[Reader-list] languages, and their death
eye at ranadasgupta.com
Tue Apr 25 13:34:27 IST 2006
April 21, 2006
Two Literary Festivals Will Highlight Endangered Languages
By DINITIA SMITH
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
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
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."
More information about the reader-list