Why does All the Pretty Horses have Spanish dialog?
November 27, 2010 4:30 PM   Subscribe

I don't speak Spanish! Why does All the Pretty Horse have Spanish in it?

After loving The Road, and No Country for Old Men, I bought the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy.

I just finished All the Pretty Horses, and was kind of frustrated at some of the Spanish phrases.

My Questions:
1. I did some googling, and found some people saying it gives the characters some authenticity, which I guess it does. So I'll grant Cormac that. Any other reasons it contains Spanish?
2. There is too much! Some I can understand, given context, but some goes on for 10 lines of dialog. Why am I reading a book in another language?
3. Does the average American understand Spanish? (I'm Australian, but pretty sure the answer is 'no'.)
4. Do the second and third books contain Spanish? The same amount, more, less?

That said, I did enjoy the book, just a little annoyed.

Thanks, Brock
posted by antiquark to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
3. Does the average American understand Spanish? (I'm Australian, but pretty sure the answer is 'no'.)

Not to a huge extent ( although in my observation many in the younger generation in my area, where there is a growing population of spanish speakers, are making efforts to learn the language on their own, assuming they don't come down on the anti-immigrant side of the fence), but Spanish is pretty much the main language people take as their two years of required language in high school (along with French) so many people have a rudimentary understanding and can probably suss out meaning if there isn't too much of it.
posted by frobozz at 4:38 PM on November 27, 2010


1. Because Cormac McCarthy is the author, and if he wants passages of dialogue or sequences to be in Spanish, he's the boss. Isn't there a glossary/translation dictionary at the back of the book anyway? Authenticity's kind of a valid reason to utilize a non-English language.

3. It depends on where in America someone is from. If you're from Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and certain other Gulf states, yeah, most of us seem to have a semi-decent knowledge of basic Spanish. Spanish is, IIRC, now the most common language elective in high schools and colleges. But dude, just because a book takes place in America doesn't mean it's specifically for Americans. Generalities, man. Generalities. :P
posted by patronuscharms at 4:41 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do not speak Spanish either but have never had a problem understanding it in McCarthy's context.
posted by omarlittle at 4:44 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


1. Sometimes ideas can best be expressed in the language that the characters would have spoken in.

2. 10 lines at a time isn't really a lot, you could just plug it into a translator.

3. I think some understand basic Spanish, for various reasons. Many of us took the language in high school, or live in an area with a significant Spanish-speaking population, or have co-workers/friends/family who speak Spanish, etc...

4. Sorry, I don't know this one.

Personally, I love it when authors do this, like Laila Lalami inserting a lot of Moroccan Arabic into her novels. You can understand the book without it, but if you happen to understand those brief snippets in the second language, it makes reading the book a much richer experience, and feels more authentic. YMMV.
posted by HopperFan at 4:46 PM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


2. There is too much! Some I can understand, given context, but some goes on for 10 lines of dialog. Why am I reading a book in another language?
3. Does the average American understand Spanish? (I'm Australian, but pretty sure the answer is 'no'.)


It's entirely possible that McCarthy's target reader understands more Spanish than your average Australian. Spanish is an extremely popular language for English speakers to study in high school and college. There are also a lot of stock phrases and borrowings from Spanish in American English ("Hasta la vista, bebe", "Mi casa es su casa", and the like). Not to mention that an intelligent reader who's maybe had a little exposure to Spanish through American culture and a little study of some Romance language in school may be able to work out a lot through cognates.

"Los niños tienen hambre" makes a degree of sense if you know through the surrounding culture that "el niño" means "the child", and that in the plural form "el" becomes "los" (I would guess that like 99% of literate Americans know this without ever studying Spanish formally), and can maybe work out through context that "hambre" is a cognate for "hunger". You don't necessarily have to know the conjugations of the verb "tener" (to have), or the somewhat idiomatic knowledge that in Spanish you say that someone has hunger rather than saying that they are hungry. You get the gist, even if the gist is "this character is talking about something bad/negative having to do with children."

In addition to all that, I'm sure you already know that McCarthy likes to play with the amount of information that the reader needs to be spoon-fed. I actually had to turn to my dictionary to look up words while reading The Road; this is something I only ever have to do while reading really esoteric old stuff. Very unusual for a popular 20th/21st century author.
posted by Sara C. at 4:48 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm an American and I absolutely loved All The Pretty Horses..although I worked in Nicaragua for two years and am fluent in Spanish. Although most Americans know some Spanish vocab a lot of the terms used in the book are quite specific to ranching/horses and most Americans wouldn't be familiar with those at all. I think it adds a great deal to the authenticity of the book and makes the Mexican characters more like real people speaking like they would actually speak. And a know a lot of people who don't know any Spanish who loved the book.

If you don't like it, then maybe the book's not for you. As far as I can recall, the second two books in the Border Trilogy don't have as much Spanish as All The Pretty Horses, but if it bother you to the point that you don't enjoy reading ATPH, I won't continue on in the series.
posted by emd3737 at 4:51 PM on November 27, 2010


There is a Translations page on the Cormac McCarthy Society website. If you follow that link, one of the translations available is of all the Spanish dialogue in All The Pretty Horses.
posted by gudrun at 4:54 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: I found some translations after finishing the book, but I don't want to have to do that while reading.

The fact that people commonly study Spanish in school is something I hadn't considered, IN Australia, other languages are more common. I know a little Italian, which helped working out some of the Spanish.

I did enjoy the book, and stated so in my question.

I wasn't even that annoyed really, it's just been on my mind and was curious how other people felt about it.

Thanks for the all answers, they've been excellent.
posted by antiquark at 5:04 PM on November 27, 2010


Why does All the Pretty Horse have Spanish in it?

For the same reason the dialogue isn't marked off by quotation marks: it's an easy way for McCarthy to make the book feel like Serious Literature. Many canonical highbrow authors (like Faulkner, who is one of McCarthy's idols) wrote books that are difficult to read; by making his own books superficially difficult, McCarthy associates himself with those authors. It's also not untypical for those same canonical highbrow authors to have long untranslated passages in their books (for example, The Magic Mountain was written in German, but a big stretch of dialogue in one key scene was in French).
posted by twirlip at 5:05 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


The book takes place in Texas, where a lot of people understand basic Spanish, and Mexico, where everyone speaks Spanish. A lot of Americans, particularly from border states or places with a large Latino population understand basic Spanish and Spanish expressions even get into the regular speech for people who don't really speak Spanish otherwise.
posted by elpea at 5:08 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just flipped through the translation page and yeah I understood 90% of it despite not having taken Spanish in school. A lot of words like 'hermano", "andale" or "trabajo' are understood by the vast majority of people from the West Coast or SW at least. You hear them all the time and young people use Spanish words quite a bit as slang so you absorb it without even realizing.
posted by fshgrl at 5:29 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think serious authors put a lot of thought into how their books are going to be read.

I recently finished Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Large parts of it take place in an isolated, rural Spanish countryside. In order to to convey the antiquated Spanish dialect the characters spoke, Hemmingway wrote their dialogue in old fashioned English -- thees and thous and such. Apparently, he took a lot of criticism for this decision at the time. Reviewers found it artificial sounding and that it got in the way of reading the book. But the author had his intent, and carried it out in his own way.

I can only imagine McCarthy's intent with the Spanish, but he probably wanted non-Spanish speakers to wonder if they were missing something, just like an Anglo would if they were overhearing the conversation in real life. Consider it an artistic decision.
posted by auto-correct at 5:40 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, you got off easy. After reading through several hundred pages of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, translated from German to English, I found out that the climactic passage was about 30 pages written in French, which of course was not translated into English. Presumably this was because the French hadn't been translated into German for the original German readers. It was very frustrating, and I still have no idea what happened, although that doesn't make it much too different from the rest of the book that was translated.

This did make it authentic, though, because the character who was speaking the passage was speaking in French.
posted by alms at 5:40 PM on November 27, 2010


It's very common to see Spanish translations of signs and labels in the US, so even if you haven't studied Spanish in school and have no Spanish-speaking friends, you'll still be exposed to it and pick up words without meaning to.
posted by desjardins at 5:49 PM on November 27, 2010


It is very simple Spanish , even americans thousands of miles from Mexico would understand most of it.

It is a book about the US/Mexico border and a lot of it is set in Mexico.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:01 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


2. 10 lines at a time isn't really a lot, you could just plug it into a translator.
That couldn't have been something that McCarthy took into account when he wrote the book, though, because that kind of translator didn't exist in the early '90s. And twenty years ago, a lot fewer Americans studied Spanish in school than do now.
posted by craichead at 6:03 PM on November 27, 2010


Nah we had Spanish classes 20years ago when I was in high school.
I've read it twice and it really is stuff like

El hombre es tu hermano?
No, es mi amigo.
Que lastima.
Vaya con dios.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:12 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Could be worse. Coulda been "Watership Down", which has a lot of Welsh in it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:51 PM on November 27, 2010


Many of the characters are bilingual. Having them speak Spanish illustrates that in a way that laboriously pointing out their Spanish speaking moments wouldn't. It's meant to give you the flavor of the working haciendas- this is how it is. Working on ranches, all the horse people I knew spoke at least some pidgin Spanish, as do people on construction sites or farms in the West.


And twenty years ago, a lot fewer Americans studied Spanish in school than do now.

Do you have a cite for this? The majority of kids in all my schools learned Spanish- I was one of the few people who took French. This was more than 20 years ago.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:06 PM on November 27, 2010


I should really say all the English-speaking horse people I knew spoke at least some pidgin Spanish. Naturally all the Spanish speakers were quite fluent in that language.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:08 PM on November 27, 2010


The majority of kids in all my schools learned Spanish- I was one of the few people who took French. This was more than 20 years ago.
Here's an article. Less than half of all American high schools with language programs even offer French at this point.

Anecdotally, I work with college freshmen, and I would say that upwards of 90% of them took Spanish in high school. In fact, many of them are surprised when I ask what language they studied, because in many cases Spanish was the only language their high schools offered, and it never occurred to them that some students had other options.
posted by craichead at 7:23 PM on November 27, 2010


If this annoyed you stay away from "Blood Meridian." It has Spanish, German, English, and probably another language or two. To make this worse these languages are error filled and grammatically questionable (just like his use of English).

There was some dialog that went something like: "Where you learn Dutch?" "Off a Dutchman."

Meridian has several reading guides out there.

I'd also add that Cormac isn't talking down to his audience. I love his books.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:08 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Los niños tienen hambre" makes a degree of sense...

Actually, I doubt that. Because the Spanish phrase literally means "The children have hunger", which is not the way you'd phrase it in English, a non-Spanish speaker might be more likely to conclude that the sentence says "The children something hamburgers (or ham)", which is definitely not right.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:15 PM on November 27, 2010


I am a low-intermediate (or possibly advanced beginner?) Spanish speaker and I could follow all the Spanish in that book. So for what it's worth, I think it's intended to work if you have rudimentary Spanish skills.
posted by serazin at 8:29 PM on November 27, 2010


Best answer: I am a huge fan of McCarthy's books, and I have four years of college-level Spanish under my belt. I do get a twinge of smug satisfaction when I encounter some phrases in his books that I am able to translate. That said, I can understand how it can be a bit frustrating for someone who does not encounter the language on a daily basis, and I can definitely understand being reluctant to google a translation for every phrase (spaces where I read and spaces where computers are handy rarely overlap.)

I can't speak for McCarthy as to why he makes this choice, but I trust him as an author; he has a grasp of narrative and dialog that goes beyond language and touches on a common human communicative rhythm. If you go with your gut and search for context, what you assume is being said is probably close to correct.

I have not read the other two books in the Border Trilogy, so I cannot say if they contain more or less Spanish, but I would urge you to read them. If only to encounter the gems that only McCarthy can create. Think of the final paragraph in The Road, or this one from All the Pretty Horses:

"He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of the multitudes might be exacted for the vision of a single flower."

Why let a little foreign language keep you away from something as beautiful as that?
posted by R_Kamidees at 8:29 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The children have hunger", which is not the way you'd phrase it in English, a non-Spanish speaker might be more likely to conclude that the sentence says "The children something hamburgers (or ham)", which is definitely not right.

Yes, I said the first thing right in my original post.

A non-speaker of Spanish wouldn't know that "tienen" means "(they) have", so no, I doubt they'd guess "The children have hamburgers". Either way, my example was a sentence that virtually all Americans could guess at least some of the words in, even if they didn't understand the exact meaning.

Also, as I said in my first comment, an important way that good writers (and McCarthy specifically) tell stories is to provide only the information they need to provide. Having some characters speak Spanish, with the audience only expected to understand a certain amount, is a great example of that.
posted by Sara C. at 11:50 PM on November 27, 2010


Oh, and if you don't like this device, don't ever read The Name of the Rose.
posted by Sara C. at 11:51 PM on November 27, 2010


Response by poster: Sara C.: The Name of The Rose is on my read list. I know some basic Italian (guessing it contains Italian), so would be more accepting of that.
posted by antiquark at 1:59 AM on November 28, 2010


Antiquark: No, The Name of the Rose has a massive amount of untranslated latin (sometimes approaching an entire page at a time, and ranging from citations of classical latin, to medieval ecclesiastical latin), a tiny little bit of untranslated German (but that one should be easily google-able), some untranslated French, and an entire character whose shtick is that he's so terrible at most languages that he just jumbles them all of, producing a linguistic chimera that you have to slowly puzzle out.

I personally loved that aspect of The Name of the Rose, but I strongly suspect you won't...
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:39 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: flibbertigibbet: Maybe I'll just see the movie then.
posted by antiquark at 12:51 PM on November 28, 2010


In McCarthys book, do you actually have to understand the Spanish to understand what is going on in the plot?
posted by smackfu at 5:05 PM on November 28, 2010


Response by poster: smackfu: Not really, but that is true about %95 of sentences in any book, if you think about it. It didn't matter that his name was Ishmael.
posted by antiquark at 5:12 PM on November 28, 2010


To the plot? No. But that sentence sets the tone for the narrator's POV and the entire feel of the novel. As does the use of Spanish in All The Pretty Horses.
posted by Sara C. at 7:44 PM on November 28, 2010


Side note about The Name of the Rose: you might try listening to an audiobook version instead of reading it. I just finished listening to it and the parts in other languages didn't bother me at all.
posted by neushoorn at 12:09 AM on November 29, 2010


Response by poster: Sara C.: That was exactly my point. We don't read books for their plot.
posted by antiquark at 6:15 PM on November 29, 2010


antiquark, you may want to approach some of Alan Moore's work with caution, as he's not averse to inventing words and even languages (or using English in a very creative way) to suit the story. Just in Swamp Thing, he came up with a language for Rann (the adopted planet of DC comics hero Adam Strange), some of which was understandable in context, some not, and also created many neologisms in the story "Pog", a tribute to Walt Kelly's Pogo (the neologisms were in reference to Kelly's wordplay in the strip). In his first prose novel, Voice of the Fire, the first chapter is written in a style meant by Moore to approximate the language structure of an inhabitant of Britain in 4000 BC; there's an entire blog devoted to translating it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:39 PM on November 30, 2010


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