Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Words and Music

On my last long flight, I sat next to a Russian couple. I know exactly enough Russian to be pretty certain that's what they were speaking; not enough to pick out any words. Because of that, their conversation was only sound to me--even musical--and pleasant to listen to as I drifted off to sleep. I wasn't tempted (or obliged) to eavesdrop as I often do on planes.

Not that eavesdropping is all bad. Jane Smiley, in a much-shared interview, recently advocated eavesdropping and gossip as writing techniques [Jane Smiley's writing advice]. Elena Poniatowska, speaking at the University of Oregon last spring, said--I think I'm quoting correctly--"la literatura es un plagio universal," adding that we all hear things, we all overhear things and incorporate them. (See my colleague Pedro García Caro's interview with Poniatowska for more on her views at that time--though the writer inadvertently scavenging the airwaves doesn't come up in their conversation [A Contracorriente]). I've sat in coffee shops with notebook or laptop, busily transcribing the bizarre conversation happening at the next table.

And I've nodded off, cradled in a net of unfamiliar sounds. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel presents the multitude of languages as a punishment, humans condemned to mutual incomprehension. But from another angle, the multitude of languages is a gift, and part of that gift is the variety of sound, the real pleasure of listening to the ways different languages organize the range of sounds a human voice can make according to wildly differing patterns.

I wrote back in October about the pleasures of listening to others read. Tomorrow I'll have the chance to read at another translation event, this one including music and multiple languages (Spanish, French, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian). In our rehearsals, we have all enjoyed listening to the sounds and rhythms of languages we may not hear often. We toyed with the idea of simply reading passages from various writers, without translation. We opted, finally, for sense as well as sound, so that each selection will be read in the original as well as in an English translation. But I think it will be the aural texture of the event--different voices, different languages, different instruments--that may be most memorable.

If you're in Eugene, come on down to Opus VII Gallery, Thurs. Jan 6 at 5:30.


  1. Thanks, Amalia, for your beautiful reflection on Babel! I've lived with the harsh Sunday-school interpretation my whole life, but your take on linguistic diversity as a blessing (oops, I can't escape the religious language)is refreshing to this linguist's soul.

  2. Thanks, Robert. Do you know of other origins of many languages myths?