This year, for the third year in a row, I made it my resolution to finish a book in another language. In 2012, my goal was to finish 哈利波特与磨石 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), which I had been poking at for over a year. In 2013, I read Vida de Pi (Life of Pi) from start to finish. Those were made [somewhat] easier by the fact that they were originally written in English, and that I had read them in English. After two successful years, though, I became emboldened and decided to tackle something harder.
I solicited recommendations on facebook, and ended up choosing Corazon tan blanco, by Javier Marías. It has been translated into English as “A Heart So White”, in case you’re interested in reading it, but I have not read it in English and honestly have no plans to.
Life of Pi (which I had loved mainly because of Yann Martel’s beautiful writing) became, in Spanish, not much more than a good story. There were no sentences that stayed with me, that drew me back to reread them, that said what I wanted to say but better. It was a little uninspired. Based on this experience, I was excited to read a book in the original Spanish, hopefully getting to experience a gifted author directly instead of reading his story second-hand.
But I also knew that reading a book cold (not knowing the story) in another language would obviously be harder than reading something I knew already. Sometimes, while reading 哈利波特 and Vida de Pi, I wondered if I was like a little kid, turning pages and saying the words that she knows belong there . . . even if she’s holding the book upside down. How much did I actually understand, and how much was I filling in from my prior knowledge? The only way to find that out was to put myself in a situation where I had no prior knowledge.
316 pages and nearly a year later, I believe I was right – it was harder, but the added difficulty was worth it.
Of course, because it’s me, I have some data to share. I first shared this graph last year, after finishing Vida de Pi. Through both books, I underlined words I didn’t know as I was reading, looked them up afterwards, and added them to my Anki flashcard deck. Each time I read a few pages, I counted up how many words I’d underlined (blue), how many I’d added to Anki (red), and how many cards I had in my Anki deck (purple).
This is two years worth of data, but at first glance it looks identical to last year’s. That’s mainly because the lines are averaged data – so, in both books up to that point, how many words was I underlining per page? The individual dots represent a few pages at a time, and if you look at those, you do see a significant spike around [cumulative] page 400, which represents page 0 of Corazon tan Blanco. This is due to two things – both the slightly more advanced language used in a book written in Spanish as opposed to translated into it, and the new vocabulary always required at the beginning of a new book. (Corazon featured a husband and a wife who both worked as government translators in Europe, so there was some terminology that I had to learn (although nothing compared to Harry Potter!!))
Anyway, the data show that the beginning of the second book was more difficult (at least in terms of the number of unknown words) than the end of the first, but that effect was transient. By the end of the book, I was looking up ~1 word per page.
Another aspect of difficulty that I couldn’t quantify was the additional memory required to keep track of the story. I didn’t know the plot ahead of time, wasn’t familiar with the characters, didn’t even’t read the briefest synopsis in English before starting it. This presented a challenge, because I had to strike a balance between word-level, sentence-level, paragraph-level, and chapter-level approaches. I had to be careful not to miss the forest for the trees, but it also took a lot of effort for me to get through the trees! I read about once a week and sometimes when I picked up the book on Sunday I had no memory of what had happened last weekend. I ended up rereading more of this book than the previous ones.
Overally, it was a really great experience. The book was quite melancholy and sad (the Spanish phrase that sticks in my mind most is “un presentimiento de malestar”) but, as I had hoped, beautifully written. Here are two quotes that stuck with me:
“los oídos carecen de párpados que puedan cerrarse instintivamente a lo pronunciado, no pueden guardarse de lo que se presiente que va a escucharse, siempre es demasiado tarde.”
“The ears don’t have lids that can close themselves instinctively at what is said; they can’t keep themselves from what they think they’re going to hear, as it’s always too late.”
One big theme of the book is finding out something that you don’t want to know – in fact, the opening line is “No he querido saber, pero he sabido que . . .” (“I didn’t want to know, but I know that . . .”)
“no hay en las lenguas que yo conozco palabra que oponer a ‘huérfano’.”
“In the languages that I know, there is no word for the opposite of ‘orphan’.”
Juan, the narrator, is a translator and speaks several languages. Here he is talking about the sadness of a mother who loses her only daughter.
In 2015 I will be further pushing myself, this time planning to read 三体, widely acknowledged as the best Chinese science fiction novel. 加油！