The Tico Times Publications Group is pleased to announce that its second book, “Love in Translation: Letters to my Costa Rican Daughter,” is now available worldwide. The book, from our Interim Managing Editor Katherine Stanley Obando, takes the reader through a dictionary of costarriqueñismos – the words, phrases, and dichos Costa Ricans use every day – while also telling the story of how her love for the country grew over her first decade in San José.
Stanley, 37, arrived in Costa Rica in 2004 and has worked as a reporter, editor, speechwriter and freelance writer, as well as in a variety of roles in the nonprofit sector. After the birth of her daughter in San José in 2013, she began writing about Costa Rican language and culture, both on her personal blog, The Dictionary of You, and in a popular Tico Times column called Maeology. Many of these writings are included in the new book, which follows our Publications Group’s first title, “The Green Season,” by Robert Isenberg (2015). “Love in Translation” has garnered praise for former President Oscar Arias, former First Lady Henrietta Boggs, author Carlos Arauz and National Culture Award-Winner María Mayela Padilla, who says it offers “a valuable lesson: that our language and culture are rich and worthy of preservation. We must carry in our souls the pride of being Costa Rican, just the way we are.”
In your words, what is this book about?
I’m a New Englander, and we don’t throw the word “love” around a whole lot, but that’s really what it’s about and why it ended up in the title: love of the way Costa Rica talks and thinks, love of the country in general, and how that eventually grew into my family… My view of the book has changed a little bit throughout 2016, which has been a hard year for lots of people in different ways. I hope it provides a little escape for readers but also a testament to the beauty that is created when different cultures meet and when people move beyond their own borders, literally and emotionally.
Tells us a little about the format of the book and the material that makes it up.
The blog it grew from, which I started as an outlet for all the thoughts whizzing around my brain when I was home with my baby daughter, was called “The Dictionary of You,” because my original idea was to write one letter to my daughter for every letter of the alphabet, looking at a Costa Rican phrase or expression that started with that letter.
That’s basically how it is set up: “a” is for “antiguo higuerón,” the once-and-future fig tree that looms so large in Costa Rican direction-giving, and the essay explores getting lost as a new arrival. “B” is for “breteanding,” a Spanglish spin you sometimes hear on “brete,” or work. And so on. These alternate with brief journal entries that trace my 12 years in Costa Rica and how my life changed along the way.
A lot of your writing, especially your Maeology column for The Tico Times, is centered on language and Costa Rican slang. How has understanding Costa Rican Spanish helped you understand Costa Rica?
The two have gone hand in hand the whole way. For one thing, my husband, Adrián, uses slang constantly, so starting to understand it was a key part of dating him and falling in love with him and his country. And to me, the process of understanding a language runs parallel to the process of understanding a country. You hear a phrase you don’t understand and someone explains it – fine – but it might be years later that the real meaning sinks into your bones, the philosophy behind it, what it represents. I expect that process to continue forever, just about.
When you were putting together this book and looked back at journal entries from your first years in Costa Rica, what struck you about the way you perceived the country and your place in it compared to now?
I think back to those early days in the country so often – they were so formative for me, so indedibly inked on my brain – that there weren’t really any big surprises, to be honest.
What’s your favorite Costa Rican dicho or slang term?
Manda huevo. Untranslatable, essential, so expressive. I am often very critical when native speakers of English, including me, sprinkle Spanish into their conversation with other English speakers – sometimes it’s done in a “oh, my Spanish is just so good that I can’t remember the English words anymore” kind of way – but manda huevo is one phrase I do sometimes use when I’m speaking English because there’s just no equivalent.
The letters to your daughter included in the book started as a blog that you began writing at a time when most people stop doing anything other than surviving: you had a new baby and multiple demanding jobs, and you were living in a city notorious for long commute times and frequent traffic jams. How and why did you decide to take up this project and continue to make the time to keep up with it?
It was actually an unusually quiet time in my life. I did juggle a lot of work from home, but I was still going very long stretches without exchanging a single word out loud with another adult. As any new parent can attest, when I did speak, it was usually to my husband, and those weren’t exactly quality conversations. My husband worked nights. I would put our daughter to bed and the house would be so exquisitely quiet; my brain would be so full of things I wanted to tell her. The blog just sort of spilled out of that. I see so many new moms start blogs, and I think it comes from that same kind of feeling: you have this new urgency to all the things you want to say, but the person you most want to hear them is not capable of listening yet. And you write.
You’ve raised your child almost entirely in Costa Rica thus far, but what have you found surprising about raising a child here that seems different in the United States?
That’s a big part of the book, too, and hard to sum up. I’ve been surprised by how kind and accommodating people are here, including in professional situations – I can’t really compare it to the States, since I’ve never had a kid there, but from what I gather from friends, I am fortunate in that sense. And on the sillier side, I was surprised to find that no matter what your baby is wearing, you will always be told to put more clothing on her. Always.
What do you hope your daughter learns from her bicultural upbringing?
That’s a great question. I’ve never really thought of it quite that way – I tend to think of all the benefits of a bicultural upbringing as a huge bonus, like that’s a given, and then worry about what I hope she doesn’t get from it. Like, I hope it doesn’t make her feel rootless or lonely. But what I hope she does get from it: sensitivity, I guess, and an appreciation for other people’s complexities. I hope, for example, that she will be slower to judge an immigrant, or a person learning a new language, or a person trying to fit in, because she will have been exposed to a lot of people in that category. Of course, it could go the other way and she could move in between cultures so easily that she is arrogant about that ability.
Do you consider yourself an expat? And have your thoughts about that word and concept changed over time?
I consider myself an immigrant, although that’s a whole topic all its own and a column I’ve been meaning to write. When you look up a definition of either term, they both apply to me and in fact are pretty much interchangeable on the page, but in real life they have so much baggage and so many connotations.
The fact that I came here more or less on a lark, with a lot of educational and economic privilege that allowed me to hit the ground running as a teacher and then a reporter, would suggest that maybe I should be called an expat, and I haven’t had to face all the challenges that many immigrants face and for which they deserve so much respect. However, I have also made a life here and integrated, or sometimes failed to integrate, often in entertaining ways. Now I’ve put down some pretty serious roots here, and feel that I am an immigrant.
Of course, just the fact that I get to choose how to define myself represents a huge level of privilege. I guess I also use the term because I am so angry about the negative way it is being used in the United States, and am conscious that we apply it to most any foreigner with no regard for that person’s story. Basically I just wish we, especially in the United States, could free “immigrant” from some of its baggage and celebrate the incredible diversity that the word carries with it.
Read more about Stanley and “Love in Translation” here.