You would have told yourself as your mother sat in the dentist’s chair, had you known who Wittgenstein was then, “I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain which I do feel.” You would have considered whether deep nerve pain was more akin to an arm scraping against pavement, or to the head struck by a slipper flung from across a room just after breakfast. But that wouldn’t have solved the problem of translation: first build the model, then describe in another language its components so that the model falls apart and becomes another. Meaning, could you have described your mother’s pain to the doctor in English, even if you felt it in your own jaw? You’ve watched your mamá’s teeth being pulled or a mold made of her mouth. Dentures have to fit perfectly or they hurt. You did your best telling her to bite down hard into the wax. You can’t remember your parents with a full set of teeth. When you had yours pulled—the wisdom and the one dead at the root—you had nothing to interpret but the ether. And so you lay back in leather and let the dentist, like a lover, blow smoke into your mouth, until the chair swirled, a tipsy teacup at the church bazaar, and whipped your hair around. Later, a good paid gig was for Avon at their international awards dinner, and you were placed with the top Latin American sellers, and, oh god, you were hungry and didn’t have half the words for the cosmetic industry. But the agency never bothered to ask, so you faked it and brought home leftovers. Those ladies deserved better than your parent-teacher conference training, anyone in the kitchen could have done the job. In high school when you tried to test out of Spanish and were asked to spell out numbers, you thought, qué fácil—but ended up in the same group as the metal chicks from the suburbs. When you were a baby, Papá’s first English swung into the back of the restaurant with each stack of dishes, and with a box of diapers under each arm, he’d come home singing, “Happy Birthday, para mí. Happy Birthday, para mí.”
Born in Paterson, NJ, Rosa Alcalá is the author of three books of poetry, most recently MyOTHER TONGUE. Her poems appear in Best American Poetry 2019 and American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement, among other anthologies. Her work as a translator has focused on contemporary Latin American women poets living in the US. Recent publications include Cecilia Vicuña: New & Selected Poems, which she edited and co-translated. She is the recipient of an NEA Translation Fellowship and was runner-up for a PEN Translation Award. She is professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“You, Amateur Interpreter” first appeared in TLR: Granary