Feature Article

  • Nick Caistor

    Rereading some of the earlier feature articles in this series, I am struck by how many of the authors vividly remember how they were first introduced to literature in Spanish thanks to books they read in the original at secondary school. Something similar happened with me, although in my case the books I read at school and still vividly remember were in French.


    We pored over, translated and discussed the novels, broadening not only our French vocabulary, but our sense of a society different from our own, and getting at least a tiny glimpse of its history, related from a different point of view. These books were both stimulating and liberating - even if we did not always appreciate it on soporific Friday afternoons, just waiting to be let loose for the weekend. They offered possibilities of other worlds, and of a certain kind of freedom, even if only in our imaginations. As teenagers, we were open to anything that helped to broaden our experience, to radically change our minds, to challenge others (especially adults), and to enjoy ourselves.  


    Increasingly though in the UK’s state school system, not only books in another language, but any foreign language itself is seen as ‘too difficult’. Since 2004, when a Labour government decided it should no longer be compulsory to study a modern foreign language past the third year of secondary school, the number of pupils taking a language GCSE at 16 has fallen from 76% in 2002 to less than 50%. In many UK secondary schools, students are given ‘tasters’ in different languages, usually only for one term, and then have to choose just one of them to study in slightly greater depth, but not beyond their third year. As the focus of education has increasingly become dominated by exam results, secondary school students have turned to subjects where they think it will be easier to obtain a higher grade and so pass on up through the system. The recent COVID pandemic has only made the situation worse: according to a recent report from the British Council, less than half of state schools offered any foreign language teaching during the lockdowns.


    These summary introductions to other languages, including Spanish, do not include any written literature. If the spoken language is seen as too hard, all the more reason not to dumbfound students with something that has strange vocabulary, complicated grammar, ambiguities and ideas that question the prevailing fashion.


    This bypassing of Spanish or other books of literature (and God forbid there should be any mention of poetry) is not restricted to GCSE studies. Some years ago, my daughters chose to study Spanish for ‘A’ level, taken at the end of secondary schooling. Here again, they were never required to pick up any book written in Spanish - at most, they were given newspaper articles to study and comment on, most of which seemed concerned with the old clichés of ‘for and against bullfighting’ or ‘Real Madrid or Barcelona FC?’.                             


    Nor does this shunning of literature in Spanish or other foreign languages end there. I have led classes on translation in several British universities, and in some the students were not required to read any novels, poems, or plays. In one well-established university for example, I was teaching students in their final year - they had already spent a year living in Spain as part of their course - and yet none of them had ever read (or possibly even heard of?) Cervantes and Don Quixote. 


    Depressingly, this attitude is often promoted by the lecturers teaching them these courses. Ever since the idea that universities exist to provide skills that lead to employment, rather than any more humanistic ideal of what a good education might be, university staff have enthusiastically taught Spanish and other languages not through those countries’ history or their literary canon, but as ‘language for business’, ‘everyday language for sports’, and so on. 


    Many of the newer, more business-oriented universities have even given up offering courses in languages, as they are seen as not sufficiently marketable. Just as there is a risk that the thorough study of languages and literatures at a secondary level risks will become the preserve of public schools, so at university level, it may be that only the more elite Russell Group institutions continue to offer any kind of serious introduction to Spanish, French or any other written culture. 


    This dumbing down is an insult to young people and is short-sighted even in its own terms of producing a ‘marketable’ graduate. Teenagers and young adults have minds that can soak up anything, are open to new ideas and want to experiment in all kinds of ways. Studying books from a different society stimulates their capacity to empathise with other cultures and peoples, and to use these insights to reflect on and perhaps criticise their own (could it be that this is one reason that literature is regarded as so ‘difficult’, or is that really too cynical?). The more different voices young people encounter, the more they can think for themselves, and the greater the stimulus for their inner lives. 


    This is why the work of New Spanish Books is so important. Every year its panellists choose what they see as the most interesting, and often the most challenging, in the steadily growing output by publishing houses in Spain. The hope is that editors in the UK and the United States will take up the challenge and publish English translations of some of these books. Reading Spanish literature in English could well be the first step towards developing a greater interest in exploring books in the original Spanish. 


    The range of books chosen for this year’s shortlist of recommendations include a memoir of a Spanish woman who suffered not only in Franco’s prisons, but then was taken captive by the Germans; a feminist retake of the Biblical story of Mary Magdalene; a novel about a real-life murder in contemporary Valencia that uses reportage, interviews and court transcripts to tell the story (Guillem); a thriller linked to the work of Francisco Goya (El Sueño de la Razón); and a collection of stories by ten women from Galicia (Entre dones) that reminds us Spain offers a variety of languages and lives beyond Castilian. 


    As well as these choices, this year has seen the publication of a book that would be an ideal introduction to Spanish literature and society for any school or university student. This is the Penguin Modern Classics Book of Spanish Short Stories, selected and introduced by Margaret Jull Costa. The fifty or so stories, from the nineteenth century to the present day, are brimming with imagination, perception and nuanced emotions that offer a perfect introduction to Spanish life that would brighten any sleepy Friday afternoon at school. 


    Nick Caistor

    September 2021