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.
The excerpt “Speech”, from Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, delves into the process of learning to speak, and Enright’s prose reflects this very process in key ways through its form, mainly its syntax and diction. In particular, the text incorporates certain poetic devices like rhymes and uses several syntactic licenses to evoke both the mother’s and the baby’s use of language.
In my translation, it was this sense of playfulness as well as the ludic tone within the prose itself that I chose to prioritize over a more literal rendition of the text, hopefully accounting for the cultural differences found in the two languages. From my first cursory glance at the excerpt, I knew the first paragraph would pose the most challenges, mainly because of its sense of musicality. Enright’s word choice reflects the subject being discussed, as she notably favors repeated sentence structures and monosyllabic words, most of them simple and concrete, to evoke the baby’s first attempts at speech. The words that the baby says are chosen not only for their semantic meaning but also because of their length and sound; I struggled with how to best carry this into Spanish, which to begin with, is not prone to monosyllables.
The first pair of words in inverted commas— “clap” and “up” — half rhyme, while the second pair “stairs” and “string” create a clear alliteration, meaning these words are linked more in the way they sound than their meaning. For my translation, I inverted these poetic devices by keeping the direct translations of the first pair—now “aplauso” and “arriba”, both of which have the same number of syllables and the starting sound /a/—, and creating a consonant rhyme for the second pair with the words “sillón” and “cordón”, where I switched “stairs” for “couch”, another object commonly encountered within households. Another seemingly small choice that carried greater implications was how to show the baby’s “incorrect” pronunciation of the last word, where I ultimately elided the harder /k/ and /ɾ/ sounds, and left the vowels /ð/ and /n/ sounds since they are easier sounds for small children to pronounce. The baby’s pronunciation of this word also implies that she cannot yet fully pronounce these words, which is why I felt it was not inappropriate to include “arriba” in my translation, despite the fact the Spanish language’s trilled R is notably hard to enunciate. In this first paragraph, I opted for shorter and simpler words, for instance using the verb “oír” rather than the longer “escuchar”, since I found that the former worked to evoke the sounds of a cooing baby and helped preserve the musicality of the original. I also favored words like “cachito”—a diminutive— and “coche” which, aside from creating an assonance, are more frequently used in most of Mexico and thus help convey the tender, informally familiar tone.
The following paragraphs take a stark turn as Enright begins using more complex language and syntactic structures. I tried to stay as faithful as possible, but some of Enright’s more marked turns of phrase such as in the sentence “With three or four syllables, in all their variations, we can say, the two of us, all that we need, for now, to say” lose some of their impact, since Spanish has a much less rigid approach to syntax and cannot rely on the same economy of syllables that English has. Thus, the parenthetical “for now” does not interrupt the sentence with quite the same urgency in Spanish. As to cultural matters, I had to make a few more choices to best adapt the text. Spanish is well-known for having two forms of the verb “to love”, namely “querer” and “amar”, the latter of which is considered more intense and at times is often used for romantic and familial ties. I opted for the latter due to the themes of the book as well as to avoid the connotation of wanting that the verb “querer” has. I meant to maintain the lightness implied by “float across” by using the word “sobremesa” which typically conveys the light talk people have literally over the table, after a meal has ended. Enright’s metaphor of “pulling down the weather” proved challenging to translate, since the more direct translation of “demoler el clima” — literally “to demolish the weather” — appeared contrived and failed to punctuate the whole paragraph.
Ultimately, I settled for a closer translation, of “making the weather descend” as this afforded a clearer image, emphasizing the impossibility of the task, while remaining linked to the previous metaphor of sentences stuck inside the baby. Similarly, the term “Major Mother” also posed an interpretative conundrum, as it can be taken both as a military rank and the sense of importance through the adjective that Enright is trying to evoke within the list. The most direct translation to Spanish “mayor” can be taken to mean important, but its most common, immediate meaning is “older”, a connotation nowhere in the original text. For that reason, I ultimately chose the adjetive “supreme” (“supremas”) as it intensifies the very concept of mother, in a similar vein to the source text.