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Heck YA, Diversity!: Glossed Encounters

Author Ashley Hope Pérez makes the case for insta-translations and glossaries in YA -- and why she doesn't use them.

Heck YA, Diversity!: Glossed Encounters

Welcome back to Heck YA, Diversity!, our series on diversity in YA lit. Joining us today is author Ashley Hope Pérez, who's here to talk about the use of in-line translations in Latino/a YA. 

Glossed Encounters: What Glossaries Do in Latino/a YA (and Why I Do Without Them)

I have a grudge against glossaries in fiction. If you ask me, adding a glossary to a YA novel is about as good an idea as tossing an uncapped chapstick into the dryer with your favorite pair of jeans. I might even have suggested in a past FYA post that if you ever find a glossary in one of my books, you should cover it in peanut butter and feed it to the wolves.

Given my angst-ridden view of glossaries, I was pretty much convinced that a writer would only include one under extreme pressure—as in, we-won’t-publish-this-if-you-don’t duress. There have indeed been cases where glossaries were added against authors’ wishes, as with the British edition of Junot Díaz’s first book of stories, Drown.  How does this happen? Authors rarely have full control of how their work is presented to the world, which goes for cover art and paratextual elements like glossaries. Think back to the much-warranted stink over the original, infamously “white-washed” U.S. cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which featured a blond girl despite the fact that the protagonist is clearly identified as African-American. I’ll be honest: I’ve thought of glossaries as a very similar gesture, linguistically “whitening” the language of a narrative to make it as broadly palatable as possible to a presumably monolingual, monocultural public.

Before getting too carried away with my own convictions, though, let me give some airtime to the views of writers who have published one or more works of fiction that included Spanish-English glossaries (or, in one case, footnotes). While incorporating additional language(s) is common in books by writers of many backgrounds, I reached out to authors who incorporated Spanish in a primarily English text. The shocking results of my survey? Of the authors who responded to my questions, not one indicated that she or he had been pressured or forced to include glossaries. While I’m still not persuaded that glossaries do readers any favors (more on that below), hearing authors describe why they elected to include them helped me gain a fuller perspective.

So why do writers include glossaries?

Glossaries reassure readers. This was by far the most frequent explanation. Both Laura Resau and Alex Sanchez noted that they heard from readers who liked their use of Spanish but felt frustrated not to understand what certain of the words meant, and in both cases the authors elected to incorporate a glossary in their subsequent novels. As Laura Resau explained, for her it’s not about creating the experience she would prefer as a reader (she likes to use context to understand new words) but rather about recognizing and accommodating a range of responses to unfamiliar words. For readers who have a lower tolerance of ambiguity, Resau felt that providing a glossary would allow a better, more comfortable reading experience. (Check out this post, “Why Safe Books are Dead Books”, if you want to know why I think readers should spend more time on the edge than being comforted.)

Glossaries teach readers. While many glossaries are limited to glossing brief phrases or offering one-word translations, others can be quite extensive, including pronunciations and even mini-explanations of culture or context. Take, for example, this entry from the glossary in Pura Belpré-winner Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite:

Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (DEE-ah deh NWEHS-tra seh-NYOH-rah deh gwah-dah-LOO-peh): Our Lady of Guadalupe Day, a major holiday celebrated on December 12, honoring Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is believed to have miraculously appeared to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 (215).

Entries of this kind also appear in Garcia McCall’s second novel, The Summer of the Mariposas. In The Queen of Water, Laura Resau and María Virginia Farinango take a similar approach with entries on Andean Spanish and Quichua that give details about clothing, food, and the connotations of various words in addition to their pronunciations. In addition to the cultural exposure element, Resau noted that “another advantage of glossaries and pronunciation guides is that they can help generate excitement for learning a foreign language,” and she added that teachers have responded very favorably to the inclusion of glossaries. I can certainly imagine the publisher seeing lengthy, detailed glossaries as “added value” that would make the books more likely to be chosen for classroom use.

Glossaries can establish control—and freedom. Christina Diaz Gonzalez emphasized the importance of readers getting “the true meaning of foreign words besides what they imagine them to be.” My nerdy-nerd literature PhD self doesn’t believe in “true meanings” to words, so this response suggests to me that a glossary can be a tool for determining (or trying to determine) the range of meanings that a reader connects to a given Spanish word in the text. The other advantage is that, by shunting this work into the glossary, writers can be freer in the text itself and—one hopes—avoid the dreaded “insta-translation,” which goes something like this: “‘Buenos días,’ Ms. Garza said, wishing us a good morning.” I’m willing to grant that, if glossaries run the risk of infantalizing or underestimating the reader, insta-trans are far, far worse. A lesser of two evils, then, and one that might free a writer to incorporate Spanish in the body of the text without going overboard trying to “work in” an obvious English equivalent for what is presented in Spanish. Poet Juan Herrera cited this reason when he explained the use of footnotes in his novel in verse, Crash Boom Love.

Why those reasons aren’t good enough for me (a word about audience)

These reasons make plenty of sense. But it’s also important to recognize that the inclusion of a glossary communicates a subtle but powerful message about audience. If a book centers on Latino experience but includes a glossary that not only defines words but offers pronunciation guides and extensive explanations of basic features of Latino communities, it sends the message that the book is about Latinos but for someone else: namely, monolingual, monocultural readers. This is not to say that all Latinos are bilingual, of course, but even my monolingual students live in a heavily bilingual, bicultural environment. From the beginning, my books have been written with my students in mind, and I write for the readers who matter most to me, not just about them. Part of their experience is walking the frontera between English and Spanish, whether they speak Spanish or not.

While educating readers and offering cultural perspectives are admirable goals, they ought to be secondary to powerfully articulating experiences on the page in a way that resonates with readers who don’t often find their communities represented. If a measly 1.5% of YA and kids books are written about Latino experience (click here for stats), why can’t that little sliver be for Latino readers first of all—and for everyone else second?

Now, let’s talk about why glossaries aren’t such a great thing even for the project of educating English-only readers. While they look like pedagogical tools, glossaries actually work against readers’ development of the functional Spanish skills that will increase their ability to eventually understand the Spanish that they didn’t know when they started. As Laura Resau noted in her message to me, encountering new words in a meaningful context is, after all, “how the brain naturally learns a language—deducing the meaning through context.” But when a translation is instantly provided, readers plug in English (“donut” for “churro,” as in the glossary to Gary Soto’s Facts of Life) rather than grappling with how the Spanish might be related to the surrounding text. Not to mention that some of the words included in YA glossaries (“amigo”?! “taco”?! “enchilada”?!) are insultingly obvious.

Even beyond “amigo,” glossaries underestimate the resourcefulness of readers of all linguistic backgrounds. My second book, The Knife and the Butterfly, contained a fair amount of Salvadoran Spanish, some of which might have been unfamiliar even to a Spanish speaker of a different regional variation (like my own Mexican Spanish). But when was the last time you saw anyone in the 14-18 year range who didn’t regularly use a computer or phone? Access not only to online dictionaries and translators (many of which offer a lot of context) but also to urban dictionaries and collections of slang (you may learn more than you wanted) is almost instantaneous. Readers know how to use the Internet, yo.

Glossaries tell a story about how writers imagine their readers. I respect and value the approach of the writers I interviewed and appreciate their different sense of their audience. As for me, though, I will keep working with the world of my first readers—an unglossed, borderized world.

Thanks for stopping by, Ashley! Check out her joint blog with three other YA authors that highlights Latino/as in kid lit. You can also find Ashley on her website, Twitter (@ashleyhopeperez), Facebook, or Goodreads