Not Just a Matter of Launguage

Published in Margaret Read MacDonald’s book

Tell the World: Storytelling Across Language Barriers
(Libraries Unlimited, Westport, 2008)

“Working with or without a native speaker, a storyteller can touch the minds and hearts of al listeners-even those with little or not English language skill. ”This fine book, compiled and edited by Margaret Read MadDonald, is filled with tips and techniques for telling across language barriers. There are also essays on the impact of telling out of the comfort zone of your own language and culture.

Not Just a Matter of Language

Why try to leap across the language barrier and tell stories in a foreign language? Well, for me, it is great fun. I begin with that, because if it isn’t fun, don’t do it! A more serious reason, of course, is that language is a bridge to other people and cultures.

I have told stories in English with sprinklings of Spanish for many years. In addition, a few years ago I started telling stories totally in Spanish. I was traveling each year to a different Latin American country, meeting the people, learning the language, and absorbing as much as I could of the cultures. I was getting so much from my experiences, I wanted to give something back. What I have to give is storytelling.

At first thought, it would seem that storytelling would be a hard art to share because it is language dependent. But, of course, storytelling is not simply its linguistic component; it also includes body language, gesture, movement, expression…the whole range of the performers’ craft. Beyond all this is the interest in and love of a people and their language we display when we try to speak their language, when we cross that bridge to them. Our audience is affirmed and mutual respect and interest is fostered. So it is not just a matter of “language.”

On one of my trips to Peru, I visited and told stories in Spanish in three schools. One was in a school in Yucay, a very small town in what is called El Valle Sagrado, The Sacred Valley of the Inca, near Cusco. Later that day, I was walking around the town, stepping over the drainage ditch in the middle of
the dirt street, avoiding wandering cattle, when some children started pointing and shouting….”La señora con cuentos!” Soon I was surrounded by children and adults, dogs, roosters, and a boy with his cow, and I found myself telling the stories again in the middle of the street. I was there for the better part of an hour. We blocked the whole street. As I stood there, a part of me was witnessing the scene: a blue-eyed norte-americana sharing stories, laughter, and good will with the local folks in a small town in the Andes. Indeed, not just a matter of language!

I have a personal story I tell about visiting a group of Indigenous people in Costa Rica after 9/11. They wanted to learn more about what had happened and I was asked to bring photographs of New York City and of the attack. After an amazing adventure getting to them, which included wading through the river (no puentes/bridges!), I was introduced in Cabecar, their language, by the chief and then in Spanish by the woman who had brought me to them. I showed the photos and in Spanish described the rivers (Rio Hudson, Rio Este), bridges (Puente de Brooklyn, Puente de Jorge Washington), and the skyscrapers, los rascacielos. I had many photos of Las Torres Gemelas, Twin Towers. And then I said the words, “Entonces, las Torres se derumbaron.” (Then the Towers collapsed.) We then went through the book of photos of the attack. You could have heard a pin drop.

I left the book and photos with the Cabecar. After I left, they thought about and discussed what had happened for several months and then performed a three-day healing ritual for New York City and the whole earth. So with some very simple Spanish and some photographs, I brought New York City to these people on a remote mountain in Central America and through my telling the story of my trip there, I have brought their love back out to New York…and beyond. There may not be a physical bridge across the river to them, but our shared story bridges our worlds, affirming the connection of all of us on the earth.

I have also told stories in international storytelling festivals in Spanish and English (with Spanish introductions) in Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tenerife. Although I was nervous about my Spanish proficiency, my listeners were more than accepting. They were delighted with my willingness to leave the safety of my own language and risk telling in theirs.

One great experience I had in telling in Spanish was in June 2004, at La Flauta Magica, a club in Madrid that has featured storyteller Ana Garcia Castellano for more than a decade. I was fortunate to be in Madrid to celebrate her tenth anniversary and was asked to be one of the tellers. I was relaxed enough to “code switch,” go back and forth between English and Spanish, including interacting and even joking with the audience. As I was there a few months after the bombing of Atocha train station, I told a story of the indestructible nature of freedom. The club was packed with people who love storytelling, their city, and freedom. Through the storytelling, I, a New Yorker who had experienced first hand the attack of September 11th, embraced those Madrileños and they embraced me.

Of course, we don’t have to tell stories totally in another language. Simply adding key words and phrases from the original language adds color, flavor, culture and excitement to the telling. I’ve been using Spanish in stories for years here in NY, but recently at a branch of the NY Public Library in the Bronx a family from Brazil was among the folks gathered. I decided to tell the one Brazilian story I know and asked them to help me tell it. I know um pouco (a little bit of) Portuguese, and together we put the Portuguese into the story. What an affirmation! (They confided in me that most Americans they meet don’t even know that the language of Brazil is Portuguese.) At the same time, the Spanish speakers in the audience were learning how Portuguese is similar to and different from Spanish. Everyone loved it.

I am deeply convinced that storytelling, while language based, need not be language bound. When done with good will and care (language is a treasure: as with all treasures, handle with care!), telling stories in their original language or the language of the audience is rewarding to both teller and listeners. It adds color and texture, affirms language and culture, opens the heart and makes new friends. And, as an extra bonus, it is fun!


posted on June 20th, 2012
written by reginaress

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