I’ve always liked the expression, “to learn by heart,” i.e., to memorize. When you learn something by heart, you have to slow down and pay attention to language and rhythm and meter. When you learn something by heart, it tends to become a part of you, especially if you memorized it at a young age.
In the months before he died at 93, my father often forgot the names of his children or the doctor who had visited him the day before, but he could still recall poems that he had learned as a boy. My oldest sister would read him a single line from a classic work—”Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” or “Psalm of Life” (“Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal”) or “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck, Whence all but he had fled”)—and my father would take up the thread and recite the poem to its end.
When I was a kid, the nuns made us memorize poems on a regular basis, and I can still recite them. With the exception of song lyrics, nowadays memorization seems to be a lost art, but it’s a habit I never quite broke. Some years ago, I came across the poem “Last Night as I Was Sleeping” by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado in its most familiar translation by the American poet Robert Bly. Naturally when I began learning Spanish, I sought out the original poem and memorized it. The more Spanish that I learned, the more I found Bly’s translation lacking. The English version begins “Last night as I was sleeping, I dreamt—marvelous error!—“ whereas in the original, the “marvelous error” is “bendita ilusión,” which is more along the lines of “blessed illusion” (although quite fortuitously, “illusion” can also mean “hope”). You can find the translation and the original of the poem here, as well as a discussion of the translation.
In addition to teaching me the Spanish words for “beehive” and “wax” (which I’ve managed to use in the strangest situations), the poem helped me understand the imperfect tense in Spanish. In English, we use such wordy constructions as “I was sleeping” or “I used to sleep” to convey the imperfect tense, but Spanish has dedicated an entire tense (actually, several verb tenses) to differentiate between actions that happened once or were completed in an instant and those that that continued over a period of time. I’ve found Spanish to be quite persnickety or “quisquilloso” when it comes to matters of time. More on that in an upcoming post…
En una entrada pasada sobre Martin Luther King, Jr., postulé que memorizar sea una buena manera de aprender. No es solo para aumentar vocabulario sino para obtener un sentido de los ritmos de la lengua.
Cuando empecé de estudiar el español, casi la primera cosa que hice fue memorizar el poema “Anoche Cuando Dormía” del poeta español Antonio Machado. Me había gustado el poema en la versión traducida y estaba decidida a aprender el original, a pesar de que apenas podía entender las palabras.
Además de aprender muchas palabras útiles como “colmena” y “hogar”, descubrí que el poema me ayudó entender la diferencia entre el tiempo pretérito y el tiempo imperfecto. El imperfecto no existe en inglés y por eso, puede ser un concepto difícil para la gente de habla inglesa. El español presta más atención a las sutilezas de tiempo. Más sobre esto en otra entrada del futuro…