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?