Fiebre Tropical showed up on my radar from an article my mom had sent to me, The New York Times “Critic’s Top Books of 2020” list. I’d never heard of it before, and among critically acclaimed books like A Promised Land, Caste, and The Lying Life of Adults, it stood out in its anonymity. A quick look at the summary indicated it was about a queer Colombian teenage girl living in Miami, navigating growing up in the context of her family. A book about queerness, womanhood, and immigration seemed right up my alley, so I ordered a copy for myself. It only took a look at the first page to see that it was not what I was expecting: at least forty percent of the book was written in Spanish.
Bilingual literature was familiar to me. I grew up going to an language immersion school in a diverse metropolitan area. But I had never been exposed to a book of bilingual literature that mixed languages to the extent that Fiebre Tropical did. It switched between Spanish and English almost every other phrase.
Bilingual books are nothing new. Most people growing up in California in my generation are familiar with bilingual children’s books. Often, they are assigned in elementary school English classes. These books are typically presented as two complete stories side by side. Usually, the English title is centered, bigger than the non English title, and it takes up the right side pages. These books are generally aimed at children who speak either English or are learning English as a second language. They have a didactic purpose: teaching the English speakers how to read the other language and vice versa. Kind of like the TV show Dora The Explorer, these books use repetition of the same words and story in two different languages to teach their readers the equivalent word in their non native language. It is easy to see, then, how these books tend to have a target audience of monolingual readers: they are created to bridge a gap in understanding.
But not all bilingual literature exists for the purpose of language learning. It has also emerged as a way to explore the implications of bilingualism and immigration. This is common in YA Fiction. A notable example of is The Poet X, a book in verse about a fifteen year old named Xiomara who discovers a passion for slam poetry. Xiomara grows up in Harlem in a Spanish speaking household and sometimes writes poetry in Spanish. In a similar way to bilingual language learning children’s books, The Poet X provides an English translation for the Spanish poems. Here, though, the book is not necessarily marketed towards a monolingual audience. The translation makes it understandable and convenient to monolingual English speakers, but the purpose of its bilingualism is to show the authentic story of a bilingual child of immigrants—by allowing Xiomara to express herself in a way that feels genuine to her linguistic upbringing.
More recently in some bilingual stories, there is text in a language besides English that is left without translation. Despite publishing in English speaking countries, the authors of these books feel that presenting certain parts of their stories in non English languages is necessary, and that translating these parts takes away from their stories enough for them to resist the inevitable complaints from publishers. Often though, the non-English text of these books is limited to one phrase, word, or conversation. One of these books is Americanah, a novel about a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who immigrates to the US. The conversations between Ifemelu and Obinze, her high school sweetheart, are written in Igbo with no translation.
Because it was originally published in the United States, and there are only about 220,000 native Igbo speakers in the United States—compared with 41 million native Spanish speakers—it seems unlikely that Americanah was intended to be read exclusively by bilingual Igbo and English speakers. As a consequence of this, it makes sense to consider bilingual books published in English speaking countries that have no translations for their English speaking parts as benefiting both bilingual and monolingual English speakers.
Fiebre Tropical is similar to Americanah in that it is a bilingual book with no translation elements originally published in the United States. It differs in the prevalence of native—and non native—Spanish speakers in the US. It would seem then that Fiebre Tropical has a more evenly split audience in terms of bilingualism and monolingualism. But, in fact, the Spanish parts of the novel are written in Colombian slang that often requires as much cultural knowledge as linguistic knowledge to understand. As a result, there is no guarantee that even bilingual Spanish and English speakers would be able to completely understand the novel. Fiebre Tropical also merges English and Spanish more thoroughly than Americanah does with Igbo. The two languages are often used in the same sentences, replacing certain words in an English syntax sentence with Spanish words or interjections and vice versa. This occurs to such a frequent extent that it seems almost contentious to say that the book is written in English—Spanglish seems like a more accurate classification.
In reading a book like Fiebre Tropical, it then seems that different readers exist on a spectrum in terms of its understanding. Monolingual middle aged English speakers will understand the least, whereas bilingual Colombian teenagers in Miami understand the most. But what about those in between? A bilingual Portuguese and English speaking teenager from Miami or an older Spanish and English speaker from Mexico probably understand a decent amount, but neither would be able to understand the entirety of both the linguistic and cultural references.
It would seem, then, that Fiebre Tropical and other bilingual literature without translation, assume a lack of understanding in their readers. And, clearly, readers do not mind the lack of understanding. Both Fiebre Tropical and Americanah were praised in The New York Times Book Review. Fiebre Tropical won multiple prestigious awards for LGBT+ literature and Americanah won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.
It is possible that, through the progressive growth of bilingual and immigrant voices literature, the expression of bilingual voices in non English languages has become more acceptable. The rise in popularity of bilingual books could also be attributed to a more globalized world—it would make sense that monolingual people who often come into contact with languages that differ from their own are more comfortable being unable to understand something. Either way, bilingual literature that embodies a lack of understanding offers a clear benefit to immigrant writers. They are able to express the feelings of alienation and incomprehension that come with relocating to a new country to people who have never had the experience, while simultaneously writing for their community. In that sense, bilingual stories embody one of the central projects of literature: enabling the readers to feel the experiences of the characters as if they were their own.