All posts by Ilan Stavans

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The Safe Space

one-hundred-years-of-solitude-coverIt has become a recurrent motif in academic parlance in the United States to talk about security, not as a discipline but in existential terms. This isn’t surprising given the superabundance of bloodshed today. Campus is frequently called a “safe space.” Violence — physical, emotional, and verbal — has no place in it.

The premise behind this concept is sound, though it sometimes verges on sanctimony. It envisions the classroom as Robinson Crusoe’s island, where it is possible to start from scrat…

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Ellipses and I

ellipses-mainI have been thinking about the changing nature of the ellipsis as a grammatical device.

A few days ago, I was going over a draft of a graphic novel I am about to send to the publisher. It is called Angelitos, and it is about a Mexican priest who devotes his life to protecting homeless children. I had written two versions, one in Spanish and the other in English, about a year ago. I had put them aside to simmer. When I looked at them again, I was struck by the abundance of ellipses in the two ver…

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Transadaptation

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Emily Dickinson

Efforts to translate a text within the same language, from, say, the French of Molière to the present-day language of immigrants in Paris, are common today. Not long ago, I got a copy of  Andrés Trapiello’s faithful modernization of the entire Don Quixote, all 126 chapters. His argument is that today’s readers, especially young ones, no longer read Cervantes’s novel. Since its antiquated language might be one of the causes, why not render it it in 21st-century Iberian Spanish?

Ev…

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‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare

“It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

“The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be di…

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Snapping Fingers

I have recently encountered an endearing trend among high-school and college students, informally as well as in classrooms and in larger gatherings: collective finger-snapping. Once, in the middle of a lecture I delivered at the University of Oxford, someone began expressing approval by snapping her fingers, and within seconds the entire hall followed her. The same thing has happened in class discussions about varieties of love and ways of expressing them. At first the sound was distracting, but…

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On ‘Diversity’

the-great-seal-of-the-usaI have become allergic to the word diversity. It feels empty, or worse, like a chore. Words lose capital when they are overused or when the cultural climate that fostered their meaning changes. Diversity is a good example.

I am a Latino. I have strongly benefited from the drive toward diversity. I like to think of myself as fostering that drive as well. But the fervor behind it belongs to past decades. Our cultural moment is an altogether different one. America is already deeply, irrevocably div…

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Catfishing


A recent classroom experience left me with the exhilarating feeling of having found a new word usage, barely a few years old, that has become a fixture in how we approach the world.

This semester I’ve been teaching a course called “Impostors” that focuses on actors, spies, forgers, translators, plagiarizers, and other transgressors assuming someone else’s identity for commercial, political, psychological, artistic, or other purposes. Students read Plato, Diderot, Cervantes, and Freud, wat…

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On Subtitles

A few days ago I happened upon a brief essay by Borges called “On Dubbing,” in which he lambasts the then-recent Hollywood invention (the essay was written in 1945) of  devising “monsters which combine the illustrious features of Greta Garbo with the voice of Aldonza Lorenzo.” Borges calls the mechanism “a malignant artifice” (un maligno artificio). He asks, sarcastically, “How can we fail to profess our admiration for this painful prodigy, for these ingenious phono-visual anomalies?”

I, too, di…

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The Meanings of Rape

A demonstrator at Amherst College wants the administration to admit its past mistakes.

A nod to the semantics of “rape” seems pertinent in the current climate. After all, this is a polysemous word, that is, a word with multiple connotations, some of which look like anachronisms.

In Middle English, “rape” was used when talking about haste, as in the proverb “oft rape rues,” or “haste makes waste.” Our contemporary use seems to be linked; “rape” entails an act done rashly and injudiciously—a…

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The Languages of the World Cup

James Rodriguez’s “poem of a goal” against Uruguay. The English commentator likened it to the cream atop strawberries on a summer night.

Borges, in an interview, once said that he didn’t like soccer. “But it’s popular,” the interviewer said. To which the author of “Emma Zunz” replied: “Stupidity is also popular.”

Too bad. He was an hombre de letras attuned to the changing nature of language. Indeed, he once wrote an eloquent defense of Argentine Spanish that was prompted by a stilted argument pr…