Acts of translation occur everywhere around us. My final essay for an AP Literature course in high school concerned a novel from the magical realism genre but with a twist; set in Los Angeles, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake certainly is not a book in translation and is not your typical magical realism novel. Nevertheless, it draws from and shares the literature traditions of another place, making magical realism more accessible to the average, non-Latinx reader.
The back cover reads:
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world.
Like the introduction of magical realism to the American reader, Jane the Virgin is a television series that has similarly infused American entertainment with a Latin American tradition. It is a bilingual show, since the abuela, or grandmother, of the family does not speak in English like the rest of the characters. Her lines are all in Spanish and accompanied by subtitles. Her daughter and granddaughter seem to represent the authentic bilingual experience: the women address Abuela in English, who understands what they say yet responds in Spanish, which Jane (the granddaughter) and her mother understand. Their dialogue exchanges are works in translation, so to speak.
The plot of this quasi-telenovela, or a traditional Latin American soap opera, concerns Jane. Better known as Jane the Virgin, she navigates her relationships with boyfriends and a baby-daddy over the years. Her life is as outspokenly dramatic as the predictable telenovelas which are derived the same culture which gave her a strong Catholic background and impressed upon her the worth of her “purity”. To add to the clichés, Jane’s father was absent until her adulthood. Her father is a famous telenovela actor—one of those “show within a show” ploys—and hopes his show will be taken on by an American producer (…like how Jane the Virgin is a telenovela featured on an American network). Jane’s character seemingly upholds the oft-stereotyped persona of a love-obsessed, dramatic, Latina woman. Yet the twists and turns of the plot always lead Jane back to her women-centered family of her abuela and mother. She takes ownership of her body and admirably balances her role as a mother and a woman with career ambitions. Jane the Virgin cleverly uses the Latin American entertainment tradition in an American context to correct the stereotypes of Latin American women. The literature example from above which adopted the Latin American writing tradition is not as transformative, but I love these two examples for how I’ve seen the traditions of one culture infused into another. They’re not exactly works in translation—genre in translation at best—but in my mind it’s a start to the exchange between artistic communities that GLLI is attempting to encourage.
To be continued…