The First Test
I was a bilingual in a room full of monolinguals where they made requests to hear the sounds of unintelligible sentences in English that piqued their fancy. I loathed entertaining their boring requests. If they told me to say tortuga I said turtle, if they told me to say casa I would say house, if they told me to say cucaracha I lied to them and said the German word, krakerlaken, if they told me to say hijo de puta I would say son of a bitch. And then I said, but that’s the usual phrase for the term, what you’ll see on the captions in movies but it’s not all true, because sometimes the soul of words, even the word puta, is lost. Puta means whore, bitch means perra. But no one says son of a whore in English. All of this I could explain, but when they asked me to say whatever I wanted, whatever came to my head, just to hear the peculiar sound of my accent — say whatever the mold of my tongue felt like flinging to their ready ears — my throat would grow jittery, my eyes would zigzag, my mind would flip the catalog of weird sentences that I could say: “The house has a pig farm in the attic”; “I’m not a motherfucking parrot”; “I could be insulting your mother, grandmother and your entire ancestral line and you would never know”; “You’re not even really damn interested in what I have to say, just my accent”; “Do you ever wonder what languages we would have, what customs we would practice, if America was never colonized?”
These were the requests of my teenage classmates in Ecuador, in the country I was born in but where I had not grown up, sitting in a class where I was learning Spanish, my first language that had been eclipsed by English when I moved for a decade to the United States. When they were bored, and this was often, the requests came. One day, there was a request from my teacher. She wanted to know the translation of the song title “Sk8er Boi” by Avril Lavigne. Why was there an ocho in the first word? Skochoer Boi, Skochoer Boi, Skochoer Boi, what does that mean? she asked. The students waited for my answer, their expectant stares waiting for a coherent explanation. But how to explain that the title only works in English? If I said that, they would have slapped their tongues to the roof of their mouths, rolled their eyes, and believed I was a fake. I wanted to say: That title is lost on non-English speakers, and this is just how you have to live your life, not knowing why there’s an ocho in the title. Sorry, your loss. Just like people all over the world have had to come up in a foreign language what Michael Jackson meant when he said beat it, just beat it. But I didn’t want the profesora to think I was a pompous brat because she already thought I was a brat. I stood up and walked to the white board.
You have to read the number in English. 8 = eight, not ocho. But even before that, you have to know that Sk8er is actually a different way to write skater. The sound, the play on words makes ate sound like eight. I said all of this to a group of students sitting at their desks, tilting their heads, writing down notes as if this were to be on an upcoming test.
Eight = ate = skate = skater = sk8er
No, sk8er isn’t a real word. No, you won’t find it in the dictionary, I said. Boi neither, because it’s a purposeful misspelling of the word boy. The writer was just playing with the sounds and not imagining that a bilingual Spanish speaker would have to get into phonetics to explain.
Ok, the profesora said, now translate the entire song.
Sure, Miss, can you let me sit down and go through the lyrics?
Bueno, this will be your homework, she said.
I went home and translated the lyrics line by line, hitting a roadblock when I came to the word punk. What was the equivalent to a skater punk when there wasn’t a skate park in this entire town? How could I bring the essence of what a gringo punk meant to the ecuatorianos in my classroom? And how could I explain to them that it was not the same as an old man finding a kid egging his house the day before Halloween and yelling “you little punk”? I ravished my brain completing the most difficult homework I had ever had, but felt a surge of pleasure each time I solved a term. How could I translate “rock each other’s world” without making it sound sexual and getting reprimanded by the profesora? Or what term could I use without inserting the word rock, piedra, in Spanish? I hated the teacher each time a five-letter word halted me for more time than I could bear. But it was on that day, after I reached the last line: sobre una chica que solías conocer, that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Revive words on a page, conduct a dissection of their phonetic energy, feast on their syntactical order and create a passage into another language where words would be built to invoke the same feeling to the reader or listener. I didn’t know on that day if I would always be successful, but I knew I had to try, and most of all, I knew I would never spend so much brain power on a translation without getting paid for the mental energy that Avril Lavigne had drained out of me. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but that homework sent me on a path that would define my life, a step beyond being bilingual, and into the painstaking work of what it meant to become a translator.
Victoria Buitron is a dual citizen of Ecuador and the United States. She is a translator and writer based in Connecticut and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. She is the Co-Editor in Chief of Causeway Lit and her work has appeared or is upcoming in Entropy, The Citron Review and The Bare Life Review.
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