Monday, November 16, 2009

Tower of Literary Babel

by Zinta Aistars

I had my doubts. A poetry reading in 15 languages ... and no translations. Would people really come to such a Babel of babble? A friend who works at the most wonderful Portage District Library in Portage, Michigan, where I live, invited me to join in her idea of Convergence: A Symphony For the Senses, A Poetry Reading in 15 Languages this past Sunday, November 15. I would read in my native Latvian, choosing a poem or two from my poetry collection, Mala Kausa (In an Earthen Mug). The other languages were Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, Portugese, German, Japanese, Bengali, Arabic, Farsi, Italian, Irish, Polish, Greek and Nigerian.

And no translations.

How do you say... screw loose in 15 languages? But Marsha knows what she's doing. She's been facilitating events in greater Kalamazoo for years, and whenever Marsha deems an event is worth eventing, it turns out that it is. People gather, often in hoardes and herds and great bunches. I decided to trust her judgment and agreed to join in. I chose a poem about the waning of autumn, and another few-liner about the dripping of rain.

Pak, pik, pak... lietus paskina no pakskiem.... pak, pik, pak, pakskina....

The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. Without translations, we would be forced to hear the sounds, the rhythm and music of language, separated from its meaning. Or might we guess at the meaning? Can a non-Latvian hear rain in pik, pak, pak?

Maybe so.

To my wonder and pleased surprise, the room at the library filled, filled quickly, and filled to the brim. All chairs warmed by bottoms and more leaning against the outer walls. When I stood behind the podium reading, I looked out on a sea of attentive, even rapt faces. Faces of all ages, skin colors, differing features. We had a little it's-a-small-world-after-all going on here. And there, my parents, too, in the second row, off to the side. Dad looked so fine in his pinstripe navy suit, white hair combed back neatly, leaning on his polished wood cane. He was hurting today, I could tell. More than usual. But he would never let his aching back keep him from poetry, especially if his little girl was reading it. In whatever language. Mom straightened his tie, brushed invisible lint from his lapel, and leaned back to listen, too.

So we all listened to each other. And I was stunned with the beauty of human communication. Even as I was baffled by it. The myriad sounds ... the music of it.... the rolling and trilling consonants, the loping vowels, the chop of short, sharp syllables. Languages that shot out like ammo. Languages that slid, slippery and sweet and seductive. Languages that danced on the tongue and ended with a twirl. How did one people choose and develop one set of sounds to express meaning, and another group one so entirely different? Did our environment influence our choices and blends of sounds? Or something else?

I caught the occasional word in German, having studied it for four years in my school days. I recognized a bit of the Spanish, having taken a couple semesters recently at work, just for the fun and challenge of it. And when the Russian blonde ended her reading with a quick "Spasiba!" I almost reflexively murmured in reply, "Pazalsta."

But I really understood none of it. And wondered at all the worlds, all the perspectives on the world, that I am missing. How different we all are, even while all the same. It is a wonder sometimes to think that we can communicate at all. Yet somehow, we had. The reading over, we all milled about long after it ended, talking to each other in smooth or broken English, sharing impressions, talking about favorite poems, about varied cultures, and how the woman from Egypt teared up while reading with such passion in Arabic. What heartfelt message did she carry? I would probably never know. Only know that we all long to communicate, somehow, if even with a moment of warm eye contact, a smile, a nod.

On a Sunday afternoon in Portage, babbling away in our many brooks of books never read, we somehow made sense, and connected, and walked away smiling, each to our dreams in different languages.

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