Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Looking for Books, or When in Spain do like the Brits

Arrived in Spain Sunday night and spent yesterday (Monday) running around with Jan (and the other two members of our party) getting groceries and lost (not necessarily in that order).

I look on our visits to foreign countries as an excuse to read authors (and get music) from that country. So I look for bookstores and ransack them for local authors. I do recognize looking for English books in a foreign country is sort of dumb to begin with: People in Spain read in Spanish so the books I find here are going to be in Spanish.

The search isn't completely stupid, however. To support the tourist/ex-pat brigade the bookstores (especially at the airport) typically do stock a large number of books in English...but all by English authors (with the odd 'international success' translated from the original language). And, in town, the bookstores often have a shelf of books of "local authors in English." This was true in the two or three bookstores I went into in Stockholm, for instance, and the bookstore in Arnhem in the Netherlands that I visit when we're there. I draw no conclusions from this shelf often being flat on the ground--I'm still limber enough to get down and look.

Anyway, here in Spain we're staying in a small town called Orba (about an hour from Alicante and an hour and a half from Valencia)--no bookstores here. Everyone else arrived last Wednesday  and had already been to the local markets so, today, at least in part to satisfy my hunger for bookstores, we went to a mall. I did find a bookstore but it was aimed exclusively at the ex-pat market. Lots of books in English but exactly six books by Spanish authors:
  • Three "world classics"
    • Don Quixote by Cervantes (Penguin)
    • The Exemplary Tales by Cervantes (Penguin)
    • The Conquest of New Spain by Diaz (Penguin)
  • A Dan Brown kind of thriller set in Italy and the US
  • Two "literary" novels
    • Soldiers of Salamis--A novel set in the Spanish Civil war
    • All Souls--a novel by a contemporary Spanish author (Javier Marias)...set in Oxford and based on the two years he spent teaching in Oxford.
I had actually found more variety in "Spanish authors in English" at the used bookstore I go to in Toronto. I had found "Soldiers of Salamis" there, a novel by Galdos (who, I gather, is considered the greatest Spanish author after Cervantes), several different versions of "Don Quixote", Zafon's 'international bestseller' "The Shadow of the Wind", a book of poetry by Lorca, and a book by a Galician author I hadn't heard of before that was delightful. And two of those books I stumbled across by accident because the authors had 'obviously Spanish' names that were close to the names of Spanish authors that I was looking for (and not finding)--which means there were probably more books by Spanish authors and I just didn't find them.

Meanwhile, the supermarket we went to had oodles and oodles of books by Spanish authors...all in Spanish. It's like some cruel joke. We're off to Valencia tomorrow for our first visit so, perhaps, I'll do better there.

What's that got to do with technical writing? It got me thinking: How often do we read the books that our audience reads? How well do we immerse ourselves in the language and culture of our audience? When we write for a very different audience, do we come across as "tourists"--not knowing the language or almost getting the words right but always just missing?

Reading or Read

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