I’ve been thinking a good bit about reading books in other languages lately, not least because, leaving the reference section of my local library the other day, I nearly walked smack-dab into the small selection of foreign language books. Judging by the selection of both languages and titles, I’m guessing the the availability of these books is as much about the foreign language offerings of local high schools as it is about serving patrons who might feel comfortable in a language other than English.
Over the past year or so, I’ve read a number of conversations about reading in translation vs. reading the original or about the difficulties of conveying certain aspects across languages. The lack of informal vs. formal second person in English. The difficulty of maintaining rhyme scheme or meter across languages. (I can’t imagine trying to translate Shakespeare!) It seems that there could be value, when a reader understands more than one language, in reading books in those languages, rather than always in translation.
In some ways I am both amazed and envious of readers who do this with ease. Although I was fortunate to have had Spanish from fifth through twelfth grades, I have forgotten much and most certainly do not read it well. I’ve thought for a while of trying to resurrect my Spanish, at least to the place that I can read fairly comfortably. But this is something that I am afraid could take rather more time than I have to commit to it, and it has simply been easier to avoid than touch head-on, despite my best intentions (see my Siglo de Oro list). And then I ran into that Spanish shelf.
So I’m attempting La Ciudad de las Bestias by Isabel Allende. This is a book I’ve read before, in its English translation. It is a young adult book and very much an adventure story, set in the Amazon. Which is about all I remember about it!
Honestly, I’m not sure that I will read the entire thing this time around. My Spanish is very, very rusty. I can maybe read a newspaper-level story and get pretty much the gist of it, but I have forgotten so many words. I was surprised, though, when I picked it up the other night and I just started reading, too lazy to find my Spanish-English dictionary, at how much I understood–in general. I got the big picture, not the details. (I did quite unintentionally learn a new work which I think is great fun: “panqueque,” which is pronounced roughly “pahn-kay-kay.” The Spanish is just so much more fun to say than the English “pancake.”)
So I wonder: what is the best way to read in another language in which one is not fluent? In the past, usually spurred on by a school assignment (I used my high school Spanish/college Italian to great advantage in writing research papers for architectural history), I would look up every word I didn’t know, a painstaking process. But this recent read suggests this isn’t necessary for understanding. For anyone who has read much in other languages, what would you suggest (keeping in mind my aim is to improve my comprehension)? Just looking up words that seem key to meaning? Or the ones I recognize but can’t quite remember anymore? Everything?
In the meantime I’ll try to stick to one “other” language for now…a recent post at Wuthering Expectations has me itching to read Pinocchio, finally, but my copy is in Italian…