21 Feb

Reading Harry Potter in Spanish

Canny readers may have noticed a few mentions of Harry Potter on the list of books I read in 2016. Last year, I made it my goal to read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish. Here I describe why I did it, my methods, and what I got from this exercise.

The Why

Harry Potter is a popular choice for language learners because it’s a popular work generally. It’s translated into a huge number of languages and it’s relatively easy to find. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of popularity. It also, ostensibly, starts with simple language that gets more difficult throughout each book. I liked the idea of reading something that would build up and having a series that I could focus on. It seemed like it would be easier to start building fluency with a lot of young adult works by one author than with many unconnected books.

Aside from the series’ ubiquity, I chose Harry Potter because I had not read it all. My family was an early adopter of the books. I think we got the first novel when I was, perhaps, 13 (for reference, the last book was published in 2007, when I was 21). My sister was the target age for the story. I was just old enough to still be entertained, but not enthralled. I read through the fifth book (of seven) as an adolescent, but never read the last two. Working the release night of book six at Barnes and Noble resulted in me being fully fed up with the Potter phenomenon. But, nearly 10 years later, I was ready to revisit the story.

The How

I knew that reading Harry Potter in Spanish would be an undertaking in vocabulary. When I started reading it, I was using Anki for flashcards. As I read, I looked up words and wrote down the word and the definition in a steno notebook. This is a method I had used in the past and I liked it well enough. After reading, I added the vocabulary to my Anki flashcard deck.

Sometime in the middle of Harry Potter y el prisoner de Azkaban (book 3), I decided to change it up. Looking up words was making the reading too slow—and I was already reading slower than I wanted (the problem with reading fast in English is that it feels terrible to go so slowly in another language). I decided to try underlining words to look up later, which hadn’t occurred to me until I saw it mentioned in Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. This was a great choice for me because it made me focus on reading without stopping and on decoding meaning based on context. I don’t think it would have gone well for me to read the first book this way, but it was right by the time I was in the third.

I switched flashcard platforms partway through reading as well. On the recommendation of my Icelandic tutor, I began using Memrise. I decided I liked Memrise better so I made a “Harry Potter Spanish” course and started adding new words. I learned a lot of words this way. Unfortunately, I was taking down more vocabulary than I could learn. My vocabulary study was perpetually eight or more chapters behind my reading. It’s not the worst thing, but it would have been nice to keep pace.

All 7 Harry Potter books stacked

My pile of Harry Potter books

About halfway through Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte (book 7), I declared lexical bankruptcy. I stopped underlining words to look up later. I hadn’t added any new words to my course since chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the misterio del príncipe (book 6). That said, I had about 2,000 words total in my Memrise course. Plus, I picked up some words and phrases that I didn’t formally study. Although I like learning new vocabulary and there was certainly more I could have learned, I was losing interest in the world of Harry Potter and decided to focus on reading instead of vocabulary for the last leg of the journey.

The Benefits

This seems like a good time for a bulleted list:

  • I learned a lot of vocabulary words.
  • I became familiar with a lot of phrases and bits of common usage. For example, you don’t “shake your head” in Spanish, you negas con la cabeza (literally: refuse with the head).
  • I started reading a lot more smoothly.
  • I accepted the fact that I do not and cannot know all words (which is also true in English!)
  • I read a lot faster now.
  • I can proudly say I read thousands of pages’ worth of writing in Spanish.
  • I am a much more confident reader.

Now What?

I’ve already started my next book in Spanish, La Distancia Entre Nosotros (The Distance Between Us). It seems much easier to read. In some ways, the subject matter is easier because it’s less fanciful. On the other hand, this is a book written for adults. I’m glad that I read Harry Potter, but I am really glad to be onto another book. My enthusiasm was seriously waning towards the end. In my goals for 2017, I said that I wanted to read 6 books in Spanish this year. At this rate, I’ll be able to get through more than that, which is really cool!

One question I have been asked is whether I would do this again. I am learning Icelandic too and Harry Potter in Icelandic is a real thing. At this point, I am not sure. I definitely got a lot out of reading the series in Spanish, but part of the motivation was also that I had not read all the books before. I might be inclined to read books originally written in Icelandic and that are a little more interesting to me (also good arguments for not reading Harry Potter in Spanish, for that matter). I’m at least a year out from being at a level where I would attempt Harry Potter in Icelandic. I need some time and distance before I could say for sure whether this is something I would do again. For now, I’m enjoying the benefits of being a stronger reader in Spanish.

07 Apr

Every day the same, but different

Book Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day cover

Every Day cover

I picked this book up from the library on a whim. I volunteer there twice a week, so I spend a lot of time walking past books, and this one caught my eye. The author wrote another book that a friend of mine has been telling me to read and the summary on the back sounded good, so I borrowed it.  I was glad I did because even though it is a “young adult” book and a quick read, I enjoyed it.

The premise of Every Day is that the protagonist, a 16 year old who has taken the name A, wakes up in a new body (of zir own age) every day. Ze (ze is a gender neutral pronoun) can “access” the  host body’s memories and generally tries to go about zirs day without disrupting the life of the body’s owner. A’s life has been like this for as long as ze can remember. Furthermore, A has no idea why or how this happens, just that it does. A also doesn’t know what zir original body is: boy or girl, straight or gay. A has experienced all types of genders and doesn’t feel anymore at home in one type of body than another. Each chapter of Every Day tells us what day A is on. The book opens with day 5994 with A inhabiting a boy named Justin. This leads A to Rihannon, Justin’s girlfriend, with whom ze immediately falls in love. On that day, A breaks zirs own rules and disrupts Justin’s life, skipping class with Rihannon to drive to the beach and get to know each other. The next day, A is desperate to meet Rihannon again. Luckily, A seems to stay within a relatively small geographical area so on any given day our protagonist isn’t too far away from the love interest. The book chronicles A’s efforts to meet her and get her to see A’s inner self, apart from the physical trappings. They deal with issues of attraction and sexuality and try to figure out what it means to be with someone who is a different person every day.

I felt that it had some strong themes that would be good for teenagers who are still trying to figure out who they are. Feeling like you’re a totally different person every day is not uncommon for a lot of  teenagers (or, let’s be real, 20-somethings) and Every Day plays with that concept quite literally. At one point, A tells the reader, “Part of growing up is making sure your sense of reality isn’t entirely grounded in your own mind” and I have to agree. You can always spot the mature children based on how aware they are of things that go on that have nothing to do with them. And from a perspective of advanced reality-awareness, being able to navigate the world around you without basing all your decision on your immediate feelings or hormone situation really is the secret to being a level-headed adult.

Another identity-related theme is our protagonists attitudes about sexuality. I know that not everyone is going to agree with this sentiment, but there is a part in the book where A expresses that zir preferences aren’t based on what sex organs people have, but on the person as an individual. Or, as I like to put it: love the person, not the parts. Again, I know that not everyone will feel this way, but I feel like for young LGBTQI (especially for the “questioning” part), the message that it’s not a big deal which gender the people you like are is an important one. It’s okay to just like people for themselves and not based on your considerations of how to have sex.

As a practically inevitable counterpoint to A’s genderless attraction preferences, ze is thrown into contact with some people who strongly disagree with those ideas. A ruminates on the family of one boy whose body he inhabits; the children are homeschooled in the extreme Christian way (not the cool, learn what you want and experience life way) and the mother goes berzerk when he catches her son (so it seems) kissing a girl–the beloved Rihannon. A remarks on the lecture ze received about “the sins of the flesh” and comments, “I want to tell [the mother] that ‘sins of the flesh’ is just a control mechanism–if you demonize a person’s pleasure, then you can control his or her life.” Speaking as an ex-Mormon, I find this to be totally true. Control of one’s sexuality is an all too common tactic that religions use to keep people down. Even though A feels this way, ze also expresses a lot of empathy for people who go to church. As a by product of zir life, A has been to all kinds of religious services. A emphasizes to the reader that religions have about 98% in common, and it’s that other 2% that everyone wants to focus on. Even though I am not a religious person, I liked that bit of perspective. It is a good point and I think that we do focus on the differences when we disagree with someone, rather than on the vast amounts we might have in common. And that’s really the point of Every Day. A wants us to focus on the commonalities of human experience as a way to come together, rather than dwell on the minute differences and let ourselves be dragged apart.

As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I enjoyed the premise (a new body every day), but I did want there to be more to it. Of course, that would make it a dedicated genre novel, rather than more of a YA work. The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret A’s condition: either ze is some kind of “soul” that isn’t linked to a body, or A body swaps every day, with the essence of the host body going to A’s body somewhere. Based on A’s description of how the mind of zir host works (the host seems to remember the day how A wants him/her to remember it, A can access memories of the host’s life), the latter interpretation seems unlikely; however, it is the better launching point for telling an alternate perspective of this story. Imagine, A’s body somewhere waking up everyday confused and alarmed. Parents come in and ask “What’s wrong, Liam?” (or whatever A’s possible “real” name is). The guest consciousness panics, “Liam? Who’s Liam? My name is Ashley. Wait … who are you and WHERE AM I?” You’d get various levels of hysteria from different personalities. Frustrated, Liam’s parents seek professional help, seeing a new doctor every week it seems like. Every day, Liam is someone else and the people are so detailed. Liam is so young, where does he get these ideas? Even worse, Liam never recognizes his parents. Eventually, unable to cope, Liam’s parents send him to a psychiatric institution. Every day, the psych tech wakes Liam up and sometimes she’s frustrated and sometimes she laughs at him. He sees the doctors who ask, “Who are you today?” Every day, Liam is someone new. I think that is a story that would be fun to write, perhaps I will look into that, although it’s likely that the premise has been used before. Even though Every Day didn’t delve deep into the genre stuff, I still liked the system created around A’s talent, if you will. It was consistent and it was interesting. This book might be disappointing if you’re looking for serious science fiction or fantasy, but if you think the premise sounds interesting and you like young adult literature, you will probably enjoy this book.