About English, Spanish, Rhetorics and Rhythm

(For Quico and Coral, in the middle of my insomnia).

Coral wrote:

“I agree with Quico. In the USA, the finest, most enduring, historical manifestos and speeches have been written in notably simple English. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was written in language a baby could understand”.

An example: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. Would a baby uderstand an expression as “Four score and seven years ago”? Wouldn´t “87 years ago” be more to the point? It´s as if we started, in a good Spanish speech about the 23 de enero de 1958, by saying: “ocho lustros y seis años atrás”… Not very clear, but it sounds so much better than “hace 46 años”…

Another example: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”. That is a little bit complicated, to say the least. 

To translate both statements you would need to go back in time, looking for Rhetorical expressions inside the language you are trying to translate them into. No easy task. 

The problem, a basic problem, I think, is of rhythm. As Fiona Shaw pointed out in a brilliant show about Shakespeare for the BBC, Shakespeare took the common language, identified its rhythm, and turned it into poetry. That is what explains why, even if the Gettysburg Address is not exactly simple, it can reach out to everyone who read it in the Lincoln Memorial, without even reading it aloud… and please believe me, I had to go up to the Lincoln Memorial alone, to read it and weep by myself before facing my prosaic family (and that version of the Imperial Roman Campo di Marte which the Mall is, with all its monuments to dead soldiers…). 

Now read this. “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground”. Feel the rhythm! It´s there! It jumps at you as you read it, grabs you by the throat, and doesn´t let you go until you are choking!

On the other hand, Spanish has always been a “prosaic” language. It´s not easy, to put it bluntly, to achieve what Shakespeare did in “blank verse” without going into rhyme! To reach a shimmer of the rhythm of English, Spanish has to turn to long resounding phrases. The effect is not always fortunate, I´ll give you that. But you work with the language you ara forced to. No way Venezuelans could write an agreement in perfect, rhytmical English, and be understood by common readers. Given that most Venezuelans seldom read good literature is Spanish (for some cultural reasons we favour foreign literatures, and in translation, mind you, over good Spanish prose), it is unfair to ask from them a perfect, moving speech, inspiring, rhythmically conceived and, at the same time, simple and pristine.

But again, that is our language. We inherited from Spain, as Americans from Shakespeare, a specific rhetorical (Quixotical?) rhythm. As a baby can “comprehend”, without understanding clearly, Lincoln´s  “eight score and seven year ago”, a not so bright Venezuelan reader can understand, in a glass darkly, what the CD agreement meant. Spanish is less clear than English, maybe, it requires more words to say the same thing, but it has its own traditions, heights and chasms. To all those shortcomings every Spanish speaker is used. It´s his language, and those shortcomings fit him like a big, mildly uncomfortable coat (just as Shakesperian English fits most American readers).

So, please, dear gals and guys, start by understanding that a language is a way to conceive the world (Borges wrote some line I would find for you as soon as possible, it´s over 5:00 a.m. and I´m simply spent), not just a vehicle to transmit ideas or an arbitrary repertoire of symbols. As a speaker of that language, you are forced into its limits, unless you have the power of a poet like Shakespeare to break or extend them. Granted no one on the CD is a Shakespeare, a Cervantes or even a Cadenas, try to value what they have done. Do as you do with Lincoln and Jefferson: go to meet them half-way. Do your part.