Faithful Translations

On Diglossia, Catalonia, and Universal Beings

Faithful Translations

For a few months now I've been starting to write a book. Of course I’m experiencing all sorts of blocks emerging from a fear of cowardice, ambiguity, and formlessness. My main problem, however, is that I do not know what language to write in.

It seems like an odd dilemma, and indeed a fabricated one. My friend and fellow writer Alba views it as some elaborate form of self-boycott. After all, my two languages are Catalan and Spanish, which are fairly similar to each other, and it would not be difficult, as she patiently reminds me, to translate from one to the other. I know what she’s really thinking: When one has something to say, the sentences simply pour and one does not get tangled in technical futilities.

When I lived in New York, I’d often reply to inquiries about my linguistic background by saying I was completely bilingual. I grew up speaking both languages at home — Spanish with dad, Catalan with mom. But then most people in Catalonia are bilingual, with different degrees of allegiance to one language or the other. What my cursory response conveyed was that I would not turn out to be the dignified representative of an oppressed national minority; that it was complicated, and all attempts to narrow myself down during some office break small talk would be futile. I asserted so with an anxious urgency which I did not care to analyze or engage with.

I grew up believing an unspoken certainty: Spanish = serious/literary; Catalan = intimate/homebound, what you used to argue with your brother or when texting with classmates. Intellectually, I’ve long left this dichotomy behind. I’m now familiar with the great works of my mother’s tongue, while also intimate with people who would pull out their own eyeballs before typing a single Spanish word. But I want to write something serious/literary. I know how it ought to be. I’ve set myself up for the task in a recently renovated apartment along the outskirts of my keenly bilingual hometown, Barcelona. Looking down at the house where I grew up, I try to concoct a sentence about my privileged upbringing. But the result is stiff and lifeless.

“Just write in Catalan already,” Alba says, turning impatient, a few glasses of cheap red wine deep into my linguistic conundrum.

I don’t respond, allowing this doubt to drag along as I’ve been letting it for years. At least since my early twenties. It was then, when I read a youth diary by essayist Josep Pla, that I realized it was possible to write — I mean to really write — in Catalan. Pla reported across Europe around the turn of the 20th century. The 30,000 pages of his complete works are a diligent attempt to put down everything he saw in Catalan, from the big events to the landscapes and culinary traditions of his coastal home region, l’Empordà, where he eventually retreated and led a misanthropic life. His was a voice that spoke with an absolute certainty that you instantly wanted to trust and emulate. It was not an echo of the greater, more transcendental things you could expect from major languages, but a center in and of itself.

Like many before me, I went through a trite and entirely negligible phase of imitating Pla’s style in half-written word docs and ephemeral WordPress sites. After that, written Catalan stayed with me as an odd, but as yet untapped option.

Until Pla, my literary world had been exclusively Spanish. Throughout adolescence, my tutor was always my mom’s Cuban husband, who does not believe Catalonia should be allowed to self-govern and states that the world would be better off if minority languages disappeared altogether. My mom, however, speaks Catalan and has a row of local surnames that attest to an ancient and untainted Catalan lineage. Her own mother was a loyal voter of CiU, the conservative Catalan nationalists-turned-secessionists that ruled the region for 28 years. But in October of 2017, when it was conceivable that Catalonia’s push for independence could succeed, and that Catalonia would secede from Spain, she hung a massive Spanish flag in her entrance hall.

Writing “my mom” and “my mom’s husband” evokes a fierce childish loyalty. Years ago, I was helplessly spiralling during a bad LSD trip at a rural rave, and it was the thought that I would eventually go have lunch with them that saved me. Sunday gatherings in their garden were among the things I missed most while living abroad. During one of those lunches last summer I mentioned that someone had lent me a Catalan translation of the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. This was met with startled incredulity that I would even consider reading great literature in a minor language.

These casual conversations fall very far from a parallel world that I’ve come to inhabit. This world is the result of my years spent in the regional, all-Catalan schooling system, and of decades of building bonds with people who’d consider the tone of my Sunday family gatherings outright fascistic. People in this world worry about the fact that Catalan, a stateless language, is receding, eaten up by its strongest counterpart, and that it has to rely on government-funded programming while becoming the object of dreadful Twitter bickering. In this world I often feel like a guest or a curious onlooker. At times this sensation comes into sharp focus, like when my friend Lluís says that one can only be truly free if they think and express themselves in Catalan, that Spanish is for the mentally colonized. I then recognize the inklings of an old dissociation that always hovers like nausea, and a fear it will eventually pervade.

My diglossic problem isn’t exclusively a writing conundrum. It has more to do with an inner tension that has been within me for so long it is hard for me to fully grasp its origins. A couple of years ago I tried to find them by digging into the past. I convinced my mother to drive with me to Calonge de Segarra, the village of 191 inhabitants in central Catalonia where her father came from. She’d lost contact with that branch of the family before I was born, due to an ugly fight that made my grandfather and his brothers split ways for good. We had coffee with some distant cousins whose main door was covered by a massive estelada, a pro-independence flag, and whose dog was called Dui, the Catalan acronym for Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

The gathering was short, civil, and good-humored. We all laughed over an old family anecdote: When my mom introduced my family to my dad, this Spanish-speaking Galician who was then her fiancé, her uncles couldn’t hide their disappointment that she had picked up a Castilian.

While driving back to Barcelona from Calonge, I played “what if..?” with myself: What if I had grown up in that village, instead of a shielded suburb right outside the city? I typically dislike this sort of thinking because it dilutes the fantasy that I am a universal being who floats over the tides of history, reaching their conclusions in a purely rational, Cartesian manner.

When I was 20 I traveled solo across the Balkans. I talked to people here and there, took thoughtful notes, made sure I understood everyone's perspective — from the EU-hating Serbian to the traumatized Bosnian with a horrid story about the siege. I saw my role then as the cool, detached, ever-understanding observer. During the height of Catalonia’s secession push in 2017, I saw the same look of patronizing sympathy I must have worn during my time in the Balkans every time a New Yorker asked me how I felt about "the things going on at home". The answer was that I felt a hot, undirected rage, and a deep sorrow, and I did not understand how this could have been hiding within my body all along.

My family's side, represented and protected by the Spanish state, won. Had they a vengeful spirit, my relatives would now be reeling over the sad farce that has become of the pro-independence Catalan government, at the instantly forgettable and hapless politicians that have come to run the show. They do not laugh, however, because they don't feel as threatened anymore, and have other things to worry about. These events and sensations do indeed pass by alarmingly fast. When I remember my grieving self from three years ago, it is with anthropological interest — as if it was not me, but a different person altogether.

Home was a usual talking point with my Jamaican friend in New York. It was a bewildering, tender spot for the two of us. As with many of my expat friends living in the US, the question of when, how and whether we’d return home took us on circular discussions. I spelled out the nuances of Catalonian politics and she introduced me to the precepts of Jamaican society, which, by the way, is impossible to comprehend. We joked that the only reliable home we knew was the Thesaurus dictionary’s website.

After two years of subsidized life as a graduate student, I had finally settled into an uncanny 9-to-5 existence with a media job in Midtown. Then came March of 2020. Shortly before the pandemic hit New York, I booked an overnight flight to Barcelona and left the city carrying only a light suitcase. My last view of Life Abroad was an Uber speeding away from the Newark airport with my US phone forgotten on the back seat. I accepted this loss with an unhinged, yet zen tranquility. I couldn’t have known it then, but I would never need to use that phone again.

Whenever asked about my hurried departure, I explain that I didn’t want to quarantine in a sunless den in Crown Heights. The truth was somewhat more shameful. As lockdowns began in Europe, I was possessed by a panicked certainty that I’d never be able to go home again. The dread was so intense it was physically paralyzing. Living abroad had always been just a long and cowardly detour from facing the facts of real life — a break from my ever-hovering dissociation.

Being back in Barcelona felt like filling up a hole I’d inadvertently dug. I went on long walks to the tip of Barceloneta’s beach and up the hill of Collserola. Even with the impending, inevitable heartbreak — knowing that my infatuation would eventually fade — it felt like falling in love. My sense of wonder felt unworthy of a local. It was certainly unmatched by those who stayed, witnessing the steady degradation of their political life.

I’ve resisted the notion that writing in Catalan is inextricably tied to the politics of secession, that one cannot do so without making a political statement. Yet, as I started to sound out Barcelona's editorial landscape, the stakes of my language choice became clear. The city is the long-established epicenter of Spanish-language publishing — which includes not only Spain but the whole of Latin America; the gateway to an odd total of 469 million speakers. Catalan publishers, while cohabitating the same town, might as well live in a different galaxy. My distinct, yet plausibly myopic impression was that these two editorial worlds rarely meet, and that choosing one would be to inexorably renounce the other.

Almost four years have passed since the failed attempt at secession. The movement’s political leaders rendered themselves to be little more than empty shells, unwilling to take their claim of the last consequences. The Process, a Kafkaesque term used to describe the path towards independence, had become an end in itself — a self-referential universe of trademark slogans, book clubs, and political clout. Like running on a treadmill, The Process only appeared to move forward because it was spinning its gears, but always stayed in place.

During the last Catalan election in February, the “indepe” (pro-independence) ticket won 51% of the vote, their biggest share so far. That said, no one really expects independence to happen any time soon. We’ve all come to live in this dissociated reality. For a few of my relatives, the indepe government remains an ever-impending threat. Recently I was discussing politics with my Cuban step dad, who was deep-frying plantains in their broad suburban kitchen, when he sighed: “They have won, Anna. There is nothing we can do but surrender.” But many among the indepe’s own voters view their government as a harmless charade, powerless against the status quo. It all reminds me of a phenomenon that a Soviet professor called ‘hypernormalisation’ — the shared delusion that a particular state of affairs is working just fine, and that the words used in the public arena still guard some relationship with their meaning.

These days I’m having fun closing up circles. The other day I asked my mom what would happen if I brought home an indepe boyfriend, just like she brought a Castilian to her ancestor’s village. She replied she’d rather have a jihadi as a son-in-law. Another night I ended up at a writer’s apartment after a boozy summer feast, and I noticed the complete works of Pla on his bookshelf. “I truly hate these,” the writer said contemptuously, and proceeded to throw the books on the floor. The collection had been a present from his 30th birthday and for fifteen years he’d let them gather dust. As we drank gin tonics on his terrace, he described Pla as a negligible peasant from l’Empordà without a clue about life. Shortly thereafter, I was in a cab with his 42 volumes gathered in garbage bags.

Recently I moved into another apartment, where I turned 30 and have begun to finally write my book. I placed the complete works of Pla along my top bookshelf. They resemble little bibles, neat and thin-paged in their solemn red carcasses. I haven’t picked up any of them as of yet, but they are playing their part.

Once I heard a writer, I think it was Teju Cole, say that writing is itself a form of translation. Even an original work is only an approximation of the raw source material in the writer’s mind. Lately I've held on to the obsession that one must explain things exactly as they are, which my friend Lluís, the free-thinking Catalan, rightfully makes fun of.

The truth is that I would much rather publish a Spanish book — a literary book, read and distributed swiftly across old imperial domains. A victorious, unapologetic book that spoke to its readers with the same unrushed authority in which Bernhard, Borges and Bulgakov first spoke to me. This is why I find it perplexing that it is only when I write in Catalan that words emerge in outbursts, unfiltered and unaware, as if straight from the source, and read as the most faithful translation of whatever I hold within.

Perhaps I am being sentimental. It is possible that this is only a fleeting attachment, a yearning for home after years of aimless wandering. I have yet to see where all of this will lead me. After all, the language that has allowed me the mental freedom to unfold these layers, in a foreign magazine, run by foreign editors who will read me with analytical detachment, is English.

Anna Pazos

is a writer and filmmaker from Barcelona. Besides freelance writing, she's an on-and-off producer for the BBC and a fringe podcaster in Catalan. After living in New York, Jerusalem, Greece, and a sailing boat she's now based in her hometown and expects to never leave it again.

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