Mother’s Tongue

By JENNIFER SHYUE

 

I remember I was talking to a colleague in the break area of a 2017 translation conference when a tall, snowy-haired man came up to us. (I say “remember,” but my memory is hazy. We are told to forget these sorts of incidents.) The interaction went something like this: The man walked toward us and, without preamble, planted himself before me to ask if I knew a noted translator from Japanese. The translator is Asian-American, like me. (Or—maybe there was a preamble; maybe he asked us our names first.) I felt my smile gelatinize on my face. No, I said. I had never met that translator.

Then he asked me what I translated from. Or actually, what I think happened was—perhaps suspecting that I might again foil his expectations, he stepped back and looked at my name tag to find out for himself: “Jennifer Shyue / University of Iowa / Spanish.” Then he said “Oh,” or maybe he reared back a little, or maybe he smiled a close-lipped smile that prompted me to glance at his name tag, which indicated that he was affiliated with a small college. “I translate from Spanish,” he said, with a sort of proprietary air. Maybe he added “too.”

(I still remember who was standing next to me when this encounter took place. I wonder if she remembers me next to her, too? I remember the carpeted reception space, how it opened onto a wide four-elevator bank whose back wall was a mirror. My memory of the encounter itself, however, has been overlaid by ^, by writing, reading, rereading the paragraphs above; it has been dipped in resin and fixed to the page. When you touch the wings of a living member of Papilionoidea, it loses some of its protective scales. Cumulatively, those fingertip brushes strip it of flight.)

Afterward, I thought a lot about a panel that took place at the same conference, titled “Kitchen Table Translation” after the 2017 Aster(ix) anthology featuring diasporic translators. Among other things, the conversation was about what I call “hyphenated” translators, which is something I am. (I was sadly not at the panel itself, but this is what a friend who was there told me.) “Hyphenated American”—this is a label I claim proudly. To be clear, though, I’m only a hyphenated translator because we still hold in our heads an implicit default for what practitioners of our art look like. It’s as panel organizer and anthology editor Madhu Kaza said in an interview with The Rumpus: “For a long time I thought of translators as those white Americans who grow up monolingual and who take a random German or Japanese class in college, say, or read Nouveaux Romans or Latin American boom fiction and get inspired, and pursue the language and years later become translators.” Besides the model Kaza describes, the other conventional model for the American translator is that of a person who grew up with a non-English language and now translates from their mother—or perhaps more precisely—mother’s tongue.

In some ways, I embody both models. I started taking Spanish classes at age 11 and was “inspired”—was in fact left awestruck—when I first encountered Latin American boom fiction in high school. And I grew up with a non-English language as a mother’s tongue and home language. But I don’t fit into the first model because I’m not white. And I don’t fit into the second model because I don’t translate from my mother’s tongue.

My hyphen often curls into a question mark for people when they first learn I translate from Spanish. I see it in the way they pause for just a millisecond before saying, “Oh, interesting!” The questions I then start pondering include: To whom should a given language belong? Why was that man who intruded into my conversation so possessive of Spanish? Why did he act like Spanish belonged to him more than it belonged to me? Spanish belongs to neither of us. And yet.

I used to tell people that even though I was born in the U.S., my first language was Mandarin. How could it be anything else, when that was my mother’s tongue? Once, I thought to confirm this fact with my mother. She said, the expressive brows I inherited perplexed: “No, your first language was English.” Yesterday, I asked my mother the question again, at a slant: What was my first word? Her brow bunched. “I don’t remember,” she said apologetically. “Probably ‘ma ma’?” “What language is that?” I asked. She smiled.

While I was in my MFA program, my mother would occasionally forget what exactly I was studying. Writing? Literature? Literary translation, I would tell her. “You should talk to my co-worker’s daughter who’s starting law school,” my mother once said. “Law school,” she repeated suggestively. Then: “You could talk about Harry Potter. She also loves Harry Potter.” This made me remember summer 2005, when my mother welcomed me back from camp with the series’ newly released sixth installment. I remembered tearing gleefully into the book, and knew she wouldn’t understand if I told her it’s been years and years since I touched that book she’d placed so lovingly in my hands.

My mother also often can’t remember what my major was in college. Of “comparative literature,” the only word that reliably stays with her is “literature.” It used to annoy me, until I realized that English words slip from her the way Mandarin words slip from me. I remember, as a child, playing with Barbies at my cousins’ house in Kaohsiung. We gave the Barbies two sets of names. My contributions were Minerva and Melissa. My cousins’ contributions, in Mandarin, I can’t remember. In fact, even in the moment I had trouble keeping the Barbies’ Mandarin names on my tongue. My cousins had to work to shape their mouths around Mǐ-nér-vā (which they pronounced that way, with those tones), and I thought that was strange because saying the name was so easy for me. But then I understood that in this, at least, we were equal: Their language was not mine, not wholly; and mine was not theirs.

Sometime after I came back from my pre-college gap year in the Sacred Valley of Peru, my mother participated in an intensive daylong Spanish class at one of the local city colleges. She didn’t tell me she was planning to do it; she just did it. When she came back that day, she told me sheepishly that the only words she’d retained were “hola” and “amigo.” We never spoke about that class again.

Sometimes, when I complete my mother’s sentences, she smiles and says, 「真有默契!」 To have “mòqì” means something like “to be on the same page,” “to be deeply, wordlessly connected.” A few times, my mother has said, “I bet you were Latin American, not Chinese, in a past life.” Why? I asked her once. “Well, you like Spanish so much, and you’re always leaving to go there,” she replied. I didn’t have the words, in English or in Mandarin, to explain why this bothered me.

I suppose I could have said, “Why couldn’t I just have been me?” But I can already see the wistful smile that would’ve been her response, the way she would’ve murmured, “Ah, so little mòqì.”

In 2019, I spent a month in Havana doing research for my MFA thesis. On my second-to-last day, I visited the cementerio chino, which is a few blocks away from Havana’s sprawling main cemetery, the Cementerio Colón. The previous time I was in Havana, I’d found the resting place of a woman with my surname in the very back of the Chinese cemetery. I returned to the cemetery with the goal of re-finding and photographing her resting site. I wanted evidence of our shared surname, etched so haltingly into stone by a hand that was clearly unaccustomed to shaping Chinese characters. I wanted to show my mother. As proof.

Julia Wong Kcomt, the Chinese-Peruvian writer whose poetry and fiction I’ve been translating for the past three years, was born into the same generation as my mother, but their lives could not be further apart. For one, Julia has lived all over the world—in Germany, Macau, Hong Kong, Argentina, Mexico, Portugal—in a way that I admire and am tempted to emulate. My mother has only ever lived in Taiwan and the U.S. Julia speaks Spanish, English, German, and Portuguese. My mother speaks just—“just”—English and two-and-a-half dialects of Chinese. Julia was born into hyphenation the same way I was, and, like me, seems acutely aware of that fact. (Hyphenation leaves its fingerprints all over her poetry and prose, sometimes faintly, sometimes forcefully.) My mother chose hyphenation, or fell into it, and still lives mostly on one side of the hyphen, seems to remember it only when we’re in Taiwan, and she reaches for some word and can only come up with a fistful of English.

And yet I can’t help but trace similarities between the two of them. Like my mother, Julia is mother to one daughter. Like my mother, she has lost her father and recently lost her mother—though my mother hasn’t yet lost her mother physically, it feels like we’re on the cusp. And maybe the fact that my grandmother no longer recognizes my mother or me is a similar kind of loss, though more muted. In my limited Spanish-for-condolences (how does one say “I’m sorry for your loss”? I’d never before needed to say it in Spanish), I tried to express some of this to Julia. She had mentioned in the email I was responding to that her mother had just died, and she was feeling unmoored. (What I didn’t want to say, because it felt cheap, but should’ve said because it was true: I can’t even imagine. Or rather, trying to imagine makes the skin over my orbital bones start to buzz. So I can’t.)

In my daydreams about what would happen after I graduated from my program, I saw myself living in Lima for a year and working closely with Julia to coax her work into English. I also saw my mother coming to visit me. She would want to meet Julia, and maybe Julia would want to meet her, too. They would sit at a table, facing each other, and make their way through a conversation. Maybe I would sit between them, translating. I wondered if my mother would start to understand, then, what I’d chosen for myself when I decided to move from New York to Iowa for a degree neither of us had known existed. Maybe she would, if she could see all of our mother and mothers’ tongues nestled together in Julia’s mouth, a mouth in a face that some might mistake for hers, but is not mine. Look, mamá, I would say (in that way, with that tone). Look, it’s not just me. Here we are sitting together, even though we were born to different mothers and different mother tongues in different motherlands. Isn’t it funny how natural this all feels?

After I finished the MFA, I went to Lima on a Fulbright fellowship, met Julia in person for the first time, and hosted my mother’s first visit to Peru. I left Peru on a charter plane from an air force base two months earlier than planned, in the middle of a pandemic newly named. Here are the facts: When my mother visited, Julia was not in Lima. She had recently moved to Portugal, to Almada, the Lisbon-extension city across the River Tagus from Lisbon proper. Lisbon: another city we share, maybe, I because of the memories sowed during a brief undergraduate summer spent living and interning in the neighborhood of Rato, she in the more indelible ways mapped in her book of prose poems Lectura de manos en Lisboa (Palm Reading in Lisbon). A few months after Julia moved to Lisbon, circumstances beyond her control brought her back to Lima, and then circumstances beyond all of our control kept her there. Now, I am back in Brooklyn. Lima was kind to me but never belonged to me. I am not sure what city Julia would say belongs to her, or what city she belongs to.

When my mother visited Lima, because Julia was not there, the three of us did not sit at a table and stare into each other’s mouths. Instead, I took my mother to different restaurants, and was reminded of the last time she and I had been together in an unfamiliar place, in the summer of 2018. Fresh off my reading of Julia’s novels Doble felicidad (Double Happiness) and Mongolia, both of which take place in part in Macau, I had convinced my mother to tack on a weekend in Macau and Hong Kong to our trip to visit family in Taiwan. Then, as was true when I first started writing this essay, I had yet to meet Julia. We had just started corresponding over email.

In Macau, I marveled at Senado Square’s black-and-white wave tiles, a pattern I remembered seeing in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro, and dragged my mother to unknown corners—“Let’s just keep walking and see where it takes us.” I kept my ears wistfully pricked for the Portuguese that was on all the street signs, but heard only half-understood Cantonese. We argued about whether it was more polite to use Mandarin or English when interacting with vendors, an argument that later continued across the water in Hong Kong. On our last day, we were denied entrance to a church because I was wearing shorts, and I remember feeling an American imperiousness rise in my throat—a reflex followed quickly by acid shame.

At one point, we stopped to get bubble tea at a small storefront. Thank you, I said one too many times. The proprietor cracked a grin and said, “Are you Taiwanese?” My mother laughed at me. “You gave yourself away,” she said later. 「謝謝謝謝謝謝。」 I answered the proprietor’s question with an affirmative “Hèh.” (Is there proper pinyin for that? I can’t pin down the right vowel—perhaps because the word is a borrowing from Taiwanese, as I only recently learned.) Saying yes was simpler than explaining where I was actually born, or trying to speak collectively for both my mother and me.

(Wait—before ^ overwrites my real memory, I will confess that my mother did not actually stack the words of my apparently very Taiwanese effusion of gratitude like that. That kind of mouth-quirked mimicry, the kind that heightens absurdity—that is my province, not my mother’s. But just now, as I clacked away, I couldn’t resist stacking those謝 so as to listen to their susurrus in my mother’s voice. In her novella Bocetos para un cuadro de familia/“Sketches for a family portrait,” Julia writes in narrator María Inés’s voice: “Los chinos tienen una extraña manía de duplicar todo lo bueno para mejorar los augurios. Doble felicidad, eso era lo que yo traía incorporado.” I translate: “The Chinese have a strange obsession with doubling everything good, as a positive omen. Double happiness, that’s what I embodied.” Double, double-double, sextuple the 謝. What I did; what I do.)

Sometime in these past few pandemic-colored months, I decided to stop translating “mamá” as “mom.” A little while ago, as we video chatted, Julia asked about that choice in a translation I was reviewing with her. “Why did you leave it as ‘mamá’?” she asked—whether in English or Spanish, I can’t remember; our conversations, especially about my translations of her work, often slip between both languages. “Because… it’s such an intimate word,” I said—in Spanish, I remember; I remember pausing more than I would have in English as I searched for the right words. “Mamá, papá, these are the first words you learn. They’re close to the heart.” (In Spanish, I said “pegadas al corázon,” which strikes me as less cloying. “Stuck to the heart” would be a more literal translation. “Pegar”: to hit or strike; also to paste, stick, attach. In Mandarin, the adjective my mother uses to describe good children who don’t stray too far from their parents: 「貼心」, the characters individually meaning “paste, stick” and “heart.”)

Julia smiled and said, “I’m going to put what you said in my next book.” Halfway through the sentence, her voice went metallic as my internet connection wheezed. For a second, her face hung, a motionless blur. We were discussing a text for an online bilingual reading. For the reading itself, I borrowed my mother’s work perch and asked her to refrain from making internet calls for two hours, so I could stay connected to mine. I didn’t invite her to listen in, my logic being that she’d ask if she was interested. “It’s for a reading,” I said as I settled into her chair. “OK,” she said genially, and retired to her room.

What I didn’t say to Julia, because there was so much to say about other matters: And anyway, is “mamá” always “mom” in American English? “Mom” is never what I called my mother in the American English I use. I call her “ma,” or I call her「媽咪」/“mommy”/ “mami” (if you witness me calling to her, you are free to choose the language in which you hear what I say).

Who does American English belong to? Maybe it belongs to none of us, because none of us could possibly stuff it all, with all its ever-expanding edges, into our mouths. Maybe it belongs to all of us who roll it, let it slip, buck it off our tongues. What I do know: My mother was the first person I belonged to as I emerged, tethered and squalling, from her caesarean-serrated womb. The first words I would have heard formed by my mother’s tongue—what language was that? Maybe her words were in no language; maybe they were a cry unconveyable by proper pinyin or Latinate orthography. Something else I know: This tongue, the one rooted in my mouth, now rising to bump gently against my soft palate, now descending into the saliva pooled shallow behind my lower incisors, now palpating the sanded enamel that caps the bottoms of my slightly overbitten front teeth—this tongue, it belongs to me.

 

Jennifer Shyue is a translator focusing on contemporary Cuban and Asian-Peruvian writers. Her work has been supported by grants from Fulbright, Princeton University, and the University of Iowa and has appeared in 91st Meridian, The Offing, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere. Her translation of Julia Wong Kcomt’s Bi-rey-nato is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse’s Señal chapbook series. She can be found on the web at shyue.co.

Mother’s Tongue

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