Freedom of Expression: Languages Under Threat

by    /  February 25, 2010  / 5 Comments

I recently had dinner with a group of writers including Maxine Case and Marius Ivaskevicius, two authors who were writers-in-residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh by way of the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Marius, who is Lithuanian, mentioned that the Soviets would force Lithuanian school children to write in a Cyrillic alphabet. Rita Malikonyte-Mockus, a Lithuanian poet and North Side resident, added that it was like “trying to write English words with Chinese characters.”

Colonial and occupying powers have long recognized the connection between identity and language and have worked to eradicate indigenous languages. Perhaps the most famous historical example is the British attempt to destroy the Irish language. However, we don’t have to look to the past to find endangered languages. Globalization, economic pressure, and political turmoil are conspiring to create a mass extinction of languages. According to “Enduring Voices,” a National Geographic project to document dying languages, every 14 days a language disappears.

In order to protect native languages, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity, which  declares that everyone has the right to “express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue.”

The economics of the publishing industry present obstacles to exercising this right because publishing houses are less willing to take risks on works in translation. Maxine, who worked in publishing in her native South Africa commented, “The perception exists that markets for indigenous language books either do not exist or are not financially viable.” The same can be said of the American publishing market, one of the world’s largest. According to Emily Williams of Publishing Perspectives, there is a “translation gap” in the United States, meaning a paucity of books in translation are released here.

This can pressure writers to abandon their native language in favor of English. Maxine, who grew up speaking English and claims it as her mother tongue, said, “I have tremendous awe and respect for my friends who write in their second or third languages, but know that many of them feel compelled to write in English by the publishing industry.”

Some promoters and publishers are making commendable efforts  to provide opportunities for writers of under-represented and rare languages.

The Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s  major book fair, features such literary heavyweights such as Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Seth, and Gulzar (the Indian poet who shared an Oscar for the song “Jai Ho” in Slumdog Millionaire.) Thanks to the efforts of co-founder Namita Gokhale, there are also panels of writers who work in Tamil, Bengali, and other lesser-known languages, as  well as writers who are Dalit, members of the lowest rung of the caste system. Gokhale also began Yatra Books, which, in partnership with Penguin Books India, publishes titles in Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu.

In February 2009, the South African Department of Arts and Culture launched a project through the National Library to underwrite the publication of indigenous works, and Maxine is hopeful the prize will help cultivate a wider audience for writers working in such languages.

In the United States, publishers such as Archipelago Books and  Open Letter, University of Rochester’s literary publishing house, are dedicated to cultivating a greater audience for international writers by publishing only works in translation. Open Letter also publishes Three Percent, an online literary website and blog about translation. (Check out the Open Letter’s Exclusive Book Preview in Sampsonia Way here.)

As an editor, I struggle to make literary works as accessible as possible without bowing to the idea that English is the “universal language.” That is why I try to run original text, whenever possible, along with English translations. I soon hope to  bring our readers literature from a greater diversity of languages. If you’d like to suggest a title of a recent work, please contact us here.

Click here to read Elizabeth’s bio.

5 Comments on "Freedom of Expression: Languages Under Threat"

  1. Jenny March 1, 2010 at 6:01 pm ·

    This is such an important issue, and I feel any journal worth its salt publishes the original alongside any translation. Glad to see you’re committed to that principle.

  2. Bekah March 2, 2010 at 1:07 pm ·

    Thank you for bringing attention to the economic and political forces that work against publishing texts in rare languages. It is devastating to read about the destruction of such languages, but, in a small way, heartening to read about people and presses working against this, including yourself! Thanks for your work!

  3. Sarah March 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm ·

    I agree with Jenny–I love to see the original next to the translation. It’s nice to see where the rhymes must be and how the rhythm might work, even when I don’t know the original language. And of course it makes me want to learn the language.

  4. Ahmed March 30, 2010 at 5:39 pm ·

    Thanks for your insights — I enjoyed and appreciate your take on what is certainly a complicated phenomenon. I wonder if any readers (or writers!) have any sense of the historical range of this phenomenon? Is this new, or have languages been dying for a long, long, long while? Similarly, I can think of the formation of “new” languages//dialects too (what is the difference?!?) — for instance, verlance (sp?) in inner-cities of France is amazing!

    In all seriousness, too, why is this such an awful thing? I mean, in terms of colonialism — certainly it is clearer, but I wonder how dialects fit in. How do we differentiate between standardization of language and colonial violences without explicit imperial moves? To be crass: what do we do with Ebonics? What of vernaculars, more generally? Is any grammatical “correction” killing the possible birth of new languages? Can we “simply” change the death/birth rate?!?

  5. Vicki April 6, 2010 at 11:04 am ·

    An important conversation that should continue. Great insight Elizabeth!

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