Surviving the year’s first English speaking contest 4

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s getting to be speechifying season here again, and my first judging gig this year was a recitation contest for non-English majors.

The 29 contestants’ selections were a compendium of uplifting quotations, essays, poems, songs and miscellania that could have come from one of those never-ending paperbacks full of uplifting quotations, essays, poems, songs and miscellania. In fact, that’s where some of them came from. I think it’s an unwritten rule here that English recitation material has to be really sappy and sentimental.

Having nothing better to do than marking about 100 tests (no joke), I spent a couple of hours one night checking the provenance of all these uplifting pieces about love, mom, friendship, self-worth, growing old, love, life’s setbacks, and mom.

Here’s a rundown of the afternoon’s selections, to give you an idea of what I mean.

Taking the prize for the oldest selection is “My luve is like a red, red rose,” from 1794, attributed to Robert Burns. He collected and preserved old songs and poems in Scots, like this one, for posterity. That’s how we still have “Auld Lang Syne.”

It’s short, so here’s the poem in its entirety. Save it for Valentine’s Day, boys.

My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose
Robert Burns 1794, from traditional sources

O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O, my luve is like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

(“Gang” means “go.” “Weel” means “well” and no, it is not a typo.)

And for your listening pleasure, here is a real Scots person singing the song, Margaret Donaldson.

For her part, the student reciting the poem did a pretty good job, considering the language is not standard English. She even said “gang” right!

There were other song lyrics, too, though I daresay not as simple and elegant as ol’ Robbie’s. We heard “Hero,” a 1993 hit by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff, “Bring It All Back,” the debut single by the ever-uplifting S Club 7, and a less than uplifting “song” incorrectly titled, “Lake of Autumn.”

Two students recited that last one. Once was enough. It’s a real downer about lovers parting by a lake, sung by the sultry Viktor Lazlo, at right.

Viktor Lazlo

Viktor Lazlo

(Viktor, as I hope you can tell, is not a guy, but a French-Belgian singer born Sonia Dronier. The students recited a spoken introduction to her 1986 song, “Stories.” Here’s a video of her performing it.

And here’s some of the spoken part, which is now apparently on the English-speech-contest circuit here.

I still don’t think I am gonna make it through another love story
You took it all away from me
And there I stand, I knew I was gonna be the …..
The one left behind.
But still I’m watching the lake vaguely conscious
And I know—My life is ending.

Hearing that just once was one time too many. I felt like I needed an S Club 7 fix. But she’s a great singer, who I discovered simply by tracking down this totally depressing song. Here’s her MySpace page

Those are all the songs. Now, for the essays. Bertrand Russell’s essay, “What I Have Lived for,” is a popular, if rarely recited selection. Also represented — twice — was an excerpt from the conclusion of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. It begins, “However mean your life is, meet and live it, do not shun it and call it hard names.”

Less familiar was an essay called, “Just for today.” I found it on the countless uplifting websites out there in cyberspace, who, like most of these students, never, never, never give attribution to the stuff they reprint. It took some effort to track down its actual author, Sybil Partridge, who penned it in 1916. Seems it ended up in a Dale Carnegie book back then, too.

Robert Le Fulghum

Robert Lee Fulghum, fellow white beard

Robert Lee Fulghum of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1988) fame was represented as well. One student recited, “Dancing all the dances as long as I can,” about the writer’s love of the tango despite his advancing years. I’m including a photo of Fulghum just because of his beard. Solidarity, brother!

Less familiar a name to me was Xu Zhimo (1897-1931), a Chinese who went to university in the USA and the UK. His poem, “Goodbye, Cambridge Again,” is very popular in China. Here’s a link to an English translation of it.

Xu, incidentally, died young in a plane crash. If he’d been born a little later in history, he probably would have been a rock musician.

OK, let’s talk about mom. There were no less than five recitations about mothers. One was a rather jarring portmanteau that began with the lyrics from a 1915 Tin Pan Alley song, “M-O-T-H-E-R, a Word That Means the World to Me,” and ended with a selection from Kahlil Gibran’s “The Broken Wings,” from 1912. Weird and kitschy.

(Useless factoid: The guy who co-wrote “M-O-T-H-E-R” also wrote “I Scream You Scream We All Scream for Ice Cream.” His name was Howard Johnson, but he’s not the Johnson of hotel/restaurant fame. This is why God created Wikipedia, people.)

Other paens to motherhood were “Prayer for My Mother” from Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul (1997), “The Rough Hands,” from A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul (1998), “Every Woman is Beautiful,” by a contemporary American children’s book author, Mary Lynn Plaisance, and “Thank You, Mom,” by James Ruka, another contemporary writer who has also written for those tiresome Chicken Soup books.

[All these essays, copyrighted or not, are all available on the Internet in one way or another. No books were bought to produce this contest.]

Three students chose an old warhorse (literally) I’ve heard over and again for the last two years, entitled “Youth.” It’s by Samuel Ullman (1840-1924), and talks about your aerial picking up wireless “waves of optimism.” General Douglas MacArthur apparently had a framed copy hanging on his wall.

Another frequent English speaking contest warhorse is, “A forever friend,” which I found is all over the Internet and not just in China. I couldn’t find its author, but I did find two people who claimed to be its author.

Here’s another puzzler, which will give you an idea of how people learn butcher English in China. It ends with a quote by J.G. Holland, but the rest came from somewhere else. It begins:

“Consider … you. In all the time before now and in time to come, there has never been and will never be anyone just like you. You are unique in the entire history and future of the universe. Wow! Stop and think about that. You are better than one in a million, or a billion, or a gazillion … You are the only one like you in a sea of infinity! …”

OK, I get the idea, already. I am unique. Like I didn’t know that. Gosh!

I could not find the source of this sad excuse for an essay. It’s so poorly written that I suspect the author prefers to remain anonymous. That said, please tell me it is not in some Chicken Soup for teenagers book. My regard for those books would plummet even further.

There are three others that will also have to remain “author unknown,” because I don’t have the requisite hours of time to track down their sources. One is about getting a “thorough understanding of oneself” and another pushes confidence, which is “a key to survive in this world. It is the only key tool to win the rat race in every walk of life.” Either could have come from an American self-help book. Or is the appropriate description, “self-actualization?”

This one is sort of a fable. A bad one. “One day, God asked me to take a snail for a walk,” it begins. So he takes the snail for a walk, gets mad at the snail for being too slow, and kicks it. (Snail cruelty!) Takes it back home. The next day, God tells him, take the snail out for a stroll again. This time, Luke Snailwalker feels bad because the snail is cowering in fear of him, so he takes his time. Along the way, he stops (the snail keeps on going — wisely, I’d say) and looks up to marvel at the stars in the sky. In the daytime. Was he walking this snail during a solar eclipse? Or maybe he sampled some mushrooms on the way?

I’ll close with two poems that aren’t really poems. One is a collection of aphorisms that someone in the dim past downloaded from a quotations website, and now everyone thinks it’s a poem. The other is a group effort by some very bored Taiwanese medical students, misattributed to the Bengali poet Rabindrinath Tagore.

The first “poem” included quotes from Dr. Seuss, Sir Thomas Browne, Roy Croft (who may have just translated a German poem by Erich Fried — some people really have their underwear in knots about this question), Christina Phan, a contemporary poet from San Jose, California, and many anonymous sources. Mostly the quotes are about love, lost loves, friendships and such. Nothing about lives ending by lakes, thank the stars, though Dr. Seuss once wrote about Luke Luck, who likes licking lakes.

The second is another fave for English speaking contests. I’ve heard it countless times these two years, and at least one time, the transcript identified it as a poem by Tagore. Well, it’s nowhere close. Here’s the short version of its origination.

According to one fellow, a Taiwan author, Amy Cheung, wrote the first two lines — in Chinese. Some medical students in Taiwan then made it a group project to finish the poem, still in Chinese. Then someone translated it into English, and it got posted to many, many English websites catering to Chinese English learners. Someone said it was by Tagore, and it became an Internet meme. Poor Tagore.

Here is one clumsy translation of the Chinese original, which I don’t think was such hot stuff in the first place:

The furthest distance in the world
    Is not between life and death
    But when I stand in front of you
    Yet you don’t know that
    I love you  

   The furthest distance in the world
    Is not when I stand in font of you
    Yet you can’t see my love
    But when undoubtedly knowing the love from both
    Yet cannot
    Be together  

   The furthest distance in the world
    Is not being apart while being in love
    But when plainly cannot resist the yearning
    Yet pretending
    You have never been in my heart

   The furthest distance in the world
    Is not plainly cannot resist the yearning
But using one’s indifferent heart
   To dig an uncrossable river
    For the one who loves you

And here’s an alternative version, which I submit as proof that one cannot adequately translate poetry using a machine translator.

The remotest distance is not in the world ;
Raw and dead but;
I stand in front of you;
But you do not know that I love you
The remotest distance is not in the world ;
I stand in front of you;
You know but I love you but;
Know obviously that in love each other;
But can’t be together
The remotest distance is not in the world ;
Know obviously that in love each other;
Can’t together but;
It is unable to block and resist this burst to miss obviously ;
But must pretend not to place you on in the heart at all on purpose
The remotest distance is not in the world ;
It is unable to keep out this burst to miss obviously ;
It but must pretend on purpose it place on in the heart at all you but;
Use one’s own cold and detached heart;
Have dug a piece of irrigation canals and ditches that can’t be crossed over to the person who loves you !!

Yeah. Definitely not Tagore.

Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, folks. Just in case you didn’t know already.

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4 thoughts on “Surviving the year’s first English speaking contest

  1. Reply Mary Ellen Curtin Dec 5,2010 12:00 am

    That's fascinating, John. Honestly, it's the kind of thing that deserves to be posted in a more public venue, because I can think of a *bunch* of people who'd be interested in it. James Fallows at The Atlantic, for one; Victor Mair at Language Log for another. http://language​log.ldc.upenn.e​du/nll/?author=​13

  2. Reply Mary Ellen Curtin Dec 5,2010 5:23 am

    That's fascinating, John. Honestly, it's the kind of thing that deserves to be posted in a more public venue, because I can think of a *bunch* of people who'd be interested in it. James Fallows at The Atlantic, for one; Victor Mair at Language Log for another.

  3. Reply Lingling Ge Dec 5,2010 11:27 am

    Is this speechifying season just for newbees – I was a little shining star 2 years ago. Oh good times. Now back to December, and know I am leaving all this this!I shall always remember your tricky smile while asking me the difficult question last season! Good luck lol!

  4. Reply John Wheaton Dec 9,2010 10:26 pm


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