Localization in the Time of Love and Cholera

Localization pops up in some of the most interesting ways. Recently, I was working my way through Gabriel García Máquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (Spanish: El amor en los tiempos del cólera). The novel was published in 1985, and the English translation appeared in January 1988. The novel deals with a 50-year love triangle set in the late nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth century in an unnamed port city somewhere in the Caribbean.

Fermina Daza, the main female character in the novel, has just married a physician, Juvenal Urbino. The novel’s narrator describes Fermina’s way of interacting with the world as a married woman: “Before she had been married a year, she moved through the world with the same assurance that had been hers as a little girl in the wilds of San Juan de la Ciénaga, as if she has been born with it, and she had a facility for dealing with strangers that left her husband dumbfounded, and a mysterious talent for making herself understood in Spanish with anyone, anywhere. ‘You have to know languages when you go to sell something,’ she said with mocking laughter. ‘But when you go to buy, everyone does what he must to understand you.’”

Because she has married well and has money to spend, Fermina realizes the power of the buyer. Her “mysterious talent for making herself understood in Spanish with anyone, anywhere” is really not so “mysterious” after all. Any potential seller to Fermina should realize the necessity of speaking her language — Spanish — if a business transaction will take place. That is why Fermina says with “mocking laughter” that “you have to know languages when you go to sell something.” Notice the word is sell, not buy. As a buyer, Fermina can make herself understood in Spanish, remaining within the comfort zone of her native language.

But if Fermina were to change positions and become a seller, then her Spanish would not be enough if she moved into markets in other countries. This situation brings to mind the oft-quoted remark by Willy Brandt, former German chancellor (1969-1974): “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you must speak German].” Fermina knows this — the different roles that language plays if one is a seller or a buyer. Not a bad insight from a novel written over 20 years ago!

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