The insufficiency of language

(Restructured)*: My essay grapples with the concept of language and culture being untranslatable in the literature we’ve read. The Kitchen God’s Wife, How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and The Lazarus Project  are all chiefly about the immigrant experience in America.  Navigating customs and social norms that are not widely upheld in the United States, the characters suffer in struggling to assimilate and find understanding.

  • taking on an English/ anglicized name (The Kitchen God’s Wife How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents)
  • returning to the country of origin in search of identity (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents & The Lazarus Project)
  • finding untranslatable words
  • customs that don’t make sense under the umbrella of American cultural norms

*Originally I had thought to use Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but I realize there that Thomas Schell’s visual communication finds necessity more in historical trauma than immigration. The Lazarus Project lends itself more neatly to the argument of my essay, on the premise that Brik’s world is largely inexplicable to his American wife Mary.


I’m compelled to look at Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, where the renter, Oskar’s grandfather Thomas Schell is a wonderful example of frustration with the English language. The guy essentially becomes a mute after losing his beloved Anna and their unborn child in the bombings in Dresden. He communicates through written phrases in a notebook and with the tattoo’d “Yes” and “No” on his palms.

Perhaps the most memorable instance of Thomas Schell Sr.’s feeling of helplessness with the English language occurs in the letter “Why I’m Not Where You Are… 5/21/63” (particularly p. 30-34) It begins:

“She was extending a hand that I didn’t know how to take, so I broke its fingers with my silence, she said, ‘You don’t want to talk to me, do you?’ I took my daybook out of my knapsack and found the next blank page, the second to last. ‘I don’t speak,’ I wrote. ‘I’m sorry.’…” (30)

It continues into a Schell lamenting over his losses…

“I thought about life, about my life, the embarrassments, the little coincidences, the shadows of alarm clocks on bedside tables. I thought about my small victories and everything I’d seen destroyed, … I’d lost the only person I could have spent my only life with, I’d left behind a thousand tons of marble, I could have released sculptures, I could have released myself from the marble of myself. I’d experienced joy, but not nearly enough,could there be enough? The end of suffering does not justify the suffering, and so there is no end to suffering, what a mess I am, I thought, what a fool, how foolish and narrow, how worthless, how pinched and pathetic, how helpless. None of my pets knowtheir own names, what kind of person am I?I lifted her finger like a record needle and flipped back, one page at a time: Help” (33-34)

Foer himself adheres loosely to the rules of the English language in the renter’s letters. We are reminded that unlike the other characters in the story, the renter is an immigrant.

Hemon directly places the challenge of assimilation before his protagonist, Vladimir Brik, in the character’s marriage to an American woman, Mary, whose highly religious parents are wary of the immigrant son-in-law. Brik is convinced that Mary will leave him because she is the breadwinner of their marriage and he has little to give in return.

Going back to Bosnia, Ukraine, and Moldova, Brik encounters and is immersed by fundamentally different customs than those Americans abide by.

Amy Tan’s more direct treatment of the immigrant trauma itself in The Kitchen God’s Wife is depicted repeatedly through the narrative of the central character, Winnie Louie.

There are many moments when the English language is important in this text, both in its ability to offer an escape and in its shortcomings in translation.

Jiang Weili becomes Winnie Louie when she remarries and moves to San Francisco.

We see moments where Winnie is unable to express herself directly in translation to her daughter, i.e.:

“This word, taonan? Oh, there is no American word I can think of that means the same thing. But in Chinese, we have lots of different words to describe all kinds of troubles. No, ‘refugee’ is not the meaning, not exactly.” Refugee is what you are after you have been taonan and are still alive. And if you are alive, you would never want to talk about what made you taonan. (207)

… “You are lucky you don’t know what this means. But I will tell you what it’s like, how it almost happened to me.” (208)

The struggle with names and translation is repeated in How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

Following the transition of Yolanda’s name, from Yolanda to Yosita to Yoyo to Yo to Joe, is a path to anglicizing her identity. She retreats to the D.R. in the beginning of the story to search for that identity that living in New York had slowly cost her.

We spoke a lot about the “allergic” reaction (or rather overreaction) that Yolanda’s body suffers from the Anglicization – the tension she feels between the “old-world” values of her mother and aunt and the “new world” independent identity that has become a part of her. The “antojo” (8) that Yolanda needs help translating and the balance between Spanish and English vocabulary in the book exemplify the torn identity. The English language is insufficient in complementing Yolanda’s identity without the Spanish words she grew up around.

Attempting to verbally bridge the cultural incongruities in these three novels ventures beyond the bounds of the English language and the American setting. We are faced by the reality that the American city is not on its own a global city, and that in fact the American identity must take in the language and customs of other societies to become in itself global.

Essay Structure:

Introduction: The limitations of English as a means of cultural expression. Introduce the three immigrant-experience novels: Asia, Europe, and Latin America represented (this is not a challenge unique to any one group)

Body 1: Tradition and Ritual in The Kitchen God’s WifeThe concept of the Kitchen God and how Winnie and Pearl end up interpreting this ritual. The untranslatable word for refugee that Winnie shares with Pearl, amidst her challenging immigration story which culminates in changing her name to Winnie Louie.

Body 2: Tradition in How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. The girls’ annual visits to their father’s place. The youngest daughter’s loss of favor on account of her independence and rebellion against strict domestic norms. Adjusting to life in New York is challenging even though it is a city of immigrants.

Body 3: Tradition in The Lazarus Project. The traditional Eastern European concept of catching brain inflammation because of a draft is not one that science or America follows. The manner in which the police respond to a murder – swift and unassuming in Europe vs. wide-scale, long investigation in the United States. Introduce the idea of America as the solution to these problems, a misconception that all three novels touch upon in their own respective ways.

Body 4: Untranslatable words in The Kitchen God’s Wife.

Body 5: Untranslatable words in How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. Also writing in general; the typewriter being passed down. Invention being something that isn’t encouraged in the Dominican patriarchy as it would be in America.

Body 6: Untranslatable words in The Lazarus Project.

Body 7: Going home: Both How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents  and The Lazarus Project involve scenes of characters returning to their countries of origin. They go in search of identity.

Body 8: The fruits of going home (Dominican Republic) for Yolanda. Guava picking, the connotations of being an American, the dangers of encountering peasants/ rebel fighters.

Body 9: The fruits of going home (Eastern Europe) for Brik. He isn’t getting much of his investigative work done. However, the trip helps him reflect on his marriage with Mary and the direction in which his life is going.

Body 10/ Conclusion: How the efforts of the immigrant characters collectively work to preserve their cultural values  and add these to, rather than conflict with, their growing American identity.


Artem —

A great topic.  You might want to be a bit more schematic in laying out the organizational structure of the essay.  While all three novels hint at the insufficiency of the English language, KGW and HGGLTA point to Chinese and Spanish to illustrate the point: there are Chinese words and Spanish sounds with no equivalent in English.  EL & IC, on the other, invoke non-linguistic media (including Foer’s own use of visual material) to show that there are means of expression other than words.  I look forward to an illuminating essay organized along these lines.

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