Translation in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo According to Bill Johnson Gonzales Analysis

Though I am aware that this is not a creative writing assignment, I cannot help but, at the very least, mention my personal experience as a first generation Mexican-American as it was fundamentally influential to my choice to read Sandra Cisneros’s novel as well as my overall understanding and analysis of Caramelo. Reading Caramelo has awakened within me senses, memories, experiences that have been dormant, or as Celaya, according to Gonzales, repressed for many years.

As a child, raised by my mami, Tita (Cristina Ellen), and my abuelita, Cristi (Maria Cristina), Spanish was the only language spoken at home. Like Celaya, when spoken to in Spanish, I replied in English. Birthdays, we sang “Las Mananitas,” “The Little Mornings,” instead of Happy Birthday, just as Celaya recalls in Caramelo. We celebrated “las posadas,” the twelve days of Christmas with a rosca, bread in the forma of a cake, large and redondo, round, with a plastic bebe, baby, Jesus baked within.

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On the day of los Reyes Magos, the three wise men, our shoes were filled with pesetas, coins. Abuelita, or grama as I called her in my Spanglish, prepared: tamales dulces, sweet, of pineapple and strawberry; chiles rellenos, filled with raisins, meat, nuts, and topped with salsa agria, sour cream, and queso, cheese; flan; paella, rice with seafood.

Summers we drove forever, manejabamos lejisimos, just as Celaya, mami’s left arm quemada, burnt red, across the border and all the way through Mexico, 18 hours, with el PoPo, Mt. Popocatepetl, always on the horizon. Usually two months in Cuernavaca, though we always made it to tio Pepe’s country house in Cuatla and las tias Ampudias y los primos, cousins, in Monterrey, Montemorelos, and Mexico City for a few weeks.

Reading Celaya’s journey has facilitated the manifestation of my vivid recollections: cutting platanos with the machete, mami’s sharp knife that resembled a sword which she wore on her belt; picking mangos, limones, papayas; retrieving los huevos, the eggs, from las gallinas, the hens; curling my toes up to mami’s belly because.  I was terrified of the alacranes at night, las casa del campo, the country house was full of scorpions; getting leche, milk, from the man on el caballo, horse, in metal jugs; helping tia Rosita take plumas, feathers from the pollo, chicken, still tibio, warm to the touch; riding cousin Omar’s burro, donkey, Spike, but he pronounced it Espayk, all over the Mexican country-side until returning to la casa, the house, to be scolded by tio, uncle, Pepe for having missed la comida, lunch; aromas of el Mercado, the market: the smell of raw carne, meat, and pescado, fish; sweetness from the stand of frutas, fruit; the frying of chicharrones, pork rind; the aguas frescas, juices, melon, cantaloupe, sandia, watermelon, pina, pineapple.

My abuelita, grama, and mami have both passed on, se han muerto, and the language es lo que me queda de ellas, it’s what I have retained of them. I found it coincidental, yet worth mentioning, that I find myself mirroring, at least aesthetically, the character of Celaya’s aunt within the novel. Norma, la guera, “well look at her” (Cisneros 29).

This echoes the way I am addressed and referred to in Mexico to a T. Bill Johnson Gonzales notes that Cisneros chooses to only use “guera” to describer her fair skinned aunt this once in the entire novel, instead calling her “aunty light skin” the remainder of the story. I am in complete agreement with Gonzales’s analysis on this as he states that Celaya’s English version, “aunty light skin,” feels like a decontextualization and a restriction…vulnerable to being misunderstood…ignores the complexities of class, complexion, and hair color that “guera” conjures up…stripped of the sentimentality that softens the use of the word ‘guera’ in Spanish (Gonzales 13).

Reading Caramelo has brought me a greater appreciation and understanding of my bilingual, multicultural upbringing and my knowledge of the English and Spanish languages, however I carry a similar frustration, or perhaps insecurity, inadequacy, to that of the character of Celaya, as I find myself struggling in both languages. Celaya says, “I don’t have the words for what I want to say. Not in English. Not in Spanish” (Cisneros 60). I have experienced this my entire life: completed first grade in Mexico City, only to return to The United States and have to repeat first grade in English; always forgetting to use prepositions when I speak in English, they are not as necessary in Spanish sometimes, put your socks, ponte los calcetines; misusing gender and verb tenses in Spanish, there is no gender differentiation in English, la and el in place of the.

Bill Johnson Gonzales describes Celaya’s “linguistic perplexities” as “compounded by the fact that she is intellectually located in the interstices between two fiercely nationalistic (and often politically opposed) cultures and the fields of meanings each strives to stabilize by promoting a single national language as hegemonic” (Gonzales 2).

Regresando a Mi Analisis, Getting Back to My Analysis In her novel, Caramelo, Sandra Cisneros uses her specialized knowledge of both the English and Spanish languages to create a composition of writing that is as diverse in its effect on the reader as it is precise. Caramelo critically depicts diversity with its varying use of rhetoric: the translation of words from English to Spanish and vice versa; the differences in the ethic and cultural values of the characters on either side of the border; the descriptions and comparisons of food, colors, and aromas of Mexico; the peculiar use of language that causes everyday things to seem unfamiliar.

In his critical article, “The Politics of Translation in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo: Translation, Defamiliarization, Ethics,” Bill Johnson Gonzales says that “for bilingual readers, as we shall see, Celaya’s translations of everyday expressions make available a new, often defamiliarizing perspective on the original Spanish, an effect that gives her translations a critical edge and brings her Mexican American family’s diasporic difference from traditional Mexican culture into the novel” (Gonzales 2).

This critical effect that Cisneros exhibits through her, somewhat removed, use of the Spanish language is something that can be seen from the very beginning in the novel. The thesis of Gonzales’s article argues that Sandra Cisneros, through her novel Caramelo, uses translation and the Spanish and English languages as a means to “interrogate, rather than preserve, the traditional norms of Mexican culture and in particular eveal the exclusions and repressions by means of which those norms are secured” (Gonzales 4).

Bill Johnson states that this is accomplished, in the novel, by translation, defamiliarization, and ethics. More specifically, through the differences and the manner in which meanings change when they are translated from Spanish to English and vice versa, the manner in which Cisneros forces the reader to see things with an altered perspective, and the concentration on the moral variations between the two different cultures in which Celaya finds herself. Translation is certainly the dominant factor that allows Caramelo to criticize traditional Mexican culture.

In the novel, Celaya by representing elements of her family’s speech to herself (and the reader) in a language that is foreign to the original, and by moving back and forth between languages in different contexts…is able to notice subtle differences and slippages of meaning between Spanish and English that give her a heightened awareness of the contingency of meaning in both languages (Gonzales 2). This process is referred to as “code switching” Code switching is a border phenomenon studied by linguists where the speaker/writer goes back and forth between English and Spanish (Guerin 293). For example, when the ceiling caves in upstairs, Celaya has no words to explain to her parents what has happened.

She declares, “the wall has fallen” in English and “La pared arriba, es que se callo,” in Spanish. Her parents, not knowing what she means are reluctant to follow her. When her father finally sees what has happened, he declares that “se cayo el cielo raso! ” Celaya points out that this is the word she was searching for within herself, to no avail. However, she points out that this is also the word her father uses to call her “my heaven,” mi cielo (Cisneros 60-61). Ironically, her father uses “cielo” to mean ceiling, however he is doing so as an exaggeration. Because, the word for ceiling is actually techo. He uses it this way, however, in order to mean, what would be in English, the sky has fallen.

Gonzales points this difference out within his article, and for a bilingual reader, the meaning is understood as an exaggeration where it may be missed and seen as a literal translation for a reader who is not aware there is another word to mean ceiling. Another example is when the Awful Grandmother refers to her children saying “all my sons are sons” (Cisneros 29). This confuses Celaya, because in English sons does not carry multiple meaning as it does in Spanish. Whereas, “hijos” means both sons and children. Gonzales says that Celaya is in a liminal location, stuck between both cultures, and this provides her with an “epistemological privilege with respect to both nations” (Gonzales 4). Gonzales also believes that Celaya is “simultaneously inside and outside the norms” of both cultures but does not fit completely in either one (Gonzales 4).

In regards to Cisneros’s “code switching” Gonzales declares that in addition to the “code switching” Cisneros also makes the English sound strange in a way that “fractures” the language. He feels that this forces “monolingual English readers” to view and experience English from the altered perspective from which Cisneros has “rearticulated” the language (Gonzales 5). Gonzales also argues that translation within Caramelo imposes on the reader “an ethical confrontation with difference” (Gonzales 5). He points out that “in the shock of the moment” a monolingual English reader notices a strangely written English phrase, or a Spanish phrase that when translated into English has an altered meaning, this causes the reader to question “what is correct English and why” (Gonzales 5)?

He seems to believe that this sort of culture shock, the anxiety and frustration that comes from being placed in another culture, causes the reader to reevaluate their perception and understanding of the language and question whether what they “think” they mean is what they are “actually” saying (Gonzales 5). Gonzales provides some examples in his article of instances in which Cisneros translates Spanish phrases to English in a way that makes them sound strange. Here a couple of excerpts from the examples Gonzales uses to support his argument: “shut your snout” for “cierra el hocico” (Cisneros 6). In Spanish when children are misbehaving, they are sometimes referred to in animalistic vocabulary; “my heaven” for “mi cielo’ (Cisneros 24); “it’s that she has shame” for “es que tiene verguenza” (Cisneros 73).

This more correctly means, she’s embarrassed, but Cisneros chooses to do literal translations. Gonzales argues that these translations would sound different to a bilingual reader, “who might smile to themselves in recognition as they come across these moments in the text,” than they would to a monolingual reader who would see them and think that they are poor translations (Gonzales 8). He states that “good translation” would be the foreign language translated in a way that would be read and spoken smoothly (Gonzales 8). Gonzales does not agree with the idea that “good” translation should smoothly incorporate into the language to which it is being translated.

He makes reference to several supporting articles, which all confer that good translation therefore becomes the means through which the foreignness of another language-the difference in the way another language apprehends the world, which supplements my own apprehension of it-enters my own language in such a way that my own language in fundamentally transformed by it. Producing an echo of the original’s foreignness in the target language renews and broadens the expressive capacities of the second language and brings us closer to ‘pure language’ (Gonzales 8-9).

This is an important aspect of Gonzales’s article and it is made valid through the examples and supporting evidence he incorporates in his discussion. He says that this is only possible if the translator, in this case, Cisneros, discovers a way to affect her language in a way that makes it new and different. This affect on translation “fractures” the English “by importing new forms of expression into it” (Gonzales 9).

Gonzales also convinces us that Caramelo is trying to “Hispanicize” English by expanding it through Spanish, and alludes to the “limitations of any one language” (Gonzales 10). He provides and example from the novel to support this idea. He illuminates the way that English contrasts from Spanish in its “directness of communication” (Gonzales 10). Que strange was English, rude and to the point. No one preceded a request with a-Will you be so kind as to do me the favor of…as one ought. They just asked! Nor did they add-If God wills it…to their plans, as if they were in audacious control of their own destiny. It was a barbarous language! Curt as the commands of a dog trainer (Cisneros 209). This is actually something that we bilingual readers notice as a massive cultural difference.

Gonzales makes a good point on this, and it is something that a bilingual reader will be reminded of and a monolingual reader will be presented with, perhaps for the first time, which in turn does just what Gonzales is arguing that Cisneros wants to do: force the reader to see things from another perspective, defamiliarizes them, and makes them reevaluate themselves as well as criticize the norms of the English language. It seems that this is exactly what Cisneros is attempting to illuminate, according to Gonzales and here we are slapped with it, point blank. Gonzales affirms that the way the two languages compete transforms them both and this “introduces new forms of expression into English, as well as expanding the consciousness of the significance of the Spanish original” (Gonzales 11).

Gonzales also points out in his article that since Sandra Cisneros is a “Chicana” writer, her relationships to both Spanish and English are problematic. He tells us that this is because of certain unavoidable aspects of her existence, such as “poverty, marginalization, migration, class subordination, regional dialect” (Gonzales 12). This is something that, as a bilingual reader, was apparent when reading the novel. Depending on one’s social class, a reader may see the text as “too literal” at times (Gonzales 12). This was a recurring reaction, while reading the novel, and is dependant entirely on who you are as a reader. Some of the language in the novel was of what some bilingual reader may see as not only Chicano, but also as a lower class way of speaking.

Once again this is entirely dependant on who you are as a reader and that is part of what Gonzales is focusing on is his article. The differentiation of interpretation, which changes grandiosely depending on whether one is bilingual, monolinguistic, American, or Mexican. There are examples within Caramelo that exhibit racial prejudice such as: Celaya thinking that “beautiful is Aunty Light Skin” (Cisneros 34); “How can you let that Indian play with you…she’s dirty” (Cisneros 36); and Celaya’s grandmother saying “my son could have done better than marrying a woman who can’t even speak proper Spanish. You sound like you escaped from the ranch” (Cisneros 85).

Gonzales argues that these evident differences in cultures and use of language shed light on the differences of Celaya’s family to that of the traditional Mexican culture (Gonzales 12). Gonzales reaffirms that Cisneros uses these racial references not because she wants to preserve cultural differences, but rather confront both languages to compare the meanings of race in both languages (Gonzales 15). Gonzales concludes that Caramelo succeeds in laying bare the exclusions and repressions of Celaya within the novel. Also, that this is accomplished through the use of translation. He reminds us of the photograph which is taken on her summer vacation.

Celaya recalls that because she was missing from the picture it was “as if she didn’t exist” (Cisneros 4). It is because of this that Celaya questions memories and how complete they really are. She questions what is repressed in contrast with what she actually remembers. Near the end of Caramelo, Celaya once again looks at the same family photo. Noticing, again, that she is not in it. She says, “Same as always, they forgot all about me” (Cisneros 422). Her sister tells her that she was not in the picture because she was mad and wouldn’t come over. Gonzales argues that Cisneros’s character not only has gaps in her memory, but rather exclusions and repressions and that they are a “product of a certain way of looking at the world” (Gonzales 16).

It seems that Gonzales thinks that Celaya’s repressions were caused by the differences between the cultures in which she found herself. And that, through the use of translation, those repressions and exclusions of memory were able to manifest and allow for a new and different way of viewing the world, or in this case the two cultures and languages in question. Overall, Bill Johnson Gonzales is successful in supporting his argument that the use of translation exposes differences between the cultures and languages in Caramelo. The article does add quite a bit to my understanding of Caramelo. At first read, I found myself judging Celaya for her misuse of language and use of “Spanglish” within the book.

After reading Gonzales’s article, however I was able to take a step back, remove my own educated prejudices and reevaluate not only the novel, but myself as well. I found that, like Celaya, I had many repressed memories of my childhood. Reading Caramelo has allowed me to appreciate my bicultural heritage as well as familiarize myself a little bit with the Chicano culture, because while I am of Mexican heritage, I have not found myself a part of the Chicano culture, due to class, education, and the traditions instilled within me by my “grama. ” One aspect that I felt was lacking in discussion within Gonzales’s article was the positive aspects of the traditional Mexican culture, that I personally value immeasurably.

Though they differ slightly among classes, some examples are, the importance of family structure and togetherness, respect for elders, religion, and education. Perhaps another take on Caramelo could have been that Celaya lacks the values that come with tradition and are lost or at least altered during diasporas, or immigration. The fact that I was raised by a “traditional Mexican” grandmother puts me in a grey area when it comes to where I am on the Mexican-American cultural spectrum per-se. My grandmother and mother, after my grandfather lost his fortune and passed away, migrated to the United States. Though we have always been financially handicapped, we have retained a certain traditional demeanor with respect to Mexican culture.

I do appreciate Gonzales’s take on Cisneros’s novel and understand many of Celaya’s frustrations within the text. Personally, however, I would have liked Gonzales to at least touch on the importance of tradition, in any culture, and how it is, in my personal opinion, apparently lacking within Caramelo. I would have liked Gonzales to somehow incorporate the importance of tradition and the lack there of within Caramelo. I found that Caramelo has been useful in broadening my perspective of sub cultures within the United States and I found Bill Johnson Gonzales’s article to present and support valid points on the effects that Sandra Cisneros uses of translation in Caramelo.

His article is effective in supporting what he is wishing to prove: the effect that translation has on bilingual and monolingual readers; the defamiliarization that comes with diasporas; the differing aspects between Chicano and traditional Mexican cultures.

Works Cited

  1. Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo. Vintage Contemporaries, A Division of Random House, New York (2002).
  2. Gonzalez, Bill. “The Politics of Translation in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo. ” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17. 3 (2006): 3-19.
  3. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
  4. Guerin, Wilfred L. , Labor, Earl. , Morgan, Lee. , Reesman, Jeanne C. , Willingham, John R. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. Fifth Edition. Oxford University Press (2005).

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