For the past week, San Miguel de Allende (where I’m staying for the month as an artist in residence) has been host to the Guanajuato International Film Festival (GIFF), which means tons of free, international films playing in various locations around town.
On Monday I went to see Mexicannes Cortos, which comprised four short films: one from Turkey, one from Israel, one from Finland, and one from Italy.
As I was sitting in the theater, waiting for the films to start, a woman tapped me on the shoulder. “Which film is yours?” she asked.
“None of them.” I laughed, surprised.
“Oh. Where is your film playing, then? When I met you and your sister last night you said…”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I am who you think I am. I’m just here to see the movies.”
I turned back around, feeling pleased to have been mistaken for a foreign filmmaker. Then the lights dimmed, and the films began.
It was interesting to see so many settings, so many perspectives, so many languages, one after another. The first film, “Ice Cream” was set in a desolate and dusty village of Turkey. A man arrives on a motorcycle with a cooler containing a single carton of soupy ice cream. A wily nine-year-old boy sprints desperately towards him, hoping to trade two eggs he stole for an ice cream cone. When the boy falls, and the eggs break into a yolky mess in his hands, the entire theater gasped — that’s how much we felt this boy’s desire for something cool and sweet.
Next we traveled to Jerusalem in the poignant and beautiful “Last Calls.” Six months after her sister dies, twenty-one-year-old Tal finds her cell phone and begins calling contacts. In this way she ends up meeting her sister’s last lover, who doesn’t know who Tal is and doesn’t know that her sister is dead.
We then moved on to a funny-but-disturbing farce from Finland, “Mercy All the Way,” about middle-aged women who have sex with marginalized teenage boys to keep them from bombing their schools. It was weird, but I liked it.
And finally we got a haunting depiction of the cycle of poverty, crime, and imprisonment among Italian gypsies in “Young Lions of Gypsy.”
When the films were over, I walked home in the pouring rain, foreign gibberish echoing in my brain: the throaty whisper of Hebrew, the staccato rhythm of Finnish, the lusty melody of Italian. So many languages. And yet, despite the fact that I’m in Mexico, all of the films were subtitled in English.
Currently I’m teaching a fiction workshop class, and one of the women in the class is Mexican. “Please, be gentle with me,” she begged on the first day of class. “English is not my first language.”
I told her she was brave, and she said she wants to write in English because it’s the most widely-read language in the world.
And it’s true. Scholars have named English “the most influential language in the world.” If you want to communicate with the most people, English is a good way to go. In fact, the submission guidelines for the Guanajuato festival say that films must be subtitled in either Spanish or English, but all of the films I’ve seen so far chose to use English subtitles. It’s the closest thing we have to a universal language.
I’ve always known that I was lucky to be a native English speaker. I’m lucky that when I travel it’s generally pretty easy to find someone who speaks English. I’m lucky that if a foreign book is popular it’s probably going to get translated into English really quick. And I’m lucky that I can go to see four films from four very different places, and all of them will be subtitled in my native language.
But what I hadn’t considered is this: I’m also lucky to be a writer who writes in English.
Oh, sure, there are authors who become successful by writing in their native language and having their books later translated into English. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, originally titled in Swedish Men Who Hate Women, comes to mind.) But, like Luisa said, English is one of the most widely-read languages in the world. The fact that I write in English to begin with gives me an advantage.
When I think about how many languages are spoken around in the world, it amazes me. To my ears they are like music, like secrets, like abstract art painted with sound. And yet, what should really amaze me is that I get to speak and write in such a universal, influential language. In the language that all other languages have to be translated into. I’m one lucky girl. And one lucky writer.