the end of the day, my brain literally ached from the effort of trying to understand and be understood.

I did, however, begin to notice little steps and great strides forward in my language learning. I would read a billboard and connect the written word to a spoken one I had just learned. I grew confident enough to answer the phone. I kept my eyes up and alert, hoping for the opportunity to converse. Every now and then, I would catch myself speaking words I didn’t know I knew and be amazed.

By a certain point, Spanish tumbled off my tongue as fast as any native speaker. It was the language of my work, my community, my life. It took over so completely that my English actually began to deteriorate. I would search for words, say things like “gassy water” instead of “sparkling water”. On a visit home one year, I remember listening to two friends speak. I marveled at their extensive vocabularies, tried to remember choice words. It was as if I were learning my mother tongue all over again.

Now, twenty years after the first taste of Spanish on my tongue, it is the language of my profession. Every day, I read works in Spanish. The corresponding English words spill out through my fingertips, via a keyboard and onto the screen. I have found balance, living in the two languages I adore, bringing the words of one into the other. It may not be the life I envisaged when I started university, but I wouldn’t change the outcome for the world.

Lisa Carter is a Spanish-to-English literary translator, with six published titles and a seventh forthcoming in 2013. She was nominated for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her translation of The Einstein Enigma: A Novel, by José Rodrigues Dos Santos. You can find Lisa on her professional website at www.intralingo.com, where she blogs about literary translation. You can also follow her on Twitter at @intralingo.


9 thoughts on “A Journey of Language

  1. Thanks for hosting me, Natalie! If only I had kept up with my Russian better, I could have been writing this comment in that language. One of the few words I do remember: Spasiba!


    1. Dear dear Lisa
      Riveting stuff…. I too had been attracted to Russian for some reason. I was in a private school where, after SEVEN years of Latin, we were given a choice: either ancient Greek or Spanish. I begged my parents to let me learn Spanish, and they agreed. I have never looked back since. My translation work involves translating for Latin American immigrants wanting to immigrate to Canada.
      Yay! I can’t picture where I would be with ancient Greek. I never would have met you!
      Un abrazo, Sylvie


      1. Sylvie! So sweet of you to come and leave a comment here on Natalie’s lovely blog. I love hearing about the options people have had along their paths, which they chose and where it led. 😉 Sure glad our paths have crossed.


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  3. Lisa, I became absolutely engrossed in your story and was so sorry when it ended. You wrote it with such passion and it was so easy to read. I loved the way you personalized your story so anybody could relate to it, whether they’d had similar experiences or not. I’m sure that gift you have for telling a story intimately must inform your novel translations with lots of warmth and immediacy.


  4. Great post. I got really into Spanish while in college – I would read magazines and newspapers, and try to watch movies in Spanish. I actually got somewhat decent (for a college kid). And then I moved back home, and my newly blossoming Spanish withered and died. I’m hoping to revive it someday. I’m always impressed when people can be truly multilingual.


    1. You definitely should revive it! There’s nothing sadder than losing a language like that. (I speak from personal experience, as a similar thing happened with my Spanish!)


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