Juan Felipe Herrera on writing interlingual stories


Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera, who was just named the first Mexican-American U.S. poet laureate, shares his technique for writing interlingual stories:

Your picture books are bilingual in an interesting way. Why is it that the English and Spanish texts are not quite the same?

Typically, I write in English first. Then I translate into Spanish. But then I look at the Spanish and see the different flavors it adds, so I translate back into English. It keeps going back and forth until I have two related but stand-alone stories in the two languages. There’s something, then, for the monolingual English reader. And there’s something for the monolingual Spanish reader. But for kids who know both English and Spanish, the result is stereo because they can see how the story in one language comments on the story in the other language. Really, more than bilingual, the experience is interlingual.

— Excerpted from An Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera by Jerry Griswold

Who here has facility in more than one language? Go ahead, let me know in the comments.

If you can write in two languages (or more), I recommend trying Herrera’s interlingual writing technique as a writing exercise.

How to Write Interlingual Stories

1. Write a short story or poem. On your first try, pick something really short.)

2. Translate it into a second language.

3. Look at what the translation brings to the work. Translate it back to the first language to incorporate those changes.

4. Keep moving back and forth until you have two stand-alone works in two languages.

5. If you speak more than two languages, try different combinations, or write three or more interlingual stories or poems side by this way.

I play with all kinds of translation exercises like this myself–they absolutely fascinate me. I find if I start in a weaker language, the constraints of my language skills often force me to make interesting choices I’d never arrive at working in a language that afforded me more freedom. I recommend you try starting this in a weaker language, doing a round starting in a stronger language, and then comparing the results.

If you play with this, I’d love to know how it works for you.

Related: Cole Swensen on Getting Unstuck