The other side of the Tower of Babel
I spent the entire morning explaining that my interests are not exactly museums and churches, but the country’s inhabitants – and therefore, it would be much better if we were to go to the market. Even so, they insist; it is a public holiday, the market is closed.
- Where are we going?
- To a church.
I knew it.
- Today they are honouring a saint who is very special for us and certainly for you too. We are going to visit this saint’s tomb. Don’t ask questions, just accept that at times we may have nice surprises for writers.
- How long does it take to get there?
- Twenty minutes.
Twenty minutes is the standard answer: evidently I know it will take much longer than that. However, until today they had respected everything I had asked for, so it was better to give in this time.
I am in Yerevan, Armenia, on this Sunday morning. I get into the car resigned, I can see snow-capped Mount Arafat in the distance, I am looking at the landscape around me. I wish I could be walking there, instead of being locked in this metal box. My hosts try to be kind, but I am distracted, stoically accepting the “special sightseeing programme.” They end up letting the conversation tail off, and we continue in silence.
Fifty minutes later (I knew it!) we arrived at a small town and entered the packed church. I see that they are all in suits and ties, a very formal occasion and feel ridiculous because I am only wearing a T-shirt and jeans. I get out of the car, people from the Writers’ Union are waiting for me, they hand me a flower, take me into the midst of the multitude watching the mass, we go down a stairway behind the altar and I find myself before a tomb. I understand that the saint must be buried there, but before placing the flower on it, I want to know exactly who I am paying respects to.
- The Translator Saint – is the answer.
The Translator Saint! My eyes instantly fill with tears.
Today is 9th October, 2004, the town is called Oshakan, and Armenia, as far as I know, is the only place in the world that declares a national holiday and celebrates day of Saint Mesrob, the Translator Saint, in grand style. Besides inventing the Armenian alphabet (the language already existed but only orally). He devoted his life to translating the most important texts of the time into his native language – they were written in Greek, Persian or Cyrillic. He and his disciples dedicated themselves to the gigantic task of translating the Bible and the principal classics of the literature of their time. From that moment on, Armenia’s culture gained its own identity, which it has kept until today.
The Translator Saint. I hold the flower in my hands; I think of all the people I have never met, and that perhaps I may never have an opportunity to meet, but who at this moment have my books in their hands, trying to give the best of themselves to keep up the loyalty I have sought to share with my readers. Most of all, I think of my father-in-law, Christiano Monteiro Oiticica, profession: translator. Today in the company of angels and of St. Mesrob, watching this scene. I remember him stuck to his old typewriter; often complaining about how his work was badly paid (which is unfortunately true still today). Then he would explain that the true reason for continuing in that task was his enthusiasm about sharing knowledge which, if it were not for translators, would never have reached his people.
I pray silently for him, for all those who have helped me with my books, and for those that have enabled me to read works to which I would never have had access, in this way helping – anonymously – to shape my life and my character. When I leave the church, I see children drawing the alphabet, letter-shaped sweets, flowers, and more flowers.
When man showed his arrogance, God destroyed the Tower of Babel and they all began to speak different languages. But in His infinite grace, he also created a type of person that would rebuild those bridges, to allow dialogue and the dissemination of human thought. This man (or woman) who we rarely take the trouble to know his name when we open a foreign book: the translator.
Moving is Living
I am at a St. John’s party, with stalls, target shooting and home-cooked food. The only curious thing is that from a certain angle of the street of two-storey houses, we can see the tallest buildings in the world; the rural festivity is happening in the middle of New York.
Suddenly, a clown begins to imitate my gestures. People laugh, and I also think it’s funny. In the end, I invite him for coffee.
"Commit yourself to life", says the clown. “If you are alive, you must wave your arms, jump, make a noise, laugh and talk to people, because life is exactly the opposite of death”.
“Dying is staying always in the same position. If you are very quiet, you are not living".
The mouse and the books
When I was interned in Dr. Eiras Hospital, I began to have panic crises. One day, I decided to consult the psychiatrist in charge of my case:
"Doctor, I am overcome by fear; it takes from me the joy of living".
"Here in my office there is a mouse that eats my books", said the doctor. “If I get desperate about this mouse, he will hide from me and I will do nothing else in life but hunt him. Therefore, I put the most important books in a safe place and let him gnaw some others.
“In this way, he is still a mouse and does not become a monster. Be afraid of some things and concentrate all your fear on them – so that you have courage in the rest."
“The Zahir” is being published all over the world this year. Click here for more information.