The Striking Cudgel

Illustrator: Vojtěch Kubašta
Courtesy Once Long Ago
Bloomington, Ind., USA
July 31, 2010

Summer term is three-quarters over. Four hours of class every morning, homework every night, quizzes every Friday--my mind should be nearly full-up with Uyghur.

In some ways I'm looking forward to the end of this rigorous schedule. In other ways, I'm already wistful. In two weeks, I'll be moving on from Bloomington, which I've found to be a cute, college town. Attending class now feels like more of a routine than a trial. Finishing homework assignments takes me half the time it took me at the beginning of the term.

I did expect that certain elements of study would grow easier with rhythm. But I'm surprised to find that acquiring new vocabulary has been one of them. With hundreds of new words coming in, how could I retain them all? I was certain my mind would be overloaded when we were presented the weekly theme in this past Monday's class. The entire week's content was to focus on old legends, fairy tales, and fables. I figured none of that week's vocabulary could stick. I'd never before heard Uyghur words such as, "mighty, noble steed," "shimmering, copper sword," and "7-headed demon," among dozens of others. I fully expected to bomb that section of the weekly quiz.

However, I'm somehow managing to retain so many of these odd new words. Does throwing lots and lots of information at my mind bring it into some state of pliancy? If so, it's the opposite of what I expected. I had figured there would be some threshold at which nothing more could be absorbed.

Perhaps I feel better about classes this particular week just because I'm more engaged by this week's choice of content. A couple weeks prior the theme was newspaper articles. That was really boring, reading text about un-interesting events using formulaic constructions: "According to official reports the tally exceeded... blah, blah, blah." I guess reading that kind of material--in any language--would put me to sleep, even if I had no struggle to translate. But, these folk tales we've been delving into this week, some of them are really good stories I recall from childhood.

Illustrator: Vojtěch Kubašta
Courtesy Once Long Ago
I was excited to realize halfway into one of the longer stories we were translating that it was a childhood favorite from a particular collection, Once Long Ago. There were slight changes in detail but the story was the same. The magic table that could replenish itself with wine and cooked dishes in the "German" version from Once Long Ago became a magic tablecoth with the same ability--sans wine--in the "Uyghur" version. The story I knew as a child was titled, The Three Treasures, but the Uyghur name focused on just one of the magic objects, calling the story, The Striking Cudgel.

The Uyghur version additionally gave more details about the magic donkey who could drop gold coins on command. In the storybook version I recalled the magic command to get the donkey to drop gold coins was by saying, "Bricklebrit!". The version we just translated was not so sanitized, with the simple instruction, "Poop, donkey, poop!"

After we'd finished translating the long story of the striking cudgel in class, I called Jen back in Seattle to ask if she remembered it as well. Of course she did. While we were speaking she pulled the very book from which we were read to down from her shelf.

"Here it is, on page 138. It's called The Three Treasures," Jen said.

"I remember that Ben scanned half of Once Long Ago in some years ago. I wonder if he got that far into the book... ," I said.

I dug through my e-mail while talking with her, to see if I could find the link he'd mailed out years prior.

"Excellent. Here it is!"

I copied the digitized version onto a memory stick to bring into class to share with the instructor and my classmate. I opened up the version I knew from childhood of The Striking Cudgel on the classroom projector. Our teacher seemed so excited to see these scanned pages in English. He confessed he thought the story existed only in Uyghur. He quickly requested that I save the file to his memory stick.

I think he was just as excited to see the text and illustrations for his first time as I was for my first time. Of course, my first time was sitting in my mother's lap, being read to aloud, turning paper pages by hand. Once, long ago...