Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Coelho's article on Armenia

The other side of the Tower of Babel
By Paulo Coelho

I have spent the whole morning explaining that I’m more interested in the country’s inhabitants than in museums and churches, and that it would, therefore, be much better if we went to the market. They tell me that today is a national holiday and the market is closed.
“Where are we going then?”
“To a church.”
I knew it.
“Today we are celebrating a saint who is very special to us, and doubtless to you too. We are going to visit the tomb of this saint. But don’t ask any questions and accept that sometimes we lay on some very nice surprises for our writers.”
“How long will it take to get there?”
“Twenty minutes.”
Twenty minutes is the standard answer: I know, of course, that it will take much longer than that. However, they have, up until now, respected all my wishes, so I had better give in on this one.
On this Sunday morning, I am in Yerevan, in Armenia. I reluctantly get into the car. I can see snow-covered Mount Ararat in the distance. I look at the countryside around me. I wish I could be out there walking, rather than stuck inside this metal box. My hosts are trying to be nice to me, but I am distracted, stoically accepting this “special tourist programme.” They finally give up their attempts to make conversation, and we drive on in silence.
Fifty minutes later (I knew it!) we arrive at a small town and head for the packed church. I notice that everyone is in suit and tie; it’s obviously a very formal occasion, and I feel ridiculous in my T-shirt and jeans. I get out of the car and people from the Writers’ Union are there waiting for me. They hand me a flower, lead me through the crowd of people attending mass, and we go down some steps behind the altar. I find myself before a tomb. I realize that this is where the saint must be buried; but before I place the flower on the tomb, I want to know who exactly I am paying homage to.
“The Holy Translator,” comes the reply.
The Holy Translator! My eyes fill with tears.
Today is 9 October, 2004. The town is called Oshakan, and Armenia, as far as I know, is the only place in the world that has declared the day of the Holy Translator, St. Mesrob, a national holiday and where they celebrate it in style. As well as creating the Armenian alphabet (the language already existed, but only in spoken form). St Mesrob devoted his life to translating into his mother tongue the most important texts of the period, which were written in Greek, Persian or Cyrillic. He and his disciples devoted themselves to the enormous task of translating the Bible and the main literary classics of the time. From that moment on, the country’s culture gained its own identity, which it has maintained to this day.
The Holy Translator. I hold the flower in my hands and think of all the people I have never met, and perhaps may never have the opportunity to meet, but who, at this moment, have my books in their hands, and are doing their best t remain faithful to what I have tried to share with my readers. I think, above all, of my father-in-law, Christiano Monteiro Oiticica (profession: translator), who is today in the company of angels and of St. Mesrob, watching this scene. I remember seeing him hunched over his old typewriter, often complaining about how badly paid translation was (and, alas, still is). He would immediately go on, though, to explain that the real reason he translated was because he wanted to share a knowledge, which, but for translators, would never reach his own people.
I say a silent prayer for him, for all those who have helped me with my books, and for those who have allowed me to read books to which I would never otherwise have had access, thus helping – anonymously – to shape my life and my character. When I leave the church, I see some children writing the alphabet with sweets in the shape of letters and with flowers and more flowers.
When man grew ambitious, God destroyed the Tower of Babel, and everyone began to speak different tongues. However, in His infinite grace, he also created people to rebuild those bridges, to enable dialogue and the diffusion of human thought. This person, whose name we rarely take the trouble to notice when we open a foreign book, is the translator.