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Opinion | The Beauty of Being Bilingual

A few weeks before the election in 2016, a woman at a Walmart parking lot in Manor, Tex., ran to the tent where I was helping to register voters; she was in tears because her car had been stolen. In a town that’s nearly 50 percent Latinx, none of the police officers on site could understand her. As she filed her police report, with me as an interpreter, I noticed how they made almost no eye contact with her. I was the one they could understand, so they saw only me. She confided that her immigration papers were in the car.

How do you translate fear to those you cannot trust?

At a Costco Tire Center in Texas this week, a woman asked the man who had just helped me whether he spoke Spanish. He answered no, flatly. I volunteered to interpret. As she reached for her membership card, a familiar image in her wallet, her green card, caught my eye. I recognized it from the thick magnetic strip in the back, the way it gleamed bluish-black.

I found myself interpreting her words verbatim, forgetting to switch from the first person to the third. “The car is under my daughter’s name,” I said. In her face I saw my friends, my mother, my grandmother and me, each of us with different degrees of Spanish and English, all rooted in a desire to feel accepted and understood.

I used to think that being bilingual is what made me a writer, but more and more I see it’s deeper than that. It’s the constant act of interpreting. The journeying back and forth. The discovery that language, and the stories it carries, is not a straight path. Those of us who’ve served as interpreters in everyday life know it’s a bittersweet privilege. You find truths in the in-between spaces of language, but never the right words to express them. You hear the sound of someone being heard in your voice, and the sound of someone being unseen in the silence. You speak of simple things, hard things and joyous things, all diluted by the separation from their source. It will never seem fair that a person’s words are not enough.

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novels “Everyone Knows You Go Home” and the forthcoming “Running.”

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