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Cover > Thoughts on translation > Translation of Barbaric Languages or the Demise of Literature

Translation of Barbaric Languages or the Demise of Literature

by José Enrique Muratti Toro
The short story “The Knife with the Rosewood Handle” by Serbian author Danilo Kiš begins as follows: “The story that I am about to tell... was recorded by the hands of honorable people and reliable witnesses. However, to be true in the way its author dreams about, it would have to be told in Romanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, or Yiddish; or, rather, in a mixture of these languages”.

Danilo Kiš´assertion about the indispensability of telling a story and, thus, conveying a message full of meaning to readers all over the world, in languages other than the one that originally created circumstances worth telling, is a compelling statement about the concept of language as the most valuable of humankind´s creations. At the same time, it shares the very essence of what it means to be a distinct individual within a distinct culture that perceives reality and re-creates it to its own image and that of his gods and environment.

It is in this context that this round table discussion, sponsored by the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, gains significance and pertinence. PEN TLRC was among the primary forces behind the 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, also known as the Barcelona Declaration.

"Language is generally acknowledged as humankind´s greatest achievement, and each language embodies a human community´s unique perception and experiences of the world..." (Allen, Esther, To be or not to be translated, 2007) This statement is both, a recognition of every human being´s right to view and recreate life itself based on his place in the world, and PEN´s steadfast commitment to the importance of preserving language as an inalienable right of all peoples from all cultures.

The fact that fifteen years into the third millennium of the Christian era we need to assert this right, points to a very disturbing reality. Approximately 2,400 of the world´s 3,000 languages are presently in danger of extinction without the benefit of documentaries, extensive photographic archives and DNA in vitro with which we can bring them back from oblivion like the black rhinoceros or the ausubo tree from the Greater Antilles.

With the loss of language, an integral essence of being human is lost as well. In "To be translated or not to be", Carles Toner most appropriately quotes William Shakespeare´s Richard III when Duke of Norfolk was banished from England in saying:

"What is thy sentence, then but speechless death, Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath."

This linkage between people´s right to express themselves in the language of their ancestors - and the literature that most cultures use to record themselves within a world or cosmic order - is further supported by the PEN International Charter, which states: "Literature, national though it may be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency among nations in spite of political or international upheavals. PEN stands for the "principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and among all nations."

However, not all states are single nations nor all nations are states. And neither are immune to external forces that threaten their very existence as both. Inasmuch as a state may be conceived as the formalisation of political and economic structures that a culture has established within a set of frontiers to promote its self-preservation and engage in competitive or collaborative relations with its neighbours or other nations, nations and states have fallen prey to a system of forces beyond their own national and cultural interests.

At present, whether we consider our era modern, post-modern or meta-modern, states and cultures have fallen prey to a globalised system in which markets transcend frontiers with an old set of values that have equalised modernity with progress and progress with an ideology that can best be described as ´marketability´.

Almost all human endeavors have become products. Products are market driven, from commodities to conservation, from art collection to art conception. Art, the most intuitive, conceptual and subjective of human creations, and within it literature, have become articles of consumption whose worth, disengaged from the mastery of creativity and technique, are perceived as precious in relation to market value. To the extent that market value grows in proportion to market share, the homogenisation of consumers becomes a methodology and a mythology all its own. This mythology is built on the timeless quest for individuality and success, the paradigms of worth in the consumers’ world.

In "Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle", Chris Hedges warns us about the dangers of illusion and its triumph corollary, success. "The empire of illusion has resulted in a hegemonic domain and in economic decadence [that] presents a broken social narrative in which values evaporate before the only objective of 'success'... advancing a world in which fantasy is larger than reality as a result of industries dedicated to the satisfaction of audiences."

The illusion that as consumers we can be both, protagonists and hoarders of the symbols of success, audiences gulf down the bite-size messages of our collective pursuit of happiness by consuming the latest, the most modern, the most ahead-of-the-curve indicators of uniqueness, sophistication and purchasing power. Success then is measured more by what we are able to purchase – arguably an indicator of the good taste – than by what we know, what we value beyond products, what we actually become; in other words who we are.

In this process, our values change as our perception of ourselves as human beings draws away from abstract constructs as reflections of a greater being, whether divine or ethical, towards concrete, tangible, material reflections of what we are able to own. The market has solved the age-old dilemma of deciding whether we are what we do or we are what we have.

In "The Civilization of Spectacle", Mario Vargas Llosa states that "among the primary traits of post-cultural post-modernity is the rejection of the process as corollary of modernism and with it, the negotiation of transition, the retirement of the word and its subordination to the image… substituting life for representation, steering it to the optimum value of entertaining, with its inclination to gossip and scandal… entertainment is promoted by advertising the superficiality of content, […] the disappearance of critique, the proliferation of conformism as well as complacency and self-satisfaction... what cultural industries try to achieve is nothing more than a culture transformed into consumption articles".

Chin Tao Wu in "Privatizing Culture: Corporate art intervention since 1980s" and Naomi Klein in "No Logo: The Power of Brands" expose the function of branding in the valorisation of merchandise and its dominance of the art markets as values subordinated to the globalisation economies.

Jean Pierre Warnier in "The Globalization of Culture" warns us of the difference between cultures and the industries of culture as well as the high cost of relegating the one to the globalized markets of the other. Warnier proposes, "The market is a globalised exchange medium that internationalises the flux of objects and behaviours. However, in the same movement it provides societies with goods infinitely diversified that serve to build difference and identity. The official discourse promotes indifference and disdain for the knowledge of the past and an unbridled techno-optimism, reducing it to a permanent look to what has happened without studying it, characterising it as an old function, a stoppage of the progress of history."

In his text "The Liquid Modernity" Zygmunt Bauman furthermore assigns responsibility to the state as regulator of market´s voracity and potential destruction of everything and anything that divert it from profits. He argues that, "the state sponsorship of national culture has not saved itself from the same destiny suffered by other many State functions that today are 'deregulated' and 'privatised', just as it happened with them and for the market... National cultures have two functions that are impossible to deregulate, privatize and give up without causing socially catastrophic 'collateral damage'. One [of these functions] is defending the markets from themselves... Of the consequences paired to its notorious incapacity for auto limitation and self-control and its equally notorious tendency to minimise all the values resistant to valorisation and negotiation... The other function is repairing the social and cultural damages left behind by the market expansion due to this incapacity and that tendency."

The association of success - and its collective title (or shall we call it "brand") prosperity - with the dominance of markets and the institutionalisation of English as the language of business has been conducive to devaluing all products not traded in that language. The plasticity, globalisation and conversion of English into the currency indispensable to achieve capital gain has put a price on all commodities including cultural products, such as literature, in proportion to its potential to turn in a profit.

To the extent that it does not represent a source of profit, products are not market worthy, market valued, worth marketing and, thus, excluded from the shelves available to consumers. Profit is the only indicator of market share and market share the only indicator of market value. Market value, on its turn, has become the only indicator of what can and should be produced, or in our terms, published.

Alternate literature – that is, literature not written in or translated for the English-speaking consumer - then, is not alternate due to concepts related to quality, meaningfulness or pertinence, but rather to its marketability. The issue is not of choices but of economics, of economic forces that force the world to adjust to a lower common denominator of linguistic, product-based and profit guided principles.

In this context, Geolinguistics and its operational arm, translation, represents the only bulwark for the preservation of identities, of culture, of diversity, indispensable if we are not to become a global market of cultural products sold almost exclusively in English.

I need not delve into the importance of translation before this audience. Its significance for our non-English speaking Americas comes to my mind when thinking of the influence of the languages of the New World on Europeans after they began 500 years of colonisation in the 15th century. Among the riches extracted to build the empires of the second half of the last millennium, language and culture became catalysts for the European imagination as well as a source of cultural and material wealth.

As an example, once again I turn to Shakespeare. In "The Tempest", written in 1610, the name of the savage native enslaved by Prospero, is Caliban, a possible anagram of Cannibal, which to us in the Caribbean derives from "caniba" a word used by our original nations, the Taínos, when referring to their heart-eating rivals, the Caribes.

Other possible sources for Shakespeare´s creation of this other-wordly monster may be kaliban or cauliban in the Romani language, meaning black or with blackness, the African town Calibia, the Arabic word for "vile dog", and the Hindu Kalee-ban "satyr of Kalee, the Hindoo Proserpine". Whatever the origins of the anagram, all non-European, "The Tempest" is in many ways an example of the historical enrichment of the so-called classical literature by non-European cultures and languages.

Every writer writes from the perspective of his or her history. That history is made up of facts, impressions, reflections and social constructs built with language. A resident or a citizen of a country cannot conceive a story, a poem, a novel, and the history within which it occurs - for example Danilo Kis' story - without the language with which he or she describes a reality and renders it meaningful. The perception we have of what is meaningful for others and ourselves is anchored in the words we use, in the terms we coin or borrow from other languages and, thus, in the shared understanding of events that defy time and serve as guides to understanding ourselves and, ultimately, life itself.

Another example of the importance of translations of what has eventually become "Universal Literature" is nowhere more evident for us, in Latin America, than in the fact that were it not for translations there would hardly be any non-European Nobel Prize of literature and many other disciplines. Were it not for translators, Gabriela Mistral (Chilean), Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemalan), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombian) and Pablo Neruda (Chilean) we would not have earned this recognition.

In a not so brave new world where markets rule practically every realm of the human creation, the barbarous languages, to paraphrase the Greeks, are the ones that can prevent us from becoming English-language consumers of what global corporations decide are the products we ought to consume to demonstrate good taste, success and prosperity. Barbarous languages are the last frontier of identity and diversity, and if we may be so conceited, of humanity.

Linguistic rights are our primary rights, our inalienable rights as human beings. Translation of our individual and collective experience will enable our past to have a present and our present to have a future.

Meeting of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Commitee, Barcelona, April 21th to 23th, 2015

Isabel Banal: Llapis trobats, sèrie iniciada el 1999.

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