Someone bought me, or recommended that I buy – I forget precisely – Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, and it’s been a long time since I laughed so much while reading any book; so thanks, whoever you are. The novel is especially good at describing the kinds of mental contortions a language learner goes through when sufficiently advanced to understand most linguistic items in a foreign language, but who nevertheless often comes unstuck on more complex or controversial items in the host culture.
Lerner’s protagonist is an appallingly self-conscious and calculatingly mendacious young American poet with an addiction to little white and yellow pills (presumably to help address his pathological nerdiness) and to hashish (he is a keen adherent of the ‘wake and bake’ philosophy). On a research fellowship to Madrid – the use of the word ‘research’ in the novel is disarmingly disingenuous – he meanders between affairs with two Spanish women, never managing to fall in love, but desirous of being loved. Although sleeping with Isabel, he is obsessed with Teresa, a glamorous translator, who comes from money (there are suggestions of a family association with the Franco regime) and who now embodies radical chic politics – indeed, appears to support the kind of political commitment of which the chronically uncommitted narrator is entirely incapable. However, Adán (Adam, in Spanish), as the American is known by his Madrileño friends, wants Teresa to fall in love with him, so that he can let go of his painful inhibitedness just a fraction, but she is too cool by far. Or something.
There is a nice passage in which Adán has been observing Teresa’s actions and, impressed, says:
“You are the most graceful and protean person I know. The way you handed me the coffee right when I awoke or the way just now you took the tequila from me or,” I paused to think of an example not involving drinks, “the way you can move without apparent transition from your stylish apartment to a protest.” . . .
. . . “All you’re describing,” she said in Spanish, “is the personality of a translator. From apartment to protest, From English to Spanish.” If she had spoken in English, I would have found it a little grand; in Spanish I experienced it as profound. I wondered if she’d weighed the sentence in both languages before selecting the one that would produce the desired effect.
In short, what Lerner’s character is describing as a ‘translator’ is someone who is able to adapt to circumstances with ease, a kind of chameleon who uses their own innate multiplexity of self to their advantage: a skilled reader of human ‘texts’.
But it is the next comment that stands out, and makes me wary, about how his character considers Teresa’s comment profound in Spanish, whereas he might have found it ‘a little grand’ in English. This is a sensation with which I am well familiar. Often, when I read a text in another language – a piece of political or philosophical, or literary analysis, I find it more ‘profound’ than its word for word (if there were such a thing) equivalent might be in English. Why is this? What is going on here? Is it a way of congratulating oneself for being able to process the material in a language other than one’s own – and therefore, as a kind of projection – or reward – investing it with greater value than it might otherwise merit?
Or is it something more insidious: that certain languages – and I am thinking specifically of Romance languages – appear more ‘profound’ than English to the native anglophone ear because their syntax is more systematically consistent, which in turn leads to a more gratifying sense of grammatical coherence – and thence of understanding – which, even if it is a false one, and the meanings conveyed are no more ‘profound’, leads the non-native reader to believe that they are.
Or is it that Lerner’s character is in love with Teresa, and therefore wants her words to be ‘profound’ even if they are comparatively commonplace?