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Don Quijote In Spanglish: Would Cervantes Applaud The Effort Or Roll Over In His Grave?

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'Evoking the ire of many Spanish linguists, Amherst College Professor Ilan Stavans is translating Don Quijote into Spanglish, the street lexicon of hispanic immigrants living in the United States.
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Standing behind the espresso machine in Starbucks one morning, barista Maria Renee Soberanes Rios is chatting with me about Spanglish. -Juan laqueo, el carro?
-No sé, voy a chequearlo.
"Asi es," she says as we try to come up with an example dialogue. The new lexicon is a hybrid of the Spanish and English languages, where speakers use code-switching and false cognates to communicate. Rios, 23, who hails from the northern Mexican border state of Sonora says that lower-class country folk use slang like laquear derived from the English verb "to lock," which in the King's Spanish should really be cerrar. Then there is chequear, slang for the English verb "to check," which, if translated in proper Spanish, is verificar.
For Rios, and many who live in Guadalajara, the Spanish colonial heart of Mexico, the use of Spanglish is considered an insult to Hispanic culture. Here in central Mexico, people are prone to rolling their eyes at Spanglish, or for that matter any cultural trend from the frontera, which many locals perceive to be violent and perhaps the reason Mexico gets a bad rep as a corrupt, backwards country.
"It's for the rancheros," Rios says of Spanglish, and with her hand points to a space far from her body, as if she was far-removed from those people.
But in the United States, where an estimated 40 million Hispanics reside, the fusion of Spanish and English has entered into pop culture's mainstream - from the sassy street lyrics in a Reggaeton song to Hallmark's Spanglish greeting cards. Supporters of the new lexicon argue Spanglish should be recognized as a language in its own right, as the lingua franca of immigrants, their children and grand-children, who are trying to bridge the gap between the world of their mother tongue and their newly-adopted language.
A key proponent of Spanglish is Amherst College Spanish Professor Ilan Stavans, whose attempt to translate Cervantes' "Don Quijote" into Spanglish is striking a nerve among linguistic purists in the wake of 2005's 400th anniversary celebration of the novel's first edition.
Critics include members of the elite Royal Spanish Academy in Madrid whose stated objective is to "protect" and "defend" the purity of Castillian Spanish, to the degree that any Spanish speaker can read with facility the original 17th century version of Miguel de Cervantes work, considered by many, to be the crown jewel of Spanish literature.
Despite the naysayers and having received a death threat from one infuriated correspondent, the Mexican-born Stavans welcomes the debate.
"Academia is a sleepy place," he says. "If anything this makes people think about Spanglish. At least they cannot ignore it."
Stavans was inspired to translate the entire work after in 2003 he published the first chapter of the Spanglish version of Quijote in "Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language," along with a 4,500-word dictionary. He hopes to publish his complete version in two years.
Stavans supporters say that if Quijote can be translated into more than three-dozen languages, among them, Sankrit, Hebrew and Russian, then translating the novel into Spanglish should be no different.
"The most renowned philologists think it's a corruption of the language but in truth it's an evolution of languages. Spanish was also the result of marriage, a marriage between Latin, Greek and Arabic. That's the way languages are formed," said David Valenzuela, an Economics professor at the University of Guadalajara, who grew up near the Mexico-United States border surrounded by the sounds of Spanglish, and frequently lectures on the subject.
He said that erudite intellectuals should think twice before they dismiss what marks an important cultural transition in the Hispanic world. Spanglish was born from the mouths of uneducated masses of immigrants who fled their Hispanic native countries to look for better opportunities in the United States, Valenzuela says. Without Spanglish "those people would be the equivalent of deaf or mute."
Some academics have argued that Spanglish is more than just a language but defines the entire Hispanic-American identity in the United States. Stavans believes the real fury over his work goes beyond a debate over semantics but represents, on a grander scale, a cultural rift among Hispanics around the world.
"There is a whole resentment of the Latino populations in the U.S.," he says. "People of Latin America and Spain are not recognizing that U.S. Latios are no longer Spanish speakers, that they are creating something new."

  • "In un placete de La Mancha of which nombre no quiero remembrearme, vivía, not so long ago, uno de esos gentlemen who always tienen una lanza in the rack, una buckler antigua, a skinny caballo y un grayhound para el chase", begins the first chapter of the Spanglish translation of Don Quijote de la Mancha. Profesor Ilan Stavans, the author, said that Cervantes "would be proud."