The Voices of the Whales

Isabel Zapata

Translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers

1. I’m interested in the language of animals.

2. Whales, especially the humpback whale and the various subspecies of blue whale, are known to make repetitive sounds with different frequencies we consider to be songs.

3. When we look at animals, we hope to find virtues we lack.

4. Although sexual selection is thought to be their primary purpose, whale songs remain a mystery to scientists.

5. The human body is a symphony. (Charles Ives)

6. The universe is a symphony. (John Cage)

7. Nothing suggests that whales are trying to communicate with us.

8. The Sounds of Earth, the record coordinated by Carl Sagan that traveled into space on Voyagers I and II, includes:

“Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong

a Navajo night chant

an image of a woman eating fruit in a supermarket

an image of a string quartet

a diagram of vertebrate evolution

a selection of Senegalese percussion

a Peruvian wedding song

an image of a cooking fish

volcanoes, cricket, frog, laughter, vital signs, gentle dog, footsteps, the flight of an F-111

greetings in fifty-five human languages

greetings of humpback whales

9. What would aliens think of whales?

10. The US Navy detected whale songs in the 1960s. Ten years passed before they were divulged to the general public.

11. Nothing suggests that whales are trying to communicate with the general public.

12. The tonal frequencies of whales diminish a few fractions of a hertz every year. Are they affected by noise pollution in the water? Have changing oceanic temperatures caused this drop? If their songs are a form of cultural expression, are whales victims of capitalism? 

13. There are whales in all the oceans in the world, but they spend so much time underwater that we know almost nothing about their routines.

14. We know they sing and that’s enough.

15. The voices of the whales will outlive us.

Isabel Zapata is the author of Las noches son asíAlberca vacíaUna ballena es un paísIn vitro and Troika. In 2015, she and four friends founded the press Ediciones Antílope. Robin Myers is a U.S.-born, Mexico City-based poet and translator. Her many recent translations include two books by Isabel Zapata: In Vitro (Coffee House Press, 2023) and A Whale Is a Country (Fonograf Editions, forthcoming).

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