Posted By Alex Giardino / April, 11, 2013 / 0 comments

When I moved to Mexico City in 1996, I couldn’t speak or understand Spanish. I spent most of my earliest days there holed up in my apartment wrestling with English, trying to write my first novel.

A few months after my arrival to that insanely complex and colorful city, I met a Chilean painter and his filmmaker friend in a chance encounter in a café. Both of them spoke no English, except expletives, which they used like sailors. They invited me to move in with them since they had a spare room. A preposterous situation, I admit. (Oh, by the way, both Chileans were named Cristian. I am not kidding. To distinguish them, we called the wild-haired one “cabeza,” or “head.” Man, I miss those guys…)

In order to join them in the simplest daily activities of my new, and much more boisterous, household, like cooking and eating together, I had to start learning Spanish, finally. It was such a sloppy, unacademic undertaking. I learned Chilean expressions alongside Mexican ones. My vocabulary was a jumble of words unique to both countries (try buying produce in a Mexican market with Chileans!). All that is to say nothing of my “accent,” which the Chileans and Mexicans corrected, endlessly and differently.

Sometime in those hazy, frustrating days of trying to learn a new language, while still writing all day in English, I discovered two CDs that belonged to the painter Cristian. Those CDs were solo works by an Argentine singer named Gustavo Cerati, who had been the lead singer for the most popular rock en español band ever, Soda Stereo. Cerati’s songs played, on repeat, in my room. I liked the music, but since I couldn’t understand the lyrics, I was not distracted by them from my novel writing. Slowly, though, I did start to understand bits of his lyrics, which were poetic and spacey, the kind you know he had written while very high after reading a short story by Borges.

One line of a song grabbed hold of me, and it was because once I figured out what the line meant, I felt that it captured what I felt at that time. Cerati sang, “Era una piedra en el agua seca por dentro.” — “I was a stone in the sea, dry on the inside.” — That image of a stone in the ocean that had not become saturated, that had not been affected all the way through, that had kept some deep part of itself untouched by the world it inhabited, well, that was me in Mexico as a Spanish speaker. By spending most of my days writing in English, I had held back a deep part of myself from my new language. I realized I had to get saturated, and that meant doing something I would never have imagined ever being able to do: I set aside my novel draft and I started translating Pablo Neruda’s wife’s memoirs because they were told in a simple, chatty, and therefore totally accessible to me, manner.

By translating her Spanish words into English, I ended up moving deeply into both languages. It took me three years to complete that translation, wading word by word, sentence by sentence, becoming more and more saturated as I went. Eventually, I published the translation in 2004, and then I finished that novel I had been struggling to write in the form of the short story, called “La Scarlettina.”

Cerati’s words taught me that if I want to write anything, I need to be saturated not just by language, but by life itself. I hope that my work, in whatever form it takes, will reflect a deep absorption in the world.

(dedicated to Gustavo Cerati)

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