Language has played a huge role in the book Bel Canto but specifically in this chapter it has become a truly significant factor in determining how the characters interact with each other. Most of the focus on communication steams from Roxanne and the many ways she goes about facing and often overcoming the language barrier between herself and other hostages.
While talking with Roxanne Coss Father Arguedas mentioned at one point how “everyone said it would be important to learn English.” This somewhat struck a chord with me and so I started looking into the proficiency of English speakers in Latin America. As for proficiency according to the EF-EPI, an independent research organization, Latin America as a whole ranks quite low at around 48 out of 70 total points. As determined in a previous class lecture the story is set in Peru which holds a 51 out of 70 score. Interestingly enough there has been a steep increase in the english proficiency in Peru over the past four years jumping from 44 to 51 . This data falls right in line with how Father Arguedas’ friends are trying to get him to pick up English.
Of course, this blog post wouldn’t be complete without talking about Gen, the overworked translator that has enabled so much plot progression within the story. Constantly Gen is translating in this chapter, from bargaining with Messner for the Generals to translating random words thrown his way like “dead” or “diabetic”. At one point Gen himself realizes the power he holds over others in this situation, he can warp the views of others simply by ever so slightly changing the translation. Katarina Reiss in her book “Translation Criticism” on page 108 describes how “even when two translators are in complete agreement on the interpretation of a text or passage, their translations in a target language will almost never be identical.” She goes on to say how the word choice is incredibly subjective to the emotional and psychological state of the translator at the time . In one scene Gen is asked to translate for General Alfredo the phrase “All of this information will be checked by our people on the outside” while interviewing the hostages to determine their value. Although Gen, being the faithful translator he is, translates it mostly word for word he is still influenced by his own bias and dislike of the terrorists and so he replaces the word “our” with the word “their” which both separates himself from the Terrorist organization and further intensifies the opposition between the hostages and their captors.
There are many examples of language barriers sprinkled throughout this chapter. Roxanne and Father Arguedas used rudimentary sign language for expressing religious views was one of the most poignant events in this chapter due to how much they both struggled to understand one another. The first breakthrough actually happened through body language in the form of pointing. As Herbert H. Clark of Stanford University mentions in “Pointing and Placing” the function of context in a material situation is essential to providing meaning behind one’s pointing body language . In a more generalized form Charles Peirce, creator of Peirce’s Theory of Signs, writes about how all signs, of any description, can be broken down into a simple three basic relation. This relation combines how the sign of an object is an associated action or behaviour, the icon which is the perceptual resemblance of the object in question, and finally the index which is the temporary status of the object. Combined these three aspects as Peirce describes and now invoking an interpret ant, or thought, of the object in another person’s mind is simplified greatly .
Roxanne was quite busy this chapter breaking down communication barriers left and right. Another notable scene was when Mr. Hosokawa and her were singing to each other after the accompanist had passed away. Through they lacked knowledge of each others’ language their shared knowledge of opera allowed them to essentially communicate in a form not too dissimilar to the way that the accompanist did with Roxanne while practising with her. As mentioned previously, context in incredibly important for establishing lines of communication. By having a shared experience or knowledge about a certain field context, like opera, the context of your responses and communication is predefined allowing significantly easier communication.
In conclusion, this chapter encapsulated the need and invaluable importance of having communication, whether it be through a translator like Gen or through more rudimentary sign language and contextual clues. As the story progresses and emotions intensify the importance of having a robust form of communication will only become more relevant.
– Michael Pedersen