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The Sound of Comparative Literature in Diverse Languages
by Gilda Haber, PhD


Each language has its own music. The sound of Hebrew reminds me of even breathing, of wings or hearts regularly throbbing, sometimes, with the many 'sh' sounds, it reminds me of the sea dashing rhythmically, eternally, against the shores of Ashkelon.

Reading sections of ancient to medieval literature with my World Comparative Literature class, I realized that compared with the impassioned Hebrew, the English King James Version of Creation sounded ordinary, and as if Creation had happened in medieval England. Literature cannot be separated from language, history and culture.

Since no one in the class knew Hebrew, I read part of Creation to the class in the original, and projected the dark, block-like letters on the stark white screen.

Students' eyes glowed when they heard Creation read and saw it written in this strange, ancient and modern language. They seemed so fascinated with the literature in its original tongue and script that I thought, why not read parts of the literature in the original of all the countries being studied? Furthermore, students in the class came from so many countries that we could hear the literature of several countries read in its native language. About half of these 27 students were American born, a few were first generation, and many were second generation South American. Other students came from India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Korea, Spain, Peru, Nigeria, Africa, Thailand, Jordan, and Latin America: a fine diversity.

I wanted students to hear the sound of the story or poem read in Hebrew, Latin, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Sanskrit, Spanish, Arabic, tribal African and Crow, or in other tribal languages. Students already had the English version of each language in their textbooks. I wanted them to see the artistry of each country's writing.

After Creation, read in Hebrew and English, I read some Latin poetry. When I read Latin, it sounded to me soft and sibilant, without much resonance. The sound of Latin seemed contradictory to Rome's martial history.

I also read some of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, after which a 'minstrel' student in the class sang "Greensleeves" accompanying himself on his guitar. Another student, dressed for the occasion in a green velvet jerkin and tights, sang one of Shakespeare's sonnets set to music, "Oh Mistress Mine," one of my favorites, to which the class listened raptly.

What a difference! The students became alive and wildly enthusiastic with this experiment.

Although I read the Hebrew and Latin poems and prose in the original, there were no Chinese, Arabic, Greek or Japanese speakers in my World Comparative Literature class. I recalled that my evening ESOL class included a Chinese student, and that my Argument Class included two students who spoke Arabic. I asked these students if they were willing and able to come to my morning class to recite and write literature in their native language. They all readily agreed.

The Norton Anthology of Comparative World Literature began with early Hebrew literature. We could not find a Greek speaker, so had to be content with reading this literature only in English. Soon, we came to the section on Chinese medieval poetry.

I did not tell my literature class that Mr. Chang from my evening ESOL class was coming to read us Chinese poems, in case he could not show up.

All twenty- seven students were sitting in their seats, when at 10: am precisely, Mr. Chang popped his Buddha-like face in the door. All the students sat up. Who was this stranger?

I welcomed him, secretly worrying as to how well he would read, and would my World Literature students like hearing Chinese poetry in the original? Also, would he do a good job writing the Chinese characters? I need not have worried.

First, Mr. Chang wrote a poem on the board in Chinese, as well as showing it on the screen illuminated by the projector. The neat Chinese pictographs appeared on the screen, each 'block' filled with artistic shapes like icing on a cookie, but with complex meanings, which Mr. Chang explicated. The English translation appeared below. Each Chinese character was intricate, each character a work of art. Each pictograph has multiple combinations and meaning, yielding different information. We were fascinated by its ornamental yet artistic precision, the students riveted by his explanations and writing. How different from the bland English translation of Chinese poetry in our anthology! How delicate the sound, and the carefully inscribed Chinese written symbols. Mr. Chang had thoughtfully included several English translations, which varied tremendously, of the same poem.

"How many characters are there in Chinese writing?" I asked.

"About 18,000," he said, smiling.

"How long does it take a child to learn to write?" a student asked.

"About six years. To learn everything takes about ten years."

The students said, "Wow," and looked relieved and almost guilty that our alphabet, learned usually by first grade, was so simple.

I asked him to tell us what each character meant, and pointing to each, he translated it. The class learned how to write and translate two Chinese words.

"During the Chinese Revolution, they simplified the alphabet. It is now easier to learn." Mr. Chang said, showing a much less artistic version of the Chinese 'alphabet' on the projector.

Mr. Chang then read a ninth-century Chinese poem about the exquisite joys of nature. Some students sat open-mouthed with the musical sound of each word. His pace was flawless. I listened with pleasure to the music of his language.

Chinese sounded to me like a series of soft gongs in different tones. I saw Mr. Chang in a different light. When speaking English in our evening ESOL classes, he struggled to progress like a seal on land, but now, when he spoke his native Chinese, his words flowed fluidly and gracefully like a seal in water.

When the class ended, students applauded. Mr. Chang bowed to the class and to me. I gravely returned the bow, though unsure if this was correct.

The next evening at the evening ESOL immigrants' class, I thanked Mr. Chang, told him what a wonderful job he had done, and how much we had all enjoyed his talk. "It is I who have to thank you," he said, smiling. "I enjoyed it tremendously." Now we were coming to the literature of other languages. Which students could speak these languages?

When we came to Indian Literature, one of our two Indian students from the class read and wrote us poems and part of an epic in Sanskrit and Hindi. Sanskrit sounded to me like birds chirping.

We tried reading ancient Aztec, but students were floored by the many words beginning with "X" for which we have no equivalency in English. I read the "X" as a "sh" sound, which was followed often by a "b" and read as "Shboji," and was not so hard to pronounce. Unfortunately, there were no native Aztecs available to correct us.

"This language sounds like knocking coconuts together," said one student.

When we came to studying Islamic Literature, I asked two students from Jordan and Bangladesh from my daytime Argument classes if they would read and write from the Koran in Arabic. Arabic sounds fluid yet guttural perhaps because of its many aspirated sounds. Since Hebrew and Arabic have a number of words and sounds in common, I recognized many of the Arabic words and translated some to the class.

After each speaker read to the class in his or her native language, the class and I spontaneously applauded the presenter. I began to feel we were at the theater.

At the next session, I lined up and showed on the projector, written Hebrew, Chinese, Greek, Hindi and Arabic so students could compare them. Except for Arabic and Greek, the other languages were all rather block-like in configuration.

An African student presented the Mali Epic of Son-Jara, but was unable, as I had hoped, to speak in his own tribal language. It is sad when the young do not learn their ancestral languages but only that of their adopted country. The same was true for American Indian literature. I have an American Indian friend, but she no longer knows her tribal Crow. She put me in touch with a Native American who does speak Crow, but he has become a professional minstrel and expects a handsome payment. I showed the only DVD I could find on any Native Indian culture, about the language of the Navaho: Navaho Code Talkers. During World War II, The United States used Navaho speakers to transmit messages in a secret code in Navaho, which the Germans could not break.

I still needed to find Greek and Japanese speakers. I called the Japanese Embassy, which referred me to a Japanese cultural club. Although courteous, they did not get back to me. I did find a Japanese VHS about Renaissance Japan: Japan's Past and Present: The Age of the Shogun; but I believe its actors to have been Japanese-Americans.

"How slowly they move," exclaimed one of the students, watching the tea ceremony.

"It is not they who move slowly, but we who move so fast," I said. "In modern movies, we don't see transitions, the camera flashes us from one scene to another. We are a push-button, remote control society where everything has to happen fast. I don't know why. Besides, these people were upper class, and courtesans. I doubt we would see a Japanese farmer moving slowly. He or she wouldn't have the time."

I would have liked to include Russian literature. However, after consulting a Russian-speaking classicist who told me that until medieval times most Russian literature consisted of monks' prayers, I decided against it.

For the Columbian student who asked for "South American Literature," I suggested Garcilago de la Vega. Since there was so much material on him, I assigned different parts of his poetry and prose to groups of three and four students. The groups met outside class, then each group came to the front of the classroom and presented its findings to the rest of the class. Garcilago de la Vega was the first known mestizo writer, son of an Incan princess and a Spanish conquistador. His ethnic duality and conflict are ingrained in the diverse, intriguing ethnic groups of America, and in our class. Many students in the class, and for that matter, I myself, second generation British, were bi-cultural. Some were foreign-born, many had foreign-born parents. Perhaps half the students were second or third generation American-born.

When we studied South American literature, our three Spanish-speaking students presented Spanish poetry and prose. The native Spaniard in class read a poem by Garcilago de la Vega, his Spanish as crisp and precise as flamenco. His Old World Spanish compared to that of a Colombian student's Spanish sounded to me like Oxford English compared to American English. When presenting Garcilago de la Vega, each group chose fascinating facets of his life and milieu to project onto the screen, his poems and prose in both Spanish and English as well as scenes of Inca temple remains and art. The Latino students in the class took turns reading the poems on the screen in Spanish, showing an English translation beneath the poem. Every native speaker explained some of the finer points in the translation and in history we would not otherwise have known.

When I observed that so many South Americans had converted to Christianity, one Latino burst out, "They were forced to."

I have heard other Latino students express anger with the Conquistadors and their forced conversion of the conquered, to Spanish culture and religion.

After the Garcilago de la Vega presentations, I asked students to write their opinion about hearing literature in the original language, and about the group presentation of such work. Here are some of their remarks:

"The original languages are great additions, (which) renew our way of perceiving the literature. Kind of a reminder that English isn't the world's language."

"When each student is afforded the opportunity to speak in front of the class, a great deal of personal insight is gained because the differing background of each student colors their objectivity. Such a great mix of cultures can create a terrific dynamic that bonds students together with similar goals in mind . . . . I enjoyed the chance to speak my mind and enjoyed hearing the thoughts of others in addition to my own."

"The presentations allowed many of the students to showcase their opinions and research. Also learning about people's literature in their own language and in the students' own words is more genuine than a textbook."

Then I realized that for a change, it had been foreign students who held the limelight, if standing in front of the class and operating the projector can be called the limelight. I know some educators object to students presenting material to the class. I always made it voluntary and found students who loved being in the limelight.

Some American students in the class, I thought, might feel slighted. How could I give them their due?

There was a clique in the class made up of four high achieving American students; a tall, elegant young man of Scottish descent; a long-haired blond man with Polish grandparents; the third was a tough New York lady motorcyclist who wore leather jackets spattered with glittering zippers and tight jeans like a member of Marlon Brando's Hell's Angels. The fourth, an intense, pale, redheaded blue-eyed young student, was usually silent in class, but wrote brilliant essays. Since we had studied so many tragedies, so much about warfare, heroes and monsters, Beowulf, Oedipus and other epics, I decided we needed to finish the semester with a comedy. We could not learn the parts, but we could produce a reading on an impromptu stage in front of the class of Aristophanes' bawdy comedy, Lysistrata.

I asked this all-American group and anyone else who wished to join in, to stage a classroom reading of Lysistrata, inviting Miss Hell's Angels, the motorcyclist, to play Lysistrata. She enthusiastically agreed. I then appointed her, Producer. Nine students agreed to act in the play (5 more became actors at the last minute). The other 13 students and myself, constituted the audience. Our Producer took down actors' names and as I guessed, was a superb organizer. She met outside class with her colleagues to rehearse. How they did this in the middle of exam week, I do not know.

On the last day of school, everyone showed up in high spirits. The audience followed the play in our anthology text. The clique had provided a Greek temple backdrop on the screen, as I had requested. The actors read their lines beautifully; our Indian student decided to sing his lines, and many times broke down in giggles. (The next time I teach this course, I shall play a recording of a Greek song. In that way we will hear the music of the language and the language in music.) Miss Hell's Angels was an ideal Lysistrata, and kept everyone in line. The clique redhead sat soberly, like a critic, in the audience.

This experience will doubtless bond the American group so tightly that we may never be able to pry them apart again. Thus, all nationalities in the class contributed to world literary heritage.

The instructor often has a rich source of skills to draw on right in the classroom. Foreign students, who teach others, including the instructor, embody diversity, diversify our experience, become participants in the teaching process, and help the class bond. They demonstrate their own culture and language. Americans can see that they, too, are cultured: in another culture.

I learned a great deal from students about Chinese, Indian, South American and Arabic literature, history and culture. They learned more about ancient Hebrew, Latin, Greek and medieval English literature. We all learned that every language has its own music, shape and form.

I have never had such a successful class. I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and judging from their evaluations, so did the class.

We parted from each other with great warmth and sweet sorrow.

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