Our Reading Lives

On Reading in My Native Language

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Samantha Gualito

Staff Writer

Samantha works in the digital textbook world by day and lives in the book world by night and on weekends. She blogs at Book Beat and lives in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @bookbeatblog.

I learned to speak in one language (Spanish) and learned to read in another (English). This duality has been a constant struggle in the way I communicate with certain people. Spanish in the home, English out in the world. However, when it comes to my reading, English is the dominant language. It’s not even a question when I go to pick out a new book; I always buy my books in English because I live in an English-speaking country. However, I’ve been thinking more and more about starting to read some books in Spanish.

I was born in Mexico City and brought to Chicago when I was four years old. Ever since, my Spanish has started to dwindle away, little by little. School only exacerbated this. Everyone around me was speaking English, so I had to as well. And then books happened. Book after book, word after word, and it was all in English. When college came around, guess what I majored in? Yup. English. How original.

The more books I read by Latin American and Latino/a writers, the more the splashes of Spanish in these books stir something within me that gets me thinking about my Mexican identity and my relationship with the Spanish language. I feel as though I have failed greatly in keeping my native language and I think the way to rectify that is by reading books purely in Spanish.

I may not be as fluent in Spanish as I would like, but I can still read it pretty well. Writing in Spanish is a different story, but good reading skills typically lead to good writing, right? I’m looking to gain some language skills by doing this, but either way, reading in Spanish can have a lot of perks. Why the hell not read books in another language if you can? It’s like doubling your bookworm powers.

There are a lot of options out there, after all. So many of the classics have been translated into Spanish and other languages, and the same goes for a lot of contemporary fiction. One of the books I would love to read in Spanish is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It would be amazing to compare the way the novel’s themes are portrayed in Spanish versus the English. Another book that would be a great read in Spanish is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I can just imagine Yunior’s narration in Spanish.

Reading books originally written in Spanish is the obvious option, of course. Writers put their whole being into their writing, and although translators do a great job, there is nothing like the original. I don’t mean to say that translations are subpar or anything like that, but just imagine reading the exact words Jorge Luis Borges wrote down and edited himself, or anything by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. My ultimate pick for a book in Spanish would be the great Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Oh, yes. I am still not done reading this epic tale in English, so I know that it will be my Everest in Spanish.

Even though it ends up being the same book regardless of the language, translators put a lot of effort into choosing the right words, and the right word can make a complete difference in how the story is presented and read. It won’t be easy for me to read in Spanish considering the amount of time and dedication I have put into English, but the benefits and potential is too great for me to pass up.