About Me

Twenty years ago I asked a Tarot card reader what would I be doing when I was 50. She replied, “I see you doing something so wildly creative, it defies a job title.” Only recently did I realize that was a slick way of saying, “I have no idea of what you’ll be doing.” But that prediction kept me charging ahead to the fifties with zeal and anticipation. Now that the future is today, I’m ready for anything!

How to Sing in a Second Language

I'm in awe of people who can speak a second language, and even more, people who can write in a second language. The Internet has made translations more accessible through services like freetranslation.com and Google Translate. But it takes a human translator to take a second language and make it sing, a gift that apps don't have and bots ain't got.

As a marketing copywriter for the entertainment retailer Musicland, I often wrote ad copy that promoted CDs by Latino artists in markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami. I would create a basic copy treatment with a heading such as "Hot Latino Hits" (a heading that today still makes me cringe), and send it to a person who would translate the English to Spanish. The person I worked with was George Rabasa, who I'd known when he was creative director at Carlson Marketing Group. Today he's an acclaimed novelist and short story writer.

One Latino Size Doesn't Fit All
Starting with the basic marketing message, George would translate it into copy that culturally reflected and respected the diverse markets: the Cuban presence in Miami, the Dominican and Puerto Rican presence in New York, the Mexican and Chicano presence in Los Angeles. Having been raised in Mexico, George felt most at home in the latter market. But he knew how to infuse copy for New York and Miami markets with a Caribbean flavor.

Author George Rabasa.
"I wouldn't go crazy with the idioms," he explains. "I would be careful. I would use the rhythm of the language rather than specific words. By rhythm, I mean if you read Caribbean-inflected Spanish out loud or Chicano-inflected, they sound different, even if the words sound similar -- word placement, length of sentences. It's pretty subtle but it's there."

Tejano pop star Selena.
In 1995 Tejano pop star Selena was murdered at age 23 by her fan club president, and Musicland placed an ad of the star's CDs in Latino markets. The only thing I knew about Selena was that her fans had worshipped her. So, I asked George to write the ad in Spanish rather than translate an English copy treatment. I knew whatever I wrote couldn't begin to capture what her fans felt.

Second languages sing when spoken by human translators. There's a sense of judgment and nuance, an ear for rhythm, a respect of place and culture. Because I admire the ability to translate and I value service by a person, I've welcomed an affiliate partner, bewords.com, an online marketplace where you can meet and work with translators. Real ones. Check them out. Who knows, the translator you hire today may be the important novelist of tomorrow.

Listen to author George Rabasa discuss his newest novel, Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb.

Author photo from georgerabasa.com. Flickr photo of Selena from hellboy_93.


  1. very interesting. My first language is Portuguese. Write English is a challenge. This is my way to become more proficient. I still have a heavy accent. Any ideas or advice? Thanks.

  2. Hi Drica: Your question reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with George. I was considering learning Spanish and asked him his opinion of learning from language tapes. He highly recommended attending classes instead of listening to tapes. I imagine it's because you're a more active participant: a listener, a speaker, and a conversation participant. Through tapes you're mainly a listener and repeater.

    So I imagine immersing yourself in face-to-face conversations would be the best way to modify your accent.

    Not being an expert, I Googled "How to lose an accent" and the search came back with many responses. You might want to try that.

    I have to ask: why do you want to change your accent? Do people have trouble understanding you, or do you want to become more mainstream? It would be a shame to lose it entirely, as accents represent one's heritage and history.

    Whatever you decide, best of luck to you Drica, and thanks for reading! Susan


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