Recently your faithful servant stumbled across a recording of a song he had heard from time to time, but has now had a chance to listen to closely. It is a jewel. Beautiful… but painful. Composed by César Calvo, sung in the bell-like tones of Susana Baca, leading exponent of Peru’s Afro musical traditions: “María Landó” is a hypnotic chant evoking the back-breaking, mind-numbing, and most of all soul-deadening work that is the title character’s lot in life. And still that of most of our kind, humankind.
After singing of dawn breaking with its wings of light over the city… and noon with its golden bell of water… and night with its long goblet lifted to the moon… the lyric turns to María “who has no time to lift her eyes, her eyes wracked by lack of sleep, by sorrows… María who has no dawn, no noon or night… For María there is only labor, only labor and more labor… y su trabajo es ajeno: her labor is not her own.”
What power, what violence, what understanding of the world is compressed into that single word ajeno “belonging to another or others, alien, foreign, unfamiliar.” Its root, Lat. alienus, also yields Engl. “alien.” (Think of how the latter word is applied to immigrants.)
Argentina’s incomparable troubador Atahualpa Yupanqui sang of the exhausted herdsman driving cattle in the hills: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda./ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas” (Sorrows and cattle/ moving along the same trail/ The sorrows are our own,/ the cattle belong to another).
The Roman playwright Terence gave us this moving expression of compassion, of solidarity with all our fellow mortals: Homo sum, nihil humani me alienum est—I am human, and nothing that is human is alien to me.
Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., is a historian, translator, and attorney. The essay above was originally published in La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) in the Nov. 20-26, 2017 issue, as No. 257 of the weekly, bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” [Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción].