Found in Translation: Endangered Languages
Some 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. And, according to the 2000 census, you can hear at least 92 of them on the streets of New York. You can probably hear more; the census lumps some of them together simply as ”other.”
But by the end of the century, linguists predict, half of the world’s languages will be dead, victims of globalization. English is the major culprit, slowly extinguishing the other tongues that lie in its path. Esther Allen, a professor of modern languages at Seton Hall University, calls English ”the most invasive linguistic species in the world.” Spanish and Hindi are also spreading, subsuming the dialects of South American Indians, and of the Indian subcontinent.
In the next two weeks, however, some of these endangered idioms can be heard at two international literary festivals that celebrate languages big and small, as well as the power and resilience of words themselves. The festivals are taking place all over town, in places as diverse as the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New York Public Library, the Bowery Poetry Club and the United Nations.
The PEN American Center is holding its second World Voices Festival of International Literature, beginning Tuesday and running through April 30. Ms. Allen is the curator of the gathering, and the novelist Salman Rushdie is its chairman as well as a participant in a discussion at Town Hall on Wednesday night called ”Faith and Reason” — the festival theme — with 134 writers from 41 countries around the world.
Among the 58 events is a panel, ”Writers on Their Languages,” with the novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga, who writes in the endangered language of Euskera, or Basque, and Dubravka Ugresic, whose most recent novel is ”The Ministry of Pain,” and who writes in Croatian. Other writers scheduled to participate include Orhan Pamuk, from Turkey, E. L. Doctorow and Martin Amis.
Then there is the People’s Poetry Gathering, from May 3 through May 7, sponsored by City Lore and the Bowery Poetry Club. There will be some 60 poets reading their work in English and in their native tongues. Among the highlights is a performance of poetry and music by Kewulay Kamara, whom City Lore commissioned to return to his boyhood home in Dankawali, Sierra Leone, in 2004 to recreate an epic poem destroyed during the recent civil war. The story goes back to before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and incorporates slavery and colonialism in West Africa.
There will also be a reading by Robert Bly of some of his translations and his own poetry, and a program on endangered languages at the United Nations, co-sponsored by the United Nations SRC Society of Writers, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
American publishers have one of the lowest translation rates in the Western world, according to Andrew Grabois, a consultant for Bowker, which tracks the publishing business. Only 3 percent of books published in the United States are translations (4,114 in 2005), Mr. Grabois said, compared with, for example, 27 percent in Italy. As a result, linguists contend, much of the English-speaking world knows little of other countries and cultures.
English may be eating up other languages, but paradoxically translation into English is vital for their survival, Mr. Rushdie said. ”People are not going to learn Serbian,” he said. ”If Serbian writers are going to survive in the world, they will have to be translated into English.”
Ms. Allen said, ”The whole point of this festival is inviting these people from outside English into the conversation, and making a place for them in English.”
Among those invited to the Poetry Gathering is Mr. Kamara, of Sierra Leone. Mr. Kamara’s native language is Kuranko, part of the Manden language group in West Africa. Mr. Kamara’s father, Assan Fina Kamara, was a farmer and teacher of Koranic studies. The Kamaras are members of the Fina caste: orators, or M.C.’s, who recite at ceremonies like weddings and funerals. The younger Mr. Kamara came to the United States when he was 18. Now 52, he teaches in the African-American Studies department at John Jay College. His epic poem ”Voices of Kings” tells of the origins of the Fina caste. One part relates the story of how the Prophet Muhammad rewarded an old couple for feeding him when he was hungry:
The old man returned to manhood
The old woman returned to womanhood
The child they bore
They called Fisana
Muhammad names Fisana and his Fina descendants, ”the voices of faith.”
The epic has many parts, and recitation can continue for hours, even days, Mr. Kamara said. He has also interwoven it with his own story.
”It’s not linear, you can start anywhere,” he said. So far he has written down about 100 pages. Mr. Kamara and Abdoulaye Diabate will sing and recite ”Voices of Kings” at the Poetry Gathering accompanied by African instruments, the bala (a precursor to the xylophone), tama (talking drum), flute and horn.
Another endangered language being highlighted in both the Poetry Gathering and the PEN festival is Euskera, or Basque. Mr. Atxaga, the Basque writer, wrote in an e-mail message from Spain that he is fighting to preserve Euskera because it is ”a language we know well, it helps us to live.”
And, he said, there are the layers of subtleties and precisions that are lost when a language dies.
In the Basque language, for instance, gender exists only in the second person. ”If you’re speaking to a woman to ask her, for example, whether she has a book, you say ‘Ba dun libururik,’ ” Mr. Atxaga said. ”Whereas, to a man you’d say ‘Ba duk libururik.’ That nuance of ‘n’ or ‘k’ can be important in telling a story. Details are always important in literature.”
Yet Mr. Atxaga said he disagrees with the idea that language gives insights into a people’s consciousness and culture. ”Presumably, a national epic can be translated,” he said.
”All you need to do is read the thinking of the Nazis,” he said. To them, ”the German language was unique and carried with it a singular concept of the world and life, revealing the essence of the German people,” he said. ”This quickly reached absurd extremes.”
Ms. Ugresic noted that the same thing has occurred in the former Yugoslavia, where language has become intensely politicized. Serbo-Croatian has broken up into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, all of them very similar but with speakers of each language claiming — sometimes violently — the supremacy of their own. Beatings and book burnings have occurred when one group objected to the language of the author. ”Crazy linguists are ready to project many things into languages,” she said by phone from Amsterdam, where she lives. She added that languages are always in a continuous state of transformation, and that to try and get in the way is useless.
”Some languages are dying and some are appearing,” she said. ”That is a much deeper and more interesting dynamic.”
Maybe, Ms. Ugresic said, the new language of globalization will be ”Smurfentaal,” a kind of slang with bits of Dutch and other languages, among them Moroccan, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian and Spanish, spoken by young people on the streets of Amsterdam.
”Every honest linguist will tell you the preservation of language is a lost battle,” Ms. Ugresic said, ”because you can’t deal with language dogmatically. Language is a living thing.
”So let it go.”
Where to Go to Hear Talk of Words
World Voices Festival of International Literature, sponsored by the PEN American Center, will run from Tuesday through April 30 at more than 25 locations. Some highlights are ”The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture”(which is sold out), with Margaret Atwood, Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie, on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Cooper Union, 7 East Seventh Street; ”Faith & Reason: Writers Speak,” with Mr. Rushdie, along with E. L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith and others, on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street; and ”Mixed Media: Writers on Their Languages,” with the novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga and others on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Columbia University Faculty House, 400 West 117th Street, Morningside Heights. Some events are free; admission for ticketed events ranges from $10 to $15. Tickets can be purchased through Smarttix, (212) 868-4444, or the event location. Schedule: www.pen.org
People’s Poetry Gathering, sponsored by City Lore and the Bowery Poetry Club, will run from May 3 to May 7 at locations including the Bowery Poetry Club, 309 Bowery, at First Street, East Village. Highlights of the Gathering include ”An Evening with Robert Bly” on May 3 at 7 p.m. at the City University of New York Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, at 34th Street; ”African Poetry: Voices of Kings: the Dankawali Village Epic” with Kewulay Kamara and others on May 6 at 4:45 p.m. also at the CUNY Graduate Center; and a ”Basque Poetry Dinner” on May 7 at 7 p.m. at the Bowery Poetry Club. Some events are free; ticketed events range from $5 to $40. Information: (212) 529-1955; www.peoplespoetry.org