No one else can hear the baby speak, but I can. I can hear her say ‘up’ and ‘clap’, I hear ‘stairs’. I hear ‘string’. No one believes my baby says ‘string’, but I know she does, because she loves the bit of string that is tied to the door of the car, and she says ‘shing’. You have to listen hard, I admit that.
For months we have been on call and answer. ‘Ah da da dah,’ says the child. ‘Ah dah dee doo dah,’ I say back. This conversation is surprisingly complex, and gives me a new respect for birds, whales and chimpanzees. With three or four syllables, in all their variations, we can say, the two of us, all that we need, for now, to say.
Still, I dream of the baby turning around, and opening her mouth to say something wonderful and long and syntactically amazing like, ‘Can I go to the shops?’ I know it is in there somewhere — before her first word was ever uttered, there were full sentences playing across her face. The trick is getting them out of there — like pulling down the weather.
There is nothing so exciting as speech. A baby looks at your face as you say a word, and whatever passes between you as you hear the word back, is love and love returned. It is the gaze made manifest. Teaching a child to speak is giving them the world. It is better than feeding them, I realise, as I stand beside the kitchen counter, dropping scraps of words to my daughter’s up-tilted face. And I think that all words are sublimated nurture, or a request for nurture, or its provision. All words happen in the space between you and your dear old Ma.
I develop a theory that all writers have Major Mothers, Serious Mothers, sometimes Demanding Mothers — the kind of women you always know when they are in the room. I test this theory any time I am at a reading or conference, I float it across the dinner table. The last time I did this, one of the writers did not answer. He had started to cry.
Anne Enright, ‘Speech’ in Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, London: Vintage, 2005, 171-72.
Nadie oye hablar a mi bebé, pero yo sí. La oigo decir “upa” y “pan”, oigo “sube”. Oigo “cuerda”. Nadie se cree que mi bebé dice “cuerda”, pero yo sé que lo dice, porque le encanta el trozo de cuerda atado a la puerta del coche, y dice “cuedda”. Hay que escuchar con atención, lo admito.
Durante meses, hemos practicado el método de llamada-respuesta. “Ah da da da”, dice la criatura. “Ah da di du da”, le respondo. Esta conversación es sorprendentemente compleja y ha renovado mi respeto por las aves, las ballenas y los chimpancés. Con tres o cuatro sílabas, en todas sus variaciones, ambas podemos decirnos todo lo que, por ahora, necesitamos expresar.
No obstante, sueño con que la bebé se dé la vuelta y abra la boca para decir algo increíble y largo y con una sintaxis asombrosa, como “¿Puedo ir a las tiendas?”. Sé que está por ahí dentro. Antes de que pronunciase su primera palabra, por su cara desfilaban frases completas. El truco consiste en extraerlas de ahí: es como intentar atraer la lluvia.
No hay nada tan emocionante como el habla. Si un bebé te mira a la cara cuando dices algo, lo que se transmite entre vosotros cuando te contesta es amor y amor correspondido. Es la mirada manifestada. Enseñar a hablar a los niños es entregarles el mundo. De pie junto a la encimera de la cocina, me doy cuenta de que es mejor que darles de comer, reflexiono mientras voy soltando pedacitos de palabras ante la cara de mi hija, que me mira desde abajo. Y pienso que todas las palabras son alimento en esencia, o alimento solicitado, o alimento proporcionado. Todas las palabras suceden en el espacio entre tú y tu querida mamá.
Tengo la teoría de que todos los escritores tienen grandes madres, madres serias, a veces madres exigentes: el tipo de mujeres que siempre hacen notar su presencia cuándo están. Pruebo mi teoría cada vez que estoy en una conferencia o en una lectura; la dejo caer en la mesa a la hora de la cena. La última vez que lo hice, uno de los escritores no contestó. Había empezado a llorar.
Denisse Almeyda, Ana Amérigo, Alberto Canto, Ángel Ferrer, Ana Grandal, Corina Hurtado, Rosina Iglesias, Joaquín López, Laura Moreda and Ana Mongelos
The first challenge we faced during the translation of this text was the gender of the word “baby”. In English, both “she” or “he” are used indistinctly when speaking about a baby, although the use of “she” does not imply necessarily that we are talking about a girl; sometimes it is used regardless of the baby’s gender. In Spanish, though, the word is masculine. However, since the word “daughter” appears in the fourth paragraph, it finally became clear that the author was talking about a girl.
The second issue we had to reflect on carefully was how to convey into Spanish the baby’s babbling and the first “words” the author hears. For instance, for the word “shing”, equivalent to “string”, we chose “cuedda” instead of “cuerda”, so as to translate the pronunciation inaccuracy of the source language into the target language.
The third matter that posed a special difficulty was the expression “like pulling down the weather”. After several unsuccessful searches and calls for help to other colleagues and native speakers, our coordinator managed to have our inquiries transmitted to Anne Enright, who was kind enough to answer back and point out that she had made up that expression with the aim of transmitting the idea of trying to do something which is very hard. This unlocked new possibilities, and we believe that our “como intentar atraer la lluvia” (like trying to attract the rain) conveys the author’s sense: the intention of trying to condense something very difficult and intense in a moment.
On the other hand, with that “your dear old Ma” at the end of the fourth paragraph, we had to deal with two matters. On the one hand, how to translate it: “mami” seemed too affectionate or too tender. Furthermore, any option we thought of for the adjective “old” sounded negative or derogatory in Spanish. That is the reason why we decided to delete it and settle for “querida mamá” (dear mom). On the other hand, we were faced with a typographic issue that was also interconnected with the beginning of the fifth paragraph: the use of a capital letter in English in “Ma, Major Mothers, Serious Mothers, Demanding Mothers”. Had we written these words in Spanish with a capital letter, even if it was in the spirit of keeping the formal aspect of the English source text, we would have made nonetheless a typographic mistake, so we quickly turned to the use of italics or quotation marks. However, we were not pleased with the result for the use of italics or quotation marks is not intended for this situation. Eventually, we decided not to use any typographic marks and instead to try to grant these categories of mothers the necessary footprint by means of the following translations: “grandes madres, madres serias, madres exigentes”.
There is a passage in this same paragraph that struck us as specially beautiful and we discussed it and reflected on it thoroughly. It is that part in which the author argues that the idea of teaching a baby to speak is like giving them the world, better than feeding them, with that precious image of her daughter looking up at her from below. We focused our debate on two main points: what term to use to translate “scraps of words” and what to do with the picture of the daughter looking at her mother. Concerning the first point, “pedacitos de palabras” (bits of words) convinced us as it is a very graphic image with a well-defined literary character. On the other hand, that “up-tilted face” posed us several difficulties in order to convey it in Spanish while keeping the image of the face; we were not happy with any of the options we thought of. In the end, by distancing ourselves from the word “cara” and focusing on the situation itself, we were able to paraphrase it in the following way: “ante la cara de mi hija, que me mira desde abajo”.
Another typographic recurring matter when translating from English into Spanish, not only with this text, is the use of the dash in English. For this matter we did not propose one solution but several, depending on the context. Thus, sometimes we used a full stop (“in there somewhere — before her”: “ahí dentro. Antes de”), a semi-colon, a comma (“of there — like pulling”: “de ahí, como intentar”), a colon (“Demanding Mothers — the kind”: “madres exigentes: el tipo”) or an ellipsis.
Regarding the title, from the two different possibilities we considered, “habla” and “lenguaje” (speech and language), we stuck to the first one because it seemed to us more convincing and we also thought it fit better with the original title.
Lastly, we have the conclusion of the text, whose ambiguity leaves us wondering why that writer began to cry. For some, the cry refers to a traumatic or troubling experience with the mother. For others, however, the cry originates from the longing for the mother to whose lap we wish to return. This double interpretation thus affected the translation: some understood “major mothers“ as bossy mothers, as if they were majors in the army. On the contrary, others understood “major mothers” as significant mothers. We believe this ambiguity is not causal and as such, we have kept an ambiguous ending as well by means of a neutral expression, “grandes madres”, which allows for a double interpretation.