July 15, 2018. Shores of the Canal Saint-Martin, Paris.
It was the evening when France won the soccer world cup. The recording captures the hours before the event when the streets of Paris were disconcertingly quiet: everyone was indoors, glued to the TV. A group of Venezuelan musicians and I, however, did what you would do on any other evening and sat down in a circle on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin. One of them had brought a guitar, another other—a violin. Within minutes, the instruments were out of their cases, and the musicians began singing and playing Venezuelan popular tunes they knew since childhood. The one in this recording is called “Los dos gavilanes” (the two hawks) and originates in the Venezuelan province Lara, known for its popular music.
I had met the musicians while doing fieldwork in Venezuela. At the time, they were still members of the world-famous classical music education program El Sistema. Five years later, many of them had immigrated to Paris to escape the sociopolitical crisis in their country. They studied in French universities and worked odd jobs to make ends meet.
The recording captured is a “textured” piece of fieldwork: it contains and conveys the energy of music, the unedited spontaneity of fieldwork, and the sounds of people’s voices. In most of my ethnographic work, the standard anthropological expressive form of the written word has led me to a constant labor of translating sounds to words. Many of my interlocutors saw this labor as futile: “Music cannot be expressed in words,” one musician warned me, a sentiment echoed by many others. They saw this as one of music’s virtues; it was what made it magical.
In my academic work, I typically revel in the tension between the ethnographic engagement with a non-verbal art form and the creative struggle to put the experience of it into words. It is a labor not unlike the work of translating poetry, which some have described as untranslatable. “There is, at least, an art in the failure of translation. There is value, intellectual and aesthetic, in our failures of translation,” Anthony K. Webster (2016, 10) observes in discussing the challenges of translating poetry.
As it is limited to the written word, ethnographic writing cannot but flatten the embodied and sensory dimensions of fieldwork. This creates an inequality of the experience between the writer and the reader: the author writes from the perspective of someone who did experience the sensory textures of everyday life and is building concepts from them. The voices, scents, rhythms, and sounds of fieldwork are in the background as we, ethnographers, write. They are the context, if not the essence, of what we write. I think of ethnography as itself an “art of failure”—a failure to translate the multiple non-verbal and temporally specific moments of fieldwork—that holds theoretical and artistic potentialities.
In most of my work, such as books and articles, I dwell in the creative possibility offered by the verbal medium in attempting to translate non-verbal experiences such as music. To bridge the gap between the sonority and materiality of fieldwork and the tools most commonly available to me as an anthropologist—the written word—I aspire to stretch the common capacities of academic language by incorporating some of the characteristics of music into it. I build sentences while paying attention to the sounds of words, to the cadences of phrases, the rhythms of sentences. Still, I cannot know for certain if my readers will linger to read sentences slowly so that their musicality stands out, and even less that they might read them out loud, to hold and savor the shapes of words.
Here, I chose to share the raw material that is the object of my academic translations: the unedited sounds and conversations, the bursts of laughter that punctuate these melodies. This is what allows me to convey what gets lost in translation: the sounds and quality of people’s voices, what Roland Barthes (2009) calls the “grain of the voice” and Adriana Cavarero (2005, xviii) “the embodied uniqueness” that sounds in each voice; the rhythm of speaking and playing; the dynamic rise and fall of a voice, the energy of two voices rising together, feeding each other, plunging.
The piece, “Los Dos Gavilanes,” is a tongue-twister, a sequence of words or sounds, typically of an alliterative kind, that are difficult to pronounce quickly and correctly. Tongue-twisters illuminate our language abilities as a form of virtuosity, not unlike the playing of a musical instrument. Struggling to pronounce them, especially fast, can feel like tripping. To learn them better, we need to repeat words, caress phrases—to practice. Tongue-twisters illustrate the difficulty of conveying the sounds of human voices in writing. The virtuosity that shines in listening to them wanes in the written word.
Later that evening, crowds of people flooded the streets to celebrate France’s victory, waving French flags and singing the anthem. They cheered, screamed, and jumped into the canal. In the midst of this elation, we continued playing Venezuelan popular songs. Some passers-by stopped to listen; others tried to convince us to join their celebration.
In this recording of Venezuelan musicians’ voices and music, you, listener-reader, can hear a collective sound that refuses to be subsumed into dominant nationalism. You can feel the musical vibrations through which immigrants make claims on urban space. You can hear how friendship, solidarity, care, and stability are exchanged through song. You can listen to people creating a sense of home and finding joy in the midst of precarity. More than merely decorative, sound vibrates with a force that words can only strive to theorize.
Barthes, Roland. 2009. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980. Translated by Linda Coverdale. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. Originally published in 1981.
Cavarero, Adriana. 2005. For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Translated by Paul A. Kottman. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Webster, Anthony K. 2016. “The Art of Failure in Translating a Navajo Poem.” Journal de la Dociété des Américanistes 102, no. 102-1: 9–41.