Making Love In English
By Barbara Eldridge
(Republished by Request)
Years ago, when I was a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, I attended a reading by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. The event was held in the Hurst Lounge, a small venue with plush sofas and massive medieval tapestries designed to render an air of literary sophistication for the audience of university professors and their students. Nevertheless, when Fuentes strode to the podium, two women behind me abandoned all pretense and audibly sighed, “Oh my god, he’s so handsome!”
Fuentes was indeed a charismatic presence and an energetic reader. That night he read from his novel The Death of Artemio Cruz. He gave a dynamic performance made even more impressive because he was reading from the Spanish version of his novel and translating on the spot into English. As the son of a diplomat, Fuentes spent much of his childhood in the United States, so he was equally fluent in Spanish and English. During the question and answer period that followed the reading, someone asked him which language he preferred. His answer was diplomatic. “I dream in Spanish,” he said.
I recall one significant moment when Fuentes faltered in his reading. He’d come to a scene that caused him to pause. An awkward silence followed for which Fuentes apologized. He explained his difficulty. The passage was one in which his characters were about to make passionate love. He could not translate it into English, he said, because “it would sound like pornography.”
It’s been over three decades since the night of that reading, but I still regret not asking Fuentes to elaborate on his remark. Not one person at that reading asked for an explanation. I think at some level we all agreed it was true. Making love in English can sound like pornography.
Still, I wonder, why would a passionate love scene be acceptable in Spanish, but not in English? I suppose the obvious answer is that Spanish is a Romance language and English is…well, not. I should qualify. As a member of that group of languages descended from Latin, Spanish belongs to the Romance languages, but we can’t deny that it can also be very romantic. Its vowels create repetition and rhyme, the fundamental patterns of poetry. Its various cadences are emotional and expressive. It’s no surprise that Spanish is the language of some of the world’s most beautiful love poetry—Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair—poems so powerful that when first published, they reportedly sent more than one heartbroken lover to his death.
Fiction writers are at a disadvantage when writing about passion. They are bound to place and time, not simply to imagery. They must render the continuous action the reader expects in a scene. The problem is, as Fuentes suggested, English can be rather crude. Like many of the Germanic languages, it often sounds like so much coughing and spitting. It can be dominated by abrupt one-syllable Anglo-Saxon action verbs, what editors want when they tell writers to “punch it up.” Verbs like “thrust” or “throb” or “suck.” Or, like “punch.” Words with violent overtones. Words that lead to graphic depictions.
When I was an undergraduate, I took a seminar in the works of D.H. Lawrence. My professor pointed out with salacious glee every time Lawrence used the word “erect.” If a character rode a horse, he sat erect in the saddle, etc. Lawrence would have considered my professor a pervert. In his treatise on pornography and obscenity, Lawrence claimed that in his novels graphic depictions of sex were not pornographic. Rather, it was the public perception that was twisted. He wanted to equate the sex act in fiction with a metaphysical experience. He approached the sex scene with a revolutionary fervor, but his real battle was with the censors of his time. Luckily, a judge saw the literary merit of his work.
It’s possible when Carlos Fuentes skipped the translation of the sex scene at his reading, he was simply being sensitive to cultural differences. Even translated into English, Fuentes’ writing is of the highest literary merit. Audiences, on the other hand, can twist words.
Today we have an entire genre of fiction devoted to graphic sex without much fear of censorship. The romance novel is wildly popular, in spite of its dubious literary merits. I recently ran across an article on the internet announcing a popular romance writer’s latest novel. In the comments section, one of her readers wrote that she hoped this novel spent more time on character development and less on graphic sex. Another reader commented, “Oh grow up!”
We’ve come a long way since D.H. Lawrence. I consider the romance novel with its attempts at titillation to be soft porn, mainly for women. I may be one of the few who never finished reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I picked it up to see what all the shouting was about, and put it down because the writing was tedious. (He pushes her up against the wall. He reaches between her legs…yada yada yada yada).
So how do you write a passionate love scene in English without it sounding like pornography? I think first of all, you must have characters the reader can care about. What’s missing from so much writing today is the idea that the union of two bodies, two souls is an act of intimacy. It’s not just panting and groping. So how do you make it meaningful? How do you give it literary merit? One answer, I think, is to borrow from the poets.
One of the most memorable sex scenes in English literature came from Ernest Hemingway, a writer with so much affinity for the Spanish language and the sensibility of the people. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s characters, Robert Jordan and Maria, whom the reader has come to know, make passionate love, and afterwards they tenderly ask each other, “Did the earth move for you?” Yes, Carole King used the line in a song. It’s no longer fresh, but in the context of the novel, it still works. It’s a simple metaphor that translates into any language. It is intimate. It is powerful. It is pure poetry.