In the early nineties, when I lived for a short period in Europe, I was visiting a couple of Brazilian friends living in Amsterdam. They had a lovely daughter, a four-year old who whoopied around the house, showing me all her toys, craving for my attention. She was a very happy girl, but her mother told me she had gotten through hard times upon entering pre-school months earlier.
“You know,” she told me, “We speak in Portuguese at home, and only speak in Dutch when friends come in. When the time came to put her in school, we realized that she could hardly speak a word of Dutch, and she wasn’t able to understand the children and the teacher. The first day was awful—she came home in tears.”
I couldn’t even begin to imagine how it must have been hard for the kid.
“But an amazing thing happened after a few days,” her mother went on. “Suddenly she came home smiling, and told me, very proud of her discovery: ‘Mommie, the apple has two names!’”
Her teacher had shown her the picture of an apple and asked her what it was. She answered in Portuguese, maçã (/mah-san/), and then the teacher showed her the Dutch word for it (Appel).
And with that, she had just found out a simple thing that many of us, alas, may take an entire life to find – and most never do: the miracle of understanding a language other than your native one. This expands our universe of knowledge and leaves us wide open to new sources of information. New cultures. New ways of life. New modes of thinking. Things outside your comfort zone. Things that are alien to you.
The story of the apple with two names comes to my mind now, almost twenty years later, when I’m starting to write in English. My native tongue is Portuguese, and all of my books so far (a short story collection, a novella, an academic essay on the work of William Gibson, and a novel) were written in that language.
Now, though, I’ve been writing fiction in a language I didn’t speak at all until I was eight years old. In 2009, I published nine stories in English (written originally in English, not translated from Portuguese), two of them podcasted in StarShipSofa (there’s another one coming soon). I’m also writing a novel in English. It’s been a wild, exhilarating experience.
Because this is what I learned: an apple can have as many names as we may care to learn. Maçã, manzana, apfel, appel, pomme, ringo, mela. All these languages are ours. The more languages we are able to use, the more intriguing, interesting, real worlds we will be able to create for science fiction and fantasy. Readers and writers, everybody wins.
Fabio Fernandes is a writer and translator living in São Paulo, Brazil. He loves reading, cooking, swimming, and traveling between alternate Earths.