First Lines

A Project in Global Diversity


First Lines offers spoken and subtitled samples of famous literary passages, spanning the globe and the centuries. By hearing and familiarizing ourselves with these short selections, viewers can gain a sense of familiarity with diverse languages and literatures. The result of this familiarity is to break down the barriers of distance in space and time. Chinese, Arabic, French, Urdu—these are languages used by real people, using words, presenting ideas and emotions available to all of us.


Click the title or author to download videos. For a short overview of texts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Arabic, and Twi (an African language), click here: Combined Introduction (10 minutes)


First Lines

Ancient languages

Hebrew                       Genesis (Sandor Goodhart) 20 min.

Greek                         Homer (Keith Dickson) 22 min.

Greek                         From Sappho to John (Patrice Rankine) 15 min.

Latin                           Virgil (John Kirby) 22 min.



Chinese                       T’ang Poetry (characters) (Daniel Hsieh) 14 min.

Chinese                       T’ang Poetry (sound) (Xianfeng Mou) 9 min.

Chinese                       Dream of the Red Chamber (Ying Liang) 9 min.

Japanese                     Bashô (Haiku) (Eiji Sekine) 11 min.


Middle East and India

Arabic                        Koran (Mahmoud Guweily) 12 min.

Turkish                      Islam (Turgay Bayindir) 8 min.

Urdu (India)              Zafar (Aparajita Sagar) 11 min.



Old English                Beowulf (Shaun Hughes) 13 min.

Middle English          Chaucer (Ann Astell) 10 min.

Italian                         Dante (Allen Mandelbaum) 14 min.

Portuguese                 Poems of Exploration (Silvia Oliveira and Paul Dixon) 14 min.

Spanish                       Don Quixote (Howard Mancing) 18 min.

Russian                       Pushkin (Tetyana Lyaskowets) 14 min.

French                        Baudelaire (Tom Broden) 19 min.

German                      Goethe (Marek Gryglewicz) 15 min.

German                      Heine (Anna Fluegge) 8 min.

Bonus features from the archives

Italian                         Boiardo (Paolo Panaro recites from canto 1, subtitles) 14 min.

Italian                         Boiardo (Charles Ross reads from canto 18) 9 min.



Ngemba (Cameroon) Ndjjwi-mupang (Nde) 14 min. Includes Lydia speaking francophone.

Twi (Ghana)              An African Fable (Paul Asare) 13 min.



Native American       Lakota 14 min.

Cuban                         Guillén (Joseph Dorsey) 16 min.

Latino                         Neruda (Luis Urrea and Angelica Duran) 18 min.

American                   Twain (Robert Lamb) 21 min.

Afro-American          Preaching and Poetry (James Saunders) 22 min.

Non-spoken                American Sign Language Poetry (Ronnie Wilbur) 11 min.

Theory                        Post-Modernism and Deconstruction (John Duvall) 8 min.


Those interviewed on these tapes were associated with the Program in Comparative Literature at Purdue University, either faculty or graduate students, during the spring of 2006 or 2007 when the tapes were made. Support for this project came from the Center for Undergraduate Instructional Excellence, College of Liberal Arts, Purdue University.


These clips are available for use by the general public and in high school and college courses. Videos may be re-edited later. Email me at


Comparative Literature and the Sounds of Cultural Diversity:

A Rational for First Lines


The method of Comparative Literature was originally conceived to illuminate large developments in genres (epics, novels, lyric poetry) that cross time and space. For two generations in American universities this method succeeded admirably. It provided a way to discuss classical literature when enrollments in classics programs were rapidly declining. Medievalists needed to know Latin. Old English and French benefited from comparative approaches. The field of Renaissance studies required knowledge of Latin, French, Italian, and English literature. Much modern scholarship was in German.


Since Comparative Literature became a formal academic discipline in America in the years following World War II, it has shifted away from the goals of its founders, mainly German professors who feared the demise of European literature. Comparative Literature is no longer regarded as a forum to promote literatures of nations whose cultural influence has faded. As can be seen today in the work of the American Comparative Literature Association, the focus of Comparative Literature is far more broadly cultural and global than formerly. Spanish predominates, as might be expected from an organization whose name includes Central and South America, but other languages and culture, and other histories, vie for attention.


The main problem with designing a trans-cultural, multi-language pedagogy is that no one person reads Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Chinese, Old English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Urdu, and Spanish. Yet all of these areas are represented in standard anthologies of world literature assigned to college sophomores throughout our country, often in general education courses. The omission of any nationality weakens our perception of the world we live in today. Yet it is immediately intuitive that English translation must distort and filter our perception of passages that might be includes in such a course, such as the creation of the world in the Bible, Homer’s wrath of Achilles, common prayers from the Koran, T’ang Dynasty poetry in China, Dante’s Divine Comedy, French symbolist poetry, Don Quixote, the Russian novel, modern drama since Ibsen (a Norwegian), and the magical realism of South American fiction.


First Lines: A Project in Global Diversity seeks to solve this problem by introducing a variety of world cultures by means of selected passages, in their original languages, from works that are regarded as fundamental, excellent, and representative within their respective cultures. A popular culture course might respond to the same problem by using folk or popular songs or scenes from films or television shows or even commercials, yet by its nature it would be dealing with the ephemeral, not what is permanent and at the root of a civilization. It is not a condemnation of any culture to say it is not literary: other arts may take precedence, like music or dance or other social rituals. Literature can be understood broadly or narrowly. This project adopts a narrow definition. It further concentrates on short poems or passages, often opening lines, of much longer works in order to meet its goal of introducing global diversity through literary excellence.


When I designed the project I hoped that by seeing and hearing these explanations of the individual words that make up famous, or culturally significant, passages and, perhaps, by memorizing the passages, people could participate in a world of diversity people. The result of the experiment, to judge by my own experience, is that it is lot harder than I expected to memorize even short passages in the twenty-two languages represented in this series. Nonetheless, something else, just as important, emerged during the taping of First Lines.


It turned out that during the conversations that make up much of each video, the presenters often say something about learning to feel culturally at home. Often they talk about things they learned in school at an early age, or how they feel about their place in the world. It is fascinating to hear how almost every speaker had to overcome a sense of being somehow an outsider to what an outsider might think of as a native culture. I first realized that this series would be something other than just spoken words with subtitles when I heard Luis Urrea talk about his experience growing up in Mexico and Los Angeles, but it turned out that each of the presenters had something to say about discovering how learning creates a sense of home.


By watching and re-watching these videos, we can recapitulate learning processes of the speakers even as we learn something ourselves. The result is to give us a perspective on what diversity means throughout the world, our international home.


                                                                                                         --Charles Ross


The Program in Comparative Literature, College of Liberal Arts, Purdue University.

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