Feature Article

  • Struggles with the Subjunctive

    A fascination with the Spanish language has marked the course of my life. It started at age twelve when I had to choose a language to study in school and seeing that French was about as useful in Houston, Texas as a pair of snowshoes, I chose Spanish. I don’t remember much about those first years learning the language besides the fact that I got to pick a new name for class (Adela) and that even though I was baffled by the subjunctive tenses, Spanish was my favorite subject. A friend who had to keep taking foreign language past the required two years in high school convinced me to continue taking Spanish with her so she could copy off me on tests. Then, at age eighteen, instead of starting my first semester of college like almost every other kid I knew, I moved to Salamanca, Spain for a three-month Spanish immersion program. 


    The morning I arrived I decided to take a stroll, jetlagged, sleep-deprived, in a foreign country, and quickly learned that my straight As in high-school Spanish had not prepared me to take directions from locals. After walking several blocks dazzled by the golden sandstone buildings, I got hopelessly lost and called my mother from a pay phone, collect, crying. There wasn’t much she could do to help except tell me to find a map and figure it out. A newspaper vendor took pity on me, patiently deciphered my horrible accent, and traced my way home on the map I bought from him. I made it back to the shared apartment the school had assigned me and immediately hit it off so well with my Belgian roommate that I forgot to let my mother know I wasn’t still lost and alone in a strange land where I clearly didn’t speak the language well enough to get around. I quickly improved. Salamanca was said to have more bars per capita than any city in Spain and I discovered that after a few drinks I became basically bilingual, or so I thought. I made friends, went on a road trip to Málaga in a car that drove so fast I was positive we were all going to die, and had an all-around amazing time. In Spanish class, I still struggled with the subjunctive but I immediately picked up the local accent, said to be the purest form of Castilian speech, and I could soon get around town like a regular Salamantina. I’ve always been a big reader but I don’t remember discovering much Spanish literature at that point. I did buy a copy of Manolito Gafotas and finishing an entire novel in Spanish, albeit at the fourth-grade reading level, felt like a triumph. 


    That three-month immersion enabled me to test out of all the lower-level college language requirements so in my typical take-the-easiest-route fashion I decided to just major in Spanish. My college experience is a bit hazy but I know I was pretty proud that I could finish Isabel Allende novels in their original language and I was fascinated by Emilia Pardo Bazán’s “Las medias rojas,” the hilarious Lazarillo de Tormes, and García Lorca’s deliciously dark, dramatic plays. I think I could vaguely use the subjunctive tenses correctly by the time I finished college a semester early and went back to Spain for another language immersion program, this time in Granada. The currency was now euros and the tips I’d saved from my waitressing job at a 24-hour diner didn’t go very far so I mostly remember being broke, and being awed by the city. Every beer you ordered came with a tapa, so that was dinner, I visited Lorca’s house twice, and, since walking was free, I spent a lot of time wandering the Sacramonte, pausing frequently to sigh in amazement at the gorgeousness of the city below and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. 


    Back in the US after two years teaching elementary school to ESL students I realized that I wasn’t a great teacher and I still wasn’t that great at Spanish. So I moved to Spain to complete a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course in an attempt to remedy both situations. I lived for a year in Barcelona, teaching English to lawyers and marketing executives in posh offices by day, having the time of my life by night. It was not a quietly-perusing-bookshops kind of moment in my life. I read whatever friends lent me or had been left behind in the shared apartments I lived in. The only title that sticks out to me is Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s La sombra del viento, which I devoured. My favorite pastime in Barcelona was exploring the different neighborhoods, especially the ones higher up above the city. I hiked in Collserola Park, wary of the wild boars said to roam the forest, and stopping often to sigh in awe at the sweeping views over that magical city bordered by mountains and sea. Then, at the end of that year, I left Spain and have never been back. 


    It’s a decision I still question. Maybe I thought that having so much fun couldn’t be real life and I wanted to start my real life. The plan was to keep traveling and keep improving my Spanish. Starting in Buenos Aires, I’d see the entirety of South America in six months, then go back to the US for library school. The plan failed. Eleven years later I still live in Buenos Aires and have yet to see hardly any of South America. But I ended up doing a Master’s in Translation and Interpretation at the University of Buenos Aires where I discovered the perfect way to combine a love for reading with a love for Spanish, as a literary translator. 


    My pure Castilian accent has been firmly replaced by the singsong Argentine dialect. I’m now confident in my Spanish-speaking abilities, given that I live my everyday life in the language. But I still use the subjunctive wrong roughly half the time. And I still miss Spain sometimes. Here in Buenos Aires the sea is four hours away. There are no mountains in sight. No wild boars roam the parks and I rarely get a view that takes my breath away. But Buenos Aires is still a fairly magical city, especially for someone who likes reading.


    I’ve entered more of a quietly-perusing-bookshops sort of place in my life and I couldn’t imagine a better location for this activity. Buenos Aires is bursting with bookstores and has a strong independent publishing scene. During non-pandemic times there are book launches, literature festivals, monthly readings series where I can meet local authors doing exciting things. Through translating his first novel, Bodies of Summer I made friends with Martín Felipe Castagnet, who has been listed as one of the Bogotá39 Best Fiction Writers under 40 and one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Writers. I translated the US edition of A Simple Story by legendary journalist Leila Guerriero and ended up giving her English classes for a year even though she spoke perfectly and I’m still not a great teacher so we mostly just chatted about life. I had Gabriela Cabezón Cámara over to discuss how to best translate the made-up cumbia opera lyrics written by the transgender saint protagonist of Slum Virgin. Most of the books I’ve translated have been written by Argentine authors. But I’ve also been lucky enough to translate books by María Fernanda Ampuero, from Ecuador, Andrea Jeftanovic, from Chile and short stories by excellent Spanish writers, such as Margarita Leoz, Marina Perezagua, and Sara Mesa. My current translation project is a non-fiction book by Spanish sociologist and trans activist Miguel Missé. I hope there will be more books from Spain in my future, and who knows maybe even a trip back, to once again feel awed by the views and wary of the wild boars. Ojalá. 


    Frances Riddle is a Spanish to English literary translator who has published over a dozen book-length translations as well as many short stories and essays by writers across Latin America and Spain. Her forthcoming translations include Claudia Piñeiro’s Elena Knows and Isabel Allende’s Violeta. She lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.