On Borrowed Words

Ally Fulton ’16 explores what it means to speak illegitimately, and how this expands our view of authenticity in writing.


I spent the first half of my October break in Chicago—Hyde Park specifically, the neighborhood home to the University of Chicago. It was here that I bought a book at my favorite used bookstore, Powell’s Books, titled On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language by Ilan Stavans. Naturally, I picked it up as soon as my eyes rested on the title; it sounded exactly like something that would further inform the midterm project I composed for this class on translingualism and the multiplicity of voice. I bought it, of course, and it has sat on my bookshelf since, patiently waiting to be read. So, when this assignment presented itself, I jumped on the opportunity to read and discuss its contents.

I assure you that, given the time, I could connect almost every sentence of this book to some facet of translingualism that we’ve discussed in the Teaching and Tutoring Writing course, but I wish to focus the remainder of this discussion on Stavans’ process and struggles with bringing his own memoir into creation, and how this ties to Nancy Grimm’s portrayal of language as a social practice that engages in the negotiation of power relations.

On the whole, Stavans paints a beautiful portrait of his life growing up in a sequestered Jewish community in Mexico; his troubled and complex relationship to his brother who struggled to find his place in the world; his move to New York City in his early 20s; his travels around the world; and finally the paths that led him to become a professor of Latin American and Latino cultures at Amherst College and to write this memoir. Because of his background and subsequent travels, Stavans is now an exceptional polyglot: one who speaks four, yes four, languages: Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. While it took him years to find a balance between each of these four parts of himself he mentions, “as time went by, I began to see myself not as a speaker of Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, and English, but as their conduit.” So, though his memoir is written primarily in English, Stavans’ writing is riddled with Spanish phrases and sentences, as well as to a lesser extent, Yiddish and Hebrew passages, that often sit in their original form, with no translation provided.

Midway through this work, Stavans acknowledges that writing his memoir in English “will, in and of itself, be a form of treason.” He goes on to address the necessary inclusion of his other languages,

For shouldn’t it be written in at least three if not four languages (Yiddish, Spanish, Hebrew, and English), the four tongues in which—and through which—I’ve experienced life? But no publisher in his right mind would endorse such an endeavor. It is perhaps an unrealistic dream, and ridiculous, too. My aim, nonetheless, is to convey not my nationality but my transnationality. To succeed, the original ought to read as if written already in translation—a translation without an original….An illegitimate language is exactly what I seek.

I love this idea—one of an illegitimate language that reads as a translation lacking an original. It’s unsettling; we seem to always strive to find the origin, the root of a work, and refer to it as the authentic text. So what happens when we are given a translated work that lacks its original copy? Is it automatically rendered inauthentic? Stavans’ work expertly uses its four moving parts, four languages that seek to defy any movement back to an original, and this seems to be the most authentic form of expression for him as a writer, who grew up viewing the world through a four-colored kaleidoscope of linguistic perspectives. Every time he moves in and out of these languages, he forces us to question precisely which is, really, the original. If we choose Spanish, well then, a majority of the book must be converted from English to Spanish, and some from Yiddish and Hebrew to Spanish. And, as Stavans suggests throughout, there is an inherent loss to each of these processes of translation— a Yiddish or Hebrew prayer loses all substance in English, so in his memoir it remains in its unaltered form on the page. And so, Stavans’ manages to subtly and eloquently evade these hurdles by writing, as he says, illegitimately, or in other words, writing from the diverse perspectives that accompany four very different and distinct languages.

But, how do each of these languages function? And what is it about each one specifically that is necessary for Stavans’ to use to craft his memoir? Toward the end of the novel, he pulls a funky trick where he zooms out and has us hovering above his conversation with a friend about why he wrote the memoir that we are in the middle of reading. Listening in from this vantage point, we hear why Stavans’ remains such a proponent for an illegitimate language:

‘A language is a set of spectacles through which the universe is seen afresh: Yiddish is warm, delectable, onomatopoeic; Spanish is romantic, perhaps a bit loose; Hebrew is rough, guttural; English is precise, almost mathematical—the tongue I prefer today, the one I feel happiest in…No, perhaps spectacles are the wrong metaphor.’ I take another breath. ‘I should try to explain what it’s like to switch languages by invoking the many personalities of an actor, each nurtured by different obsessions. The person remains the same, but the persona—in Greek, ‘mask carrier’—varies. Changing language is like imposing another role on oneself, like being someone else temporarily. My English-language persona is the one that superimposes itself on all previous others. In it are the seeds of Yiddish and Hebrew, but mostly Spanish.’

Languages allow us to occupy different roles, to be others parts of ourselves temporarily. But, I think the most important thing that Stavans suggests here is that while one language can dominate, or be used most frequently (in this case English), that does not mean that the other languages are to be disregarded entirely. They are still there, pulsing inside and between words, hiding under breaths, somehow providing the brick and mortar that allows Stavans to move so fluidly and comfortably now in English. Yiddish, Hebrew, and Spanish all had a part in getting him to this point.

So, in conclusion, I turn to Nancy Grimm, where she, in conjunction with Stavans, can perhaps help us explain the potentiality of translingualism and, in Stavans’ terms, transnationality, to incorporate this idea of an “illegitimate language” within the bounds of Writing Associate programs in higher education. As he suggests in his earlier quote, composing a written work equally in four different languages is relatively ludicrous, and will fail to accomplish much. Yet, there is something powerful about combining these languages in a way that resists coming across as merely a translation that has a more precious authentic copy as its original. Instead, the translingual text becomes the most authentic form, allowing the author (in this case, Stavans) to enter a space where even though English is now his predominant language, words, phrases, and paragraphs in other languages can enter into this space, becoming conduits for these various backgrounds, authenticating four different ways of seeing the world. In the context of Grimm, it seems that these multifarious ways of seeing are precisely what can lead us to engage more productively in challenging the current power relations in academia, as they have the power to render marginalized voices authentic. Stavans’ struggle throughout his memoir, and his meta-thought process in the conclusion, serve to provide a sort of path, a way to navigate this paradoxical state where using multiple tongues to establish an illegitimate language is a means of pressuring or undermining the legitimacy and dominating authenticity of the Standard American English that permeates academic discourse.


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