The Short, Wondrous Quote of Junot Diaz

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This quote has been everywhere the last few days, and I do love it, though some peevish part of me wants to exception to it. I have to admit that I am one of those readers who got lost whenever Diaz switched to Spanish in The Short, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I listened to the book on audio in my car, so stopping to look up those passages was not an option for me. As I recall, in most instances, Diaz was adept at giving context and general meaning, so the reader could glean the import of whatever was being conveyed if not the precise words, but I do remember several instances when the untranslated passage was lengthier and I’d think, “Geez, it’d be nice to know what they’re saying.” But I think that meshes perfectly with his themes of alienation and not belonging, and how his characters tend to exist in several worlds simultaneously.

In this Reddit thread discussing this quote, a lot of readers bring up Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and certainly those books have a fair bit of untranslated Spanish. I think a better example would be the way that 18th and 19th century authors would rather routinely use French, assuming fluency on the part of their readership. A better example for me are the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian that begin with Master and Commander. I’m now reading the 14th novel in the series (The Nutmeg of Consolation), and it is no exaggeration to say that on nearly every page of these novels I encounter terms that are entirely unfamiliar. These include hundreds of nautical terms, of course, but also references to antiquated medical/surgical procedures, botany, weather, astronomical events, historical events, geopolitics, and food (what, praytell, is Soused Pig’s Face, Jack’s favorite meal?), as well as random phrases in Latin, French, Catalan, Lithuanian, Malay, etc. I’ve never once found this alienating, mainly due to O’Brian’s skill in conveying the meaning through context, but also because the books reward deep investigation should one choose to go that route.

Re: the Diaz quote above, I realize he’s joking but I do feel the need to come to Tolkien’s defense. There are no extended passages in Lord of the Rings that are in Elvish or Dwarvish or any other language that are not translated, at least that I can recall. Can anyone correct me?

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One Response to The Short, Wondrous Quote of Junot Diaz

  1. After the first few sentences of this post, I started thinking about Victorian & earlier novels that use French all the time and how I wanted to gripe about them in the comments. I read a lot of those books when I was younger and read a good helping of them now, and it drives me freakin’ insane when they switch to French for a phrase or a sentence. I think it demonstrates terrible elitism to assume that, if they can read at all, your audience must have learned French at some point, and that spins me up like a top and pulls me out of the book.

    If Diaz is trying to communicate alienation on purpose, I think it’s a different story. But I don’t know. I also think that as the world’s nations collide more and more, more ordinary citizens are going to have to grow up knowing two or three languages, so maybe it won’t be so weird in coming decades to write books in a pidgin instead. It does strike me as a pretty loaded, prejudiced question to ask Diaz, in part because it’s Spanish, the easiest language there is (and I will without doubt hear at least as much Spanish as English if I leave my apartment on a given day), and in part because of the examples you name.

    Is part of the Silmarillion in Elvish? Isn’t there some poetry in Return of the King that is?

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