The Verbal Quest

  • Ilan Stavans


For quite some time I have been interested in the link between language and religion—more specifically, in the search of a primal tongue that precedes all others, one whose virtue is not lessened by time. Can such a proto-language be at once divine and secular? Can its meaning and interpretation be standardized? My interest is also targeted toward translation: Would such a proto-language symbolize, once and for all, the abolition of the act of translation? Such miscellaneous questions rumbled in my mind not long ago, as I was reading two thought-provoking essays, one by the Mexican poet and essayist, Octavio Paz: “Edith Piaf Among the Pygmies”; the other: “The Ephemerality of Translation” by Ray Harris, an Oxford professor. While both share a common theme—the reaches and limitations of translation—their asymmetrical relationship is fascinating. Paz argues that the job of translating a text from one language to another is simply impossible. He offers as an example a television documentary he once saw about several Pygmies who heard Edith Piaf’s voice magically reproduced by a phonograph an ethnologist had turned on for them to hear. Whereas the ethnologists could identify with the song by the French pop singer, a song about jealousy and violent love, the Pygmies immediately became quite frightened: they covered their ears and ran away.


Universal Language Meaningful Language Verbal Quest Jewish Mystic Jewish Theological Seminary 
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© Ilan Stavans 1996

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  • Ilan Stavans

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