The violent alienation of “ajeno”

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Recently your faithful servant stumbled across a recording of a song [link below] 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.Millet - Gleaners, The, 1857

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.

¡Buenas palabras!

[To hear Susana Baca’s legendary recording of “María Landó” click here.]


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].


“Ajeno” y su violencia

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés 

Querida lectora o lector,

No hace mucho este servidor se topó con una grabación musical (enlace abajo) que había oído de cuando en cuando, pero que en estos días ha podido escuchar detenidamente. Es una joya, hermosa pero dolorosa. Composición de César Calvo, en la voz franca y pasional de Susana Baca, titana del canto afro-peruano: un cántico hipnótico, evocación del trabajo incesante, agotador y embrutecedor al que se ve condenada por las circunstancias una tal María—“María Landó”. Destino aún de la mayoría de la humanidad.

Millet - Gleaners, The, 1857

Las espigadoras, óleo de Jean-François Millet (1857)

Tras el lirismo de la primera estrofa, que canta a la madrugada con sus “alas que se dispersan por la ciudad”, el mediodía con su “campana de agua de oro” que ahuyenta la soledad y la noche que “levanta su copa larga” a la luna—volcamos la mirada hacia María que “no tiene tiempo de alzar los ojos rotos de sueño”, para quien no hay ni madrugada ni mediodía ni noche sino tan sólo trabajo, incesantemente trabajo y más trabajo: “María de andar sufriendo/ sólo trabaja/ María sólo trabaja/y su trabajo es ajeno…”

¡Cuánto poder, cuánta violencia, cuánta comprensión del mundo, encierra esa sola palabra “ajeno”…! El inglés no logra decir lo mismo con locuciones como belonging to another “que pertenece a otro”. (Y no olvidar las duras connotaciones de “alien” por “inmigrante”.)

El gran trovador argentino Atahualpa Yupanqui una vez cantó: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda/ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas”.

El dramaturgo romano Terencio nos legó esta conmovedora expresión de la compasión, de la solidaridad para con nuestros prójimos: Homo sum, nihil humani a me alienum est: Soy humano, y nada de lo humano me es ajeno.

Good words!


[Enlace para escuchar “Maria Landó” en la voz de Susana Baca.]

Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., es historiador, traductor y abogado. Este ensayo se publicó originalmente en La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, EEUU) en la edición del 20 al 26 de noviembre 2017, como la entrega nro. 257 de la columna bilingüe semanal “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción” [Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation].

No “mere drudge” or slinger of words: Our teacher and friend, Samuel Johnson

johnson_1740s_joshua_reynoldsOn this date, 308 years ago, was born to a struggling, lower-middle class household–the father a bookseller–in Lichfield, England, an infant son who would become a large, clumsy boy, a lover of books, and then, as a man,  one of the giants of the literature and cultural life of the English-speaking world.

His name was Samuel, “Dr. Johnson” as he became known in his later life and ever since. For over two centuries, the world has thought it knew him because a young Scotsman who idolized him, James Boswell, brought him alive in quite likely the most famous biography ever written in English. Boswell’s Johnson was a cantankerous old Tory who growled out his prejudices with an acid wit.

In large part due to Boswell, the world has tended to see Johnson as a conservative, as a man of the political Right, and many of that persuasion have claimed him as a kind of secular patron saint.

Ah, but there was much so much more to the man than the labels “Conservative” or “Tory” suggest.  This, quite apart from the general unadvisability of trusting such labels, particularly when we are separated from an era by several centuries.

Johnson was indeed reverential of traditions and hierarchies, both religious and political–in his words, “I am a friend to subordination”–he believed respect was due to legitimate monarchs, yet he also scorned aristocracy when it was weak of character and mean-spirited.

Author of some of the most moving works of moral and religious guidance ever penned in this tongue, and a deeply pious man, yet he never counted himself anything but an abject sinner whose everlasting soul was ever in danger.

Casting himself as a Tory in a Whig-dominated age, in what might today be called a “contrarian” spirit, he was in truth not a man of hardened doctrine. But throughout his life, Johnson hated and wrote passionately against militarism and war, against empires, against racism and slavery. He famously wondered, during the Revolutionary crisis in Britain’s American colonies, “Why is it that the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?”–that is, from slaveowners and slave traders.

Johnson despised war; he thought poorly of its glorification and even more poorly of those who sought it out.  He called it “one of the heaviest of national evils, a calamity in which every species of misery is involved; as it sets the general safety to hazard, suspends commerce, and desolates the country; as it exposes great numbers to hardships, dangers, captivity, and death; no man, who desires publick prosperity, will inflame general resentment by aggravating minute injuries, or enforcing disputable rights of little importance.”

He loved the writer’s study, and was capable of colossal feats of concentration stretching out over many days, weeks, even months. Yet he also loved the pub, lively company, and the good conversation of women no less than men.

Johnson was born in humble circumstances and never forgot the poor, the struggling, the underdog. He was a scholarship boy at Pembroke College, Oxford who once angrily rejected an anonymous donation of a pair of shoes, left one night outside his college lodgings to replace his own, shabby pair. When his money ran out, he left Oxford after just one year. (Decades later, he would be awarded the doctorate from that institution in honor of his literary achievements.)

Once an acquaintance scolded him for giving alms to a beggar who surely “would lay it out on gin and tobacco”.  Johnson’s memorable, moving retort:  “And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence… ? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure” in the midst of the bitterness of their lives.

Above all, Johnson wrote. Constantly guilt-ridden at (he believed) his sloth and procrastination, he produced an astonishing body of work, including The Lives of the Poets, the path-breaking Dictionary of the English Language, a complete annotated edition of Shakespeare, Rasselas, a marvelous parable of the fundamental unity and equality of all mankind, several astonishing runs of essays of cultural observation and moral uplift (including the Idler series), a substantial body of sermons, and much, much more.

Johnson has much to say to us, if we just know how to listen. Even accounting for the three centuries, an ocean, and the very different eras of the English language that separate us from him, Johnson’s gruff common sense, self-examination, and compassion are there for the taking. Almost any page of his work–particularly the essays–offers the good counsel of a wise, caring old uncle, sternly delivered perhaps but with a warm heart not far beneath the hard exterior.  Frank Lynch’s wonderful online archive (see below) gives any reader instant access to a treasury of useful self-help.

One of the areas where Johnson gave the best and most memorable advice–no doubt because he was conscience-haunted about his own conduct in this regard–was that of time and that parasitic devourer of it, procrastination. Here is Johnson, trying to stir us (and himself) out of that self-defeating torpor that has us (to use another Johnsonian phrase) “harassed by our own impatience”:  “A very small part of the year is spent by choice; scarcely any thing is done when it is intended, or obtained when it is desired. Life is continually ravaged by invaders; one steals away an hour, and another a day; once conceals the robbery by hurrying us into business, another by lulling us with amusement; the depredation is continued through a thousand vicissitudes of tumult and tranquillity till, having lost all, we can lose no more.” (Idler, No. 14, July 15, 1758)

And here is Johnson on friendship: “When I came to Lichfield, I found my old friend Harry Jackson dead. It was a loss, and a loss not to be repaired, as he was one of the companions of my childhood. I hope we may long continue to gain friends, but the friends which merit or usefulness can procure us, are not able to supply the place of old acquaintance, with whom the days of youth may be retraced, and those images revived which gave the earliest delight.” (Letter to Boswell)

The complex humanity, intellect, and morality of the man shine through in this passage from the Vinerian Lectures on Law, written c. 1766 for Robert Chambers:  “No man has a right to any good without partaking of the evil by which that good is necesarily produced; no man has a right to security by another’s danger, nor to plenty by another’s labour, but as he gives something of his own which he who meets the danger or undergoes the labor considers as equivalent. No man has a right to the security of government without bearing his share of its inconveniences.”

Pablo J. Davis

* * *

An earlier version of this essay was written and published online on Sep. 18, 2009, the 300th anniversary of Johnson’s birth.  It has been edited only slightly, both to bring the year up to date, and in a few places for clarity’s sake.

Some wonderful Johnson resources:

“A Monument More Durable Than Brass”: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, at Harvard University.

Samuel Johnson Tercentenary
Includes much material on the reenactment of Johnson’s walk from Lichfield to London with his friend David Garrick, who would become a giant of the Shakespearian stage

The Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page
Frank Lynch’s outstanding archive of nearly 2,000 Johnson quotations, classified by topic.

The handmade magic of “Cartonera” books: a feast for the eyes, a lift for the soul!

Memphis Cartonera: Cooperative Publishing, Art & Action
Exhibit at Rhodes College, Clough-Hanson Gallery
Opens Fri., Jan. 27, 2017 (5-7pm), through Mar. 18.
Artist-in-Residence: Nelson Gutiérrez

An extravaganza of color, lettering, images, and textures, these books want you to judge them by their covers. On a base of the plainest possible material—corrugated cardboard, repurposed from boxes and packaging—a delightful festival of creativity leaps out at the viewer.

Cartonera 8 tapas de libros 2017-01-26.png

What’s inside those covers? Some of the stories are original. Some are classics in the public domain. Some brim with illustrations, some are for coloring. The variations are endless. But the covers are all made of recycled cardboard, with hand-painted titles and artwork. Each one’s a personal statement—a true original.

Introducing the “Cartonera” (from the Spanish word for cardboard) phenomenon! This truly grassroots movement was born in Argentina during the early 2000’s economic crisis. Cartoneras are cooperative, neighborhood-based publishing ventures. They’ve spread throughout Latin America.

Now the movement has caught on here with the founding of “Memphis Cartonera” by Rhodes College students and local nonprofits. Dr. Elizabeth Pettinaroli, a Spanish literature and language professor at Rhodes who conducted field research on cartoneras in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay, has coordinated these efforts and led the mobilization of community partners.

These partners have included Centro Cultural (Cartonera comics), Cazateatro Bilingual Theater (Cartonera for adults/kids), Danza Azteca Quetzalcoatl (Spanish/Nahua poetry workshop), Refugee Empowerment Program (kids afterschool program), Latino Memphis/Abriendo Puertas (high-schoolers workshop), Caritas Village (Cartonera photo books for afterschool reading program).

It’s about rethinking art and literature’s place in our lives, fostering creativity, literacy, and sustainability.

A chance to learn more, talk with participants, and enjoy viewing some of the creations so far will be at the opening of a two-month-long exhibit Fri., Jan. 27 (5-7pm) at Rhodes College’s Clough-Hanson Gallery.  Nelson Gutiérrez will be the artist-in-residence throughout the exhibit. For more about the opening and a series of other activities, including workshops and talks by artist Gutiérrez, an info session on zines, and other events, please visit

Further info: Dr. Elizabeth Pettinaroli, 901-843-3828, Sponsored by Rhodes College.


A case of falling

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

“What goes up, must come down.” How often do we reflect on the profound wisdom contained in the six words of that hackneyed phrase (five in Spanish: Todo lo que sube, baja)?

caida-fall-sign-cartel-peligro-dangerIt turns out this most simple physical act—if indeed we can call what gravity does the “act” of the body that falls—permeates language in deep and unexpected ways.

“Chance” expresses luck, probability, risk, randomness, opportunity. It comes to us via French from Latin: cadentia was Vulgar Latin for “falling,” from the Latin verb cadere (Span. caer). We hear the cad- root in “cadence,” the rhythm or pulse of music, as with a walking or running pace, but also the way a musical composition or section resolves—how it “falls.” The same root yields “decadence” (Sp. decadencia) and “decay” (Sp. decaimiento is “a weakened or discouraged state”; in the sense of the breakdown or rotting of matter, the Spanish word would be descomposición).

Cadere’s participle form, casus (like “see” has the participle form “seen”), gives us “case”  (Span. caso), whose main sense is a situation requiring investigation and action (such as treatment in the medical realm, prosecution or defense in the legal). Span. acaso means “maybe, by chance.” Casus also gives “casual” for “unplanned, informal” (Spanish emphasizes randomness: casualmente is “by chance”). Another descendant of Lat. casus: war’s “casualties” for “killed and wounded,” though sometimes the term is understood to mean only those killed. More poetically, the casualties of war are expressed as “the fallen”—though, oddly, that phrase with its tone of nobility is generally not applied to civilian dead and wounded, who in most wars are more numerous.

That which happens to us, a bit archaically, “befalls” us. But this sense is alive and well in the latest iterations of language, though expressed differently: we speak of how an event “went down,” we wait and see “how things fall out” and hope they “fall into place.”  Span. cómo caen las fichas is something like “how the dice fall.” We “fall in” with friends, until we have a “falling out.” “Fall in” also means the incorporation of an individual or group,  such as soldiers, into a march, drill, or parade.

One “falls for” a trick; Spanish has caer en la trampa, “to fall into a trap.” Spanish, picturesquely, has caer como un chorlito, literally “to fall like a little bird.” But on figuring something out, on realizing the truth, uno cae en la cuenta—something like “to fall into awareness.”

Between entering the world at birth and our final fall (when one “drops dead,” cae muerto), the most dramatic event in most of our lives is that moment when we “fall in love” (Sp. enamorarse).

Once again we are face to face with the mysterious quality of the verb “to fall,” caer: it seems to name a voluntary action (like “to walk,” “to cook”), yet it really expresses the operation on a body of an exterior force—love, death, gravity.

It’s hard to fathom the importance of this notion to language and culture. In the Christian worldview, the original act of disobedience causes “the Fall” (la Caída) of Humanity into a state of sinfulness. Indeed, the Fall could be understood as the framework for all of human history.

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!


Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Dec. 11-17, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 210 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).

El caso de la caída

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés

 Querida lectora o lector,

¨Todo lo que sube, baja”. Es un cliché nomás, algo que se dice–¡pero cuánta sabiduría encierran esas cinco palabras! (En inglés son seis: What goes up must come down.)

caida-fall-sign-cartel-peligro-dangerResulta que este acto tan sencillo (si podemos llamar “acto” a algo causado o impuesto por la gravedad) permea el lenguaje de modo profundo y a veces inesperado.

“Chance” (chance en inglés, que se pronuncia “chans”) expresa suerte, riesgo, azar, oportunidad. Por vía del francés nos llega desde el latín vulgar: cadentia, cuyo infinitivo cadere nos da “caer” (en inglés: fall, pronunciado “fol”, de origen germánico). En música, “cadencia” es el paso o ritmo (como el andar de una persona) pero también el modo en que una composición o sección de la misma se resuelve—cómo “cae”. De igual raíz proceden “decadencia” y “decaimiento”.

El participio de cadere, casus (como “hacer” tiene su participio “hecho”), nos da “caso” (ingl. case), una situación que require investigación y acción (tratamiento en el fuero médico; procesamiento o defensa en el legal). De casus también viene “acaso” (por “tal vez”) y “casual” (azaroso; en inglés, casual recoge el sentido de “informal” y no el de “azaroso”). En inglés los muertos y heridos (a veces se entiende sólo los muertos) en batalla son casualties, “los caídos”, o en un inglés poético, the fallen. Extrañamente, este término con su evocaciones de nobleza, tiende a restringirse a las bajas militares—a pesar de que los civiles muertos y heridas son más numerosos en la mayoría de las guerras.

Aquello que nos ocurre, en inglés poético, befalls us—nos “acaece.” Ese sentido sigue muy actual, sin embargo, aunque expresado de otra manera: en inglés se habla de how things went down (cómo resultaron o “cayeron” las cosas), se espera a ver how things fall out (cómo “caen las fichas”). Trabar amistad es fall in con amigos; la pelea entre amigos, falling out. Fall in se refiere, además, a la incorporación de una o más personas, soldados por ejemplo, a una marcha o desfile.

Uno “cae en la trampa” (en inglés, falls for a trick or falls into a trap). La pintoresca expresión caer como un chorlito usa una palabra de origen vascuense, txorl(it)o “pajar(it)o”. Pero al descubrir o descifrar la verdad, uno “cae en la cuenta”, de lo que el inglés no tiene equivalente.

Entre el comienzo y el fin de nuestra vida cuando uno “cae muerto” (ingl, drops dead), el momento más dramático tal vez sea el enamoramiento: falling in love, literalmente “caer en amor”.

De nuevo nos encontramos frente a lo misterioso del verbo “caer”, to fall: pareciera nombrar una acción voluntaria (como “caminar”, “cocinar”), sin embargo lo que expresa es la operación sobre un cuerpo de una fuerza externa: el amor, la muerte, la gravedad.

Es difícil sondear toda la profundidad de este concepto para el lenguaje y la cultura. En la perspectiva cristiana, la fatal desobediencia de Adán y Eva en el Edén causa “la  Caída” (the Fall) de la Humanidad en un estado de pecado. Es más: la Caída puede entenderse como el marco para la totalidad de la historia humana.

                   ¡Buenas palabras! Good words!  


Copyright  ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  Se reservan todos los derechos. Una anterior versión de este ensayo apareció originalmente en la edición del 11 al 17 de diciembre 2016 de La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), como la entrega número 210 de la columna semanal bilingüe “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT es Traductor Certificado por la ATA (American Translators Association), inglés>español, e Intérprete Certificado por los Tribunales del Estado de Tennessee inglés<>español, además de entrenador en los campos de la traducción, interpretación y competencia transcultural. Es doctor en Historia de América Latina por la Universidad de Johns Hopkins, y actualmente candidato al Juris Doctor en la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Memphis (mayo 2017).

Grammar and the “president elect”

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

By the time these lines (written on Sunday) reach you, the election will be over—and all I can say is, I told you so. Which reminds me of the brilliant quip by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean who said, before the 1934 World Series against Detroit, “This Series is already won”—then added, “I just don´t know by which team.”

ballot-into-ballot-boxSo, as you read this, there will (presumably) be a president-elect. The term’s a bit odd: if a candidate is “elected,” why the form “elect”? (Spanish similarly has presidente electo where you might expect elegido.) The answer lies in the difference between “strong” and “weak” verbs in Germanic grammar, which is the main structure for how English works.

A weak verb forms the participle by adding an ending, typically “ed,” to the verb stem without changing the stem. Thus “bake” becomes “I had baked” and the participle can also act as an adjective: “baked chips.”

On the other hand, strong verbs like “seek,”  “sink,” and “bind” form irregular participles, short and punchy: “sought,” “sunk,” and “bound.” So, in English, the verb “elect,” while normally weak, in the phrase “president elect” behaves as a strong verb.

In Spanish, the equivalent principle derived from Latin grammar refers not to verbs, but rather to participles, as strong or weak.  Many verbs have both forms. Elegir (to elect or choose) yields me habían elegido (they had chosen me) in weak form, and presidente electo (president elect) in strong form, as an adjective. Habían freído las papas (they had fried the potatoes) but papas fritas (fried potatoes). Span. conquista and Engl. “conquest” both embody a strong form of verbs derived from Latin conquirere. Span. convencer gives convencido (convinced) but the strong form convicto (convicted); the English noun “convict” also derives from the strong form.

From “president elect” to “convict” in the same column—sadly, in 2016, regardless of who won, it doesn’t seem like such a big leap.

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