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World Book Day celebrates both authors and readers, and one Mexican Jewish author and scholar has an idea to mark the April 23 literary love fest. He suggests reading a classic from another culture and then rewriting parts of it in Spanglish — like he's recently done himself.
"The majority of readers access classics in another language other than the original," said Ilan Stavans, who has just rewritten and published "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in Spanglish as "Alicia’s Adventuras en Wonderlandia." "I want Latin culture, like other advanced cultures, to have foreign classics translated into a familiar voice."
That voice, for Stavans, is Spanglish, the hybrid of Spanish and English that is familiar to many who regularly go from one language to the next, sometimes within the same sentence.
“El rabbit-hoyo fue straight on como un tunel por some way," Stavans writes at the moment when Alice falls through the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
This is the third classic that Stavans has translated into Spanglish, after “Don Quixote of La Mancha” and “El Little Príncipe.” He said the experience of translating these works helped him understand the mechanics of identity in language and literature.
“Translation is a form of appropriation,” the author, a professor at Amherst College, said. “You have to create nuances and adapt a story culturally so that it holds true for readers.”
Growing up in Mexico, Stavans first read Lewis Carroll’s classic in Spanish. But years later, after migrating to the U.S. in 1985, he began thinking about Alice as a pathway to his own Latin American identity and the way language and stories can represent the mixed experiences of different readers.
“Alicia is an extraordinarily compelling metaphor for Latin Americans entering an entirely different world in the United States and the pressure they face through assimilation,” Stavans said. “Alicia enters another world and then has to figure out how to live in that world, which is exactly what immigrants do.”
The 'possibilities of Spanglish'
“Spanish was the language of the past for me, English the language of my future,” he wrote in 2003. “It was only when I was already comfortable in both Spanish and English … that I suddenly detected the possibilities of Spanglish.”
In the case of “Alicia’s Adventuras en Wonderlandia,” Stavans said the Spanglish translation can help readers see that at its core this children’s classic is the story of multiple cultures coming together and making a connection.
Stavans has also found another way to approach the children’s classic from a Latino "mirada," which means "gaze" or "perspective." This coincided with his desire to explain Latin American literature and magical realism as a genre.
“In reading Alicia, I started to find a way to explain to myself how magical realism works in the stories of Gabriel García Márquez,” he said. “For me, Macondo in ‘One Hundred of Years of Solitude’ is a land of maravillas, or wonderland, a magical coastal town on the Caribbean side of Colombia where you can decode the history and dreams of Latin America.”
Literacy experts say books are vital in helping readers make important connections with culture and identity. But a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found 27 percent of U.S. adults said they had not read a book, in whole or in part, in 12 months. The figure was the same (27 percent) for U.S.-born Latinos, but higher (56 percent) among foreign-born Hispanics.
Pew also found that adults holding a bachelor’s or advanced degree were more likely to read than those who only had a high school education, and adults earning over $75,000 per year were more likely to read than those earning less than $30,000 annually.
Similarly, Stavans described in his book “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” how education and wealth could undermine and empower Spanish-speaking and English-speaking identities. But fluency in both languages can also help Latinos understand how their origin and American cultures have fused together to create Spanglish.
By taking an activist approach to reading and translating, Stavans hopes Latino readers can appropriate different stories to learn how to tell their own “en Spanglish.”