Thesis: ‘Spanglishes’ on the move: reading and translating bilingualism in the work of four contemporary prose writers

Dr. Ellen C. Jones, Queen Mary University, London


Thesis: ‘Spanglishes’ on the move: reading and translating bilingualism in the work of four contemporary prose writers.


Comments on “Zero Negative – Cero Negativo”, a collection of short stories on the subject of bloodshed, by Isabel del Rio (Araña Editorial, Valencia, 2012)


Zero Negative/Cero Negativo accommodates ambivalence and contradiction in abundance. It advocates translation for the way it helps us to see from other perspectives, but also cautions against its limitations; it demonstrates our common humanity by representing situations that resonate with people all around the world, but also depicts the way globalisation strips us of our individuality; it insists on an equal relationship between English and Spanish while actually giving subtle precedence to the latter; it attempts to use neutral, ‘global’ language, and yet its stories are haunted by the ghosts of locality. I argue that this book sees value in the rich transnational connectivity of twenty-first century life but also warns against its risks.




Zero Negative/Cero Negativo does not restrict itself merely to two versions of each text, however; each story itself contains multiple, often proliferating layers. Many of the stories are about telling stories and retelling them, about the value of doubling and parallel versions. They thematise all manner of different narratives: written narratives such as short stories, newspaper articles, biographies, detective novels, film scripts, and transcripts, and performed narratives such as magic shows, performance art, staged executions, and role play. Characters are constantly writing and re-writing their own stories, which are then doubled again by their inclusion in two languages, and they often express a sense of having done things before, or of repeating themselves. 



Like ghosts with unfinished business, the circularity, repetition, and openness of the stories in Zero Negative/Cero Negativo give the impression that it remains both unfinalised and unfinalisable. The stories’ prevailing sense of ‘toujours déjà vu’ is reiterated at a formal level, whereby the second version in each pair takes us back to the ‘beginning’. (...) The collection illustrates the way translation renders a given story perpetually unfinished and therefore always capable of being told differently. There is something fundamentally ‘out of joint’ about its textual organisation, in which each version is haunted by its previous and future alternatives.



In the context of this increased appetite for limiting global mobility and connectivity by closing down borders against migrants and refugees, when inward-looking visions of the nation as a defined and bordered entity are resurfacing, Zero Negative/Cero Negativo reads as an urgent call for us to perceive our common humanity and to tolerate difference. Del Río... rejects reader insularity and complacency, and instead proposes multiplicity (textual as well as linguistic) as a means of achieving critical rigour, committed, open-minded engagement with cultural others, and the cross-lingual sharing of ideas. 

Dr Nathalie Teitler, Director, The Complete Works II

Isabel's writing is bold and unique, reminiscent of the political satire of Kafka and Bolano. She is that rare creature- a truly bilingual artist, offering her readers an experience which draws on both Spanish and English language and culture

Susana Medina, writer


A consummate story-teller, Isabel del Rio’s collection of stories range from mental delinquencies, to role-playing, to the reality of torture and lack of empathy, now playful, now deadly serious.  A singular collection, narrated with seductive intelligence, a treat for the bilingual brain, which is the brain of the future.  Zero negative-Cero negativo uses two languages to tell us that there is always more than two sides to a story, as well as to configure a pattern with variations which become increasingly unpredictable and intriguing. 

Isabel Hurtado de Mendoza, translator at Lingotrans

"This book will make you wonder how Isabel del Rio can be so playful and so serious, so faithful and so creative at the same time.  It was a brave venture for Isabel and her publishers I’m sure, but it was well worth taking the risk.  This is a truly unique collection of stories.”

Lorna Scott-Fox, critic and translator


Twice-told tales

Isabel del Río’s experimental collection of stories is a rare example of a writer deliberately limiting her best readership, in this case to people fluent in both Spanish and English. Though the pieces are certainly rewarding for those who can read only half, bilinguals are treated to a multi-layered literary experience that is, I think, unprecedented. All translators are familiar with the mysterious pull, so often exerted by the target language’s inner being, to say something subtly – or utterly – different from the source. In translating oneself, this temptation can be happily indulged in. But del Río’s structure of paired stories – the Spanish ‘version’ always placed first, even when it might have been created second – goes further, as the two texts diverge here or there for any number of reasons, producing a slippery effect of quasi-fidelities and treacherous mirrorings. 

Sometimes only a few words differ; more often we find twists of setting, narrative detail, emotional focus, or denoument. One pair of stories lacks any resemblance at all, forcing us to search for the buried link. Always we approach the second text with the knowledge afforded by the first. At the end of ‘Aproximación’, for instance, we discover that the apparent flirtation between a boss and his employee is something rather less spontaneous: so we begin ‘Nearly There!’ with a different attention, focused, as in ordinary re-reading, on process rather than plot, but with the added stimulus of the other language and alert to any changes. Of course as we leaf back and forth, comparing, the English text also retroactively qualifies the Spanish. Complementing and contradicting each other, each pair of stories coalesces into one, hazy, shifting Ur-text in our tantalized imaginations. 

The pairs are not hermetic, however.  Links and echoes are scattered across the whole book, most noticeably in the recurrence of the blood theme announced by the title.  From impending storms to the gesture of stretching out an arm, moments and phrases hook up to form a unifying net beneath disparate themes and moods.  Del Rio’s abrasive fantasy transforms mundane settings like park cafés or research libraries as easily as it plunges us into terrifying vignettes of senseless war and other avatars of apocalypse.  Her characters are often mad, confused, or defeated; but a bracing lack of psychological and interpersonal verisimilitude, plus the hovering presence of the supernatural, gives us the feeling of having passed into a nightmare parallel world whose playfulness compounds its desolation. We cannot ‘identify’ with her characters: their deformity lifts them above human poignancy to hint at vast, dark forces loose in the world. 

If translation is essentially about doubleness, dualities also mark the philosophical dynamics of the collection.  Two characters are often confronted, one challenging or accusing the other; couples are hopelessly at cross-purposes; actions can have contrary motives or outcomes in their couple-stories.  If translation reminds us of the mutability and provisionality of every text, the stories likewise tell us that in life, nothing is fixed or inevitable or what it seems, and signs exist to be misinterpreted. 

ZERO negative / CERO negativo dances on the reflections and instabilities projected by the very notion of translation, and it seems extraordinary that we’ve waited so long for something conceptually compelling to be done around this practice. Too bad for the monolinguals!

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