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Learning to Read Neruda

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"Yo soy americano," I said to Sonia Fava. I did not realize that my accent (North American English-speaking to the core) was terrible. The "R", for example, in "americano" had no trill of any kind and therefore marked me as an arriviste hick. This was my first class in the Spanish language with Sonia, and I had only enough of the language to say "Si" and "No," and to order tacos. In 1985, I guess I was eating a lot of tacos.

Sonia Fava is the owner of Casa Hispana, a Spanish-language school in San Francisco that is noted by its students for the excellence and clarity of the teaching. Sonia makes a point of hiring teachers who have been university-trained in contemporary methods of language teaching, and who come from almost every Spanish-speaking country. That particularly was important to me as I studied at Casa Hispana because the accents differ so from country to country and even region to region within a country. So if Spanish is your second language and you've been studying only in Madrid, the morning that you wake up in downtown Buenos Aires, you're going to have trouble. The sophistication that comes with learning the language from qualified instructors with many accents helps tremendously. It opens your mind to the assumption that you'll understand the language eventually, no matter with whom you're talking. You don't panic, because you've been wrestling all along with different accents and realize that the language itself remains intact, waiting for you.

Sonia herself is Argentine, and studied ballet at the renowned Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, finally becoming a member of the corps de ballet there. "My mother always said that being a dancer is great. But Sonia, you have to study something. So while I was pursuing dance, I also majored in English philology at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral, and specialized in how to teach a second language."

After graduation, she came to San Francisco, California for a week, to visit an uncle and aunt who were living there. "I was taking some ballet classes, and one of the dance companies I had encountered asked me, would I like to join them? Carlos Carvajal, who is now the artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance festival, and was then a principal with the San Francisco Ballet, was involved with that company, and they asked me to stay for a year!"

Sonia still maintained a double life. "Yes, the ballet world, it was so exciting. But there was a kind of loneliness to it, too. So I started teaching, just a few hours a week, and at the time, the methods for teaching Spanish as a second language weren't well-developed in the United States."

Sonia explains that the principal countries for language-teaching methodologies were England and France, both of which had very developed programs. Because Argentina got its language-teaching prowess primarily from England, she had all the skills she needed to excel in the United States.

In my own case, I wanted to study Spanish so that I could read it. In the mid-1980s, The so-called Boom was in full flower, and I had read all sorts of Latin American writers in English translation. But you can't read somebody like Gabriel García Marquez and not wonder what it's like to read him in the original. I knew that walking into my first Spanish class ever with the intention of reading 100 Years of Solitude in Spanish was perhaps ambitious. And of course there was the Chilean, Pablo Neruda, world-famous, lionized everywhere, whose strange, unruly language fascinated me, even in translation.

I have the good fortune to be good at languages. Sonia told me once that I seemed to learn Spanish by osmosis, a compliment that I have long cherished. My learning was something like that of a bull in a china shop. I would say anything, murder the grammar, crush the syntax. But for me it was the only way to learn, and the teachers at Casa Hispana gave me as much leeway as I needed. Even that early I was attempting to translate Spanish writing to English, usually with little grace. The translations took me forever to do, and then weren't very good. But the thrilling nature of the Spanish language itself, with its reflections of blood, laughter, the quality of being "caballeroso" (chivalrous, but also with the implied capacity for bold horsemanship), the music of it, the forthright percussiveness that it carries within it, the arabisms, the saunter, the constant warmth and great sadness...all these things pulled me further and further into its study.

Twenty years after my first class at Casa Hispana, I began my translation of Pablo Neruda's 100 Sonnets of Love, a collection of sonnets written to Neruda's wife Matilde. Each one of these poems is a flash of light, a lightning strike of love. I found Neruda's writing so intense that I also began a study of his life, and that was equally fascinating. So much so that for the last two years I've been writing a novel titled The Splendid City, which I recently finished. It is an imagining of the escape Neruda had to make from Chile in 1949, running for his life for political reasons, on horseback through the Andes Mountains at the beginning of winter. Without the Spanish language and the reading I did in the research for this novel, I could not have written it. (The novel, incidentally, is in English. There are some things in Spanish that I will not attempt!)

A footnote: Casa Hispana and Sonia Fava are so well thought of in San Francisco that the senior management of the San Francisco Giants hired her a few years ago to teach them Spanish so that they could better communicate with their many Spanish-speaking ballplayers. This is recognition of a singular kind.

Terence Clarke is director of publishing at Red Room Press. His new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year.