Thalia Pandiri

REVIEW: THE EMLIT PROJECT: EUROPEAN MINORITY
LITERATURES IN TRANSLATION

Edited by Paula Burnett. Brunel Univerrsity Press: London, 2003.
ISBN 1-902316-36-3. (Includes CD of writers reading in ten languages)

This pioneering and ambitious project came into being through a shared vision of a Europe strong enough and wise enough not to silence the "others" who may speak a language other than the dominant language of the country or state in which they live, whether they be new immigrants, native born though of immigrant parents or grandparents, or members of groups that have been marginalized although they have lived in a nation state for generations or even centuries. The Emlit Project, so ably edited by Paula Burnett and her colleagues in Spain, Italy, France and Germany, is a monument to the spirit of cooperation and of intercultural, interlingual communication that characterizes New (and evolving) Europe at its best. Both the finished product and the impressive collaboration that brought it into being make the goal of a truly "multicultural" society, to which a good deal of academic rhetoric is devoted in the United States, seem actually attainable. As Burnett says in her introduction, one of the objectives of the project is "to hold an unfamiliar mirror up to Europe," to present to a wider readership texts that serve as a reminder of the cultural diversity typical of Europe; dominant cultures and languages can only gain by recognizing the riches—language, literature, culture—of the "minorities" who are such an important part of the larger European community.

As the back cover summarizes, the book features nineteen minority languages, thirty-three writers, forty-eight short literary works, 240 translations; it was produced through the collaboration of six universities across Europe. The volume is divided into six sections. Section I has original-language poetry and prose. Subsequent sections provide translations of those originals into the five "most widely understood" languges of the European Union: English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. In the translated sections, succinct introductions that provide essential information about the original languages, the communities in which they are spoken, and the position of those communities in the larger population of the country which they inhabit. The project has interpreted in a broad and inclusive way what constitutes a language (as opposed to a dialect) and how "minority language" is defined. In her introduction, Paula Burnett explains:

"Any language used by a minority in demographic terms (measured against the national population) is here regarded as a minority language. That said, Catalan is clearly in a very different position, socially, from, say, Scottish Gaelic, in terms of numbers of speakers and the prognosis of the language's future. Certain of the 'minority' languages in the project, here representing minority communities within Europe, are spoken by huge populations elsewhere. Writers using languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Arabic have a potentially enormous global readership. Other languages in the project are under threat of extinction. Initial plans, in fact, included a language which proved to have already effectively crossed that great divide, Caló in Spain. However, there are also some success stories. Sorbian, for instance, has been brought back from the brink since the 1960s by social policy, with academic support from the University of Leipzig." [Burnett: 2]

Original language texts from Britain are in Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) and Welsh (Cymraeg), both of them Celtic languages, and in Bengali (Bangla), Urdu, Hindi, and Sinhala, all South Asian languages.

From Belgium, there are texts in Picard, Walloon, and Lingala (an African lingua franca belonging to the Ngala group in the family of Bantu languages).

Minority languages from Germany include Sorbian, the language of a Slavic people living in the east of Germany whose settlement dates back a thousand years, when Slavic groups populated large areas of central and northern Germany as well. Work in Greek and Turkish follows. In the early 1960s, Germany imported large numbers of "guest workers" from Greece and Turkey; those who remained to raise families in Germany form large and active communities; the Turkish minority is the largest in Germany today.

Italy contributes Sicilian (only one of a very large number of dialects still spoken in Italy) and Albanian. Sicilian is spoken by a large number of people, both native Sicilians and (although this is not mentioned in the anthology) immigrants—legal and illegal—to Sicily, many from the African continent. The Albanian represented here is not that of recent immigrants but the arbërisht dialect that goes back to the fourteenth and fifteenth-century migrations of Albanians to southern Italy. Descendants of these early Albanian settlers call themselves arbërish. (I would note that a somewhat similar distinction is made in Greece between descendants of Albanians who migrated to Greece centuries ago and who call themselves arvanítes, in distinction to "new" immigrants and to natives of Albania, who are called alvaní.] The choice of these two languages is certainly appropriate, but not including other dialects—such as Sardinian/Sardo or Griko, the italianized Greek language spoken (for hundreds of years) in large areas of southern Italy—is arbitrary, and probably governed as much by chance and the vicissitudes of collaboration as by any more systematic considerations.

Spain is represented by selections in Galician/Gallego, Arabic, Amazic (Berber), Gun (an ancient, tonal language from the southeast area of the Benin Republic, which was formerly Dahomey), and Catalan. Again, it would seem fitting to include a selection in Euskera from the Basque country: there is some very good literature readily available.

Inevitably, there is some unevenness in the quality of the originals as well as in the translations. It would be interesting to have more information about how the translations into different languages were made. I was puzzled by the omission in the English translation of the final two lines of Giorgos Lillis' Greek poem "The Deepest Robe of the Sea." Translated literally and flat-footedly, they say "the first awareness of exile comes up from the depth of the sea," and they move the poet's description of gazing into the sea at dusk to a different level. I checked the other translations, and found the same omission in all. My suspicion is that the verses were inadvertently omitted from one of the translations, and that omission was reproduced in all the retranslations. With that in mind, I went back to the (excellent) introduction to read again what Burnett says about the translators' goals. As one might suspect, some of what we have in this project is retranslation. "Since secondary translation—or a translation of a translation—clearly raises particular difficulties and potential distortions, it is necessary to point out that this project could not happen without an openness to what might also be gained." [Burnett:3] In many of those cases where I could compare the original to the translations, however, the accuracy and often the overall quality of the translations seem to me very good indeed.

As might be expected, some though by no means all of the selections in this exciting anthology talk about language, about exile, marginalization, or the confusing status and the confused identity of a hybrid, transcultural subject. Yüksel Pazarkaya's poignant short story, "Horse Chestnuts" (translated into English by Christiane and William Leahy), treats the confusion and hurt of a young boy born to Turkish immigrants in Germany, when he is suddenly mocked and shunned by his schoolmates for not being German. "What am I, Dad?" the boy asks, and his father replies, "You're a Turk, son, but you were born in Germany." A powerful poem by Aonghas Macneacail, in Scottish Gaelic and in the poet's own English translation, presents beautifully the bilingual "minoritized" subject's complicated relationship to his languages:

THE LOST TOWER

swimming in the clangorous mud
between the roots of my two languages
the one that is red
sprinting swift lightnings through my veins
and the other
                       alien, indifferent, familiar
wrapped around my skin like prison clothes, as i
stretched out the fingers of my reason, my vision
across wavefurrows
to reach all the bays of the world
to reach all the shores of the world

though you should be but
                                             across a kyle
a sharp blade lies
                                between our words
let us hymn the
tongue that stood sweet
let us sing blunting
to the sunderer

AN TÙR CAILLTE

snàmh anns an eabar ghleadhrach
eadar freumhaichean
mo dhà chànan
an tè tha dearg
a' ruith na dealan brisg tro m' fhèithean
's an tèile
     coimheach, coingeis, eòlach
mum sheice mar eideadh ciomaich 's mi
sìneadh meuran mo thuigse, mo lèirsinn
a-mach thar nan sgrìob-thonn
gus bàighean an t-saoghail a ruigheachd
gus tràighean an t-saoghail a ruigheachd
thar shligeach briste nan lid
gus cànain an t-saoghail a ruigheachd

ged nach biodh tu ach
                                     thar chaolais
tha faobhar
                           eadar ar briathran

seinneamaid laoidh don
chainnt a sheas binn
seinneamaid maoladh
dhan sgàinear
(Original Scottish Gaelic/Gàidhlig and English version by Aonghas Macneacail)

Burnett speaks of "hold[ing] an unfamiliar mirror up to Europe." Often writers not only look at their own cultures, or their transcultural identities, but give us a very sharp outsider's view of a "host" culture. Abdulhadi Sadoun's poem (Arabic in Spain), "Tank Carpets" begins with the stanza:

How pacifist the people here are,
offering both cheeks,
if they had more they would offer them all
to their destiny;
meanwhile, your lips search
for words that recollect. [translation by Claire Tylee]

I would like to give readers a taste of a few more of the poems I liked best or found most interesting (in translation). The two Welsh poems as well as their English versions are by Twm Morys. The first makes reference to R.S. Thomas' poem "On Hearing A Welshman Speak." Both poems have a loud and clear message; one might also note the irony of "To My Translator" in a volume such as this, an irony heightened by the fact that, in the case of the English version, the poet is also the translator.

ON HEARING AN ENGLISHMAN SPEAK

He asked the company whether anyone knew
Of a gap to look quickly
At the house he was to buy: Hill of the Gold?
The yellow field was in the clouds.

And yellow, yellow, between the clouds,
The green grass rusted over its acres.
They remembered fieldfuls falling,
A man's skin yellow as apples.

And they closed their narrow, monoglot hearts,
Half-spat, stared, and turned away,
Sang badly for a long time, decided
They could forget about the bastard stranger...

When the language is at the end of the headlands,
Where will they go, the gabblers of names,
And at their lips the string of villages,
And all of Wales a song in their mouths?

A few days later, there was a couple tidying the old house,
And then they changed its name:
Where the gold coloured hill and doorstep,
They could see nothing through the gap but bracken.

WRTH GLYWED SAIS YN SIARAD

Gofynnodd i'r criw a wyddai rhywun
Hanes adwy i sbio'n sydyn
Ar y ty roedd am ei brynu: Bryn 'Raur?
Yn y cymylau'r oedd y cae melyn.

A melyn, melyn, rhwng y cymylau,
Y rhydai irwair ar hyd ei erwau;
Dôi co'am lond y caeau yn disgyn,
A chroen dyn yn felyn fel afalau.

A dyna gau eu calonnau cul, uniaith,
How-fflemio, a thremio, a throi ymaith,
Canu'n flêr am amser maith, a phasio
Y ceid anghofio'r cwd anghyfiaith.

Pan â'r heniaith i ben y penhrynnau,
I ble'r a'r rhain, y parablwyr enwau,
Ac ar eu min y llinyn llannau mân
A Chymru gyfa'n gân yn eu genau?

Roedd dau 'mhen dyddiau'n twtio'r hen dyddyn,
A newidiwyd ei enw o wedyn;
Lle bu'r aur yn lliwio bryn a throthwy,
Ni welen' hwy trwy'r adwy ond rhedyn.

TO MY TRANSLATOR

Now you've received me, doctor,
With my brain and my insides

Removed, with no more blood
Or breath, in ice,

You can go ahead
And operate without nausea.

Perform a tidy transplant
Of yourself into the hole.

And when the needlework is done,
Nobody will see a trace of your hand.

Then you can make up
A name for me.

Y SAWL SY'N FY NHROSI I

Erbyn iddo 'nerbyn i,
A 'mynedd a 'nhu mewn-i

Wedi mynd, a heb waed mwy,
Heb anadl, yn bibonwy,

Gall hwn, fel meddyg â lli,
Fy agor heb gyfogi,

A heb lanast, trawsblannu,
Tywallt ei hun i'r twll du.

Wedi gwneud y gwniadwaith,
Ni welwch ôl ei law chwaith.

A rhoed y doctor wedyn
Arnaf i yr enw a fynn.
[Welsh originals and English versions by Twm Morys]

I'd also like to cite a poem by Anna Aguilar-Amat (Catalan original), with the (to my ear) very successful translation into English by Anna Crowe:

AT THE SALES

Slowly I went back to undressing in front of
that other mirror in the fitting-room,
proportions skewed. I saw that several
kind words of yours had got caught
on the edge of my bra. And some tiny
skiers were zig-zagging all over my
shoulders, larking about: these were your jokes.
The one you said I'm a difficult woman and
another couple of snubs bounced off the stool with
a clang of coat-hangers. One on top of another,
three modest dresses I'd plucked listlessly from
the rail, as though pleasing you were a priority.
They're like memories of girl-friends: sometimes I see them
like a chorus-line in your smile powering your
thighs and the shining teeth of your desire. I don't
bear them any grudge: their moods led you to me.
And I picture other women, the ones I precede,
and I smile: the warm ear among the hair in my song.
I see their voices... "You really notice that zip, the buttons
stick out..." It's just as banal in Euro-speak. I've chosen one
that I'll leave in the wardrobe until the day we meet.
Carlos Gardel laments from the tannoy.
At the till there's a seething mass of eternal
adolescents and the well-heeled, with me like a child
clutching a bunch of carnations wrapped in newspaper.
I can see how unpoetic it is. It's only a common tale
(and a short one at that) of how I spend the hours that
follow in your wake. Like a grain of sugar swirled
by centrifugal force in the whirlpool of a cup
as someone stirs it. Little by little I dissolve with no reprieve
that could make me disappear completely,
and I become cold tea, in the dubious hope that love
of the chase will grant me one more moment, will leave me
the tip of yet another morning,
the tip of yet another morning
filled with kisses.
(Translation: Anna Crowe)

REBAIXES

Lentament m'he tornat a despullar davant
d'aquell altre mirall del provador,
les proporcions perdudes. He vist que uns quants
mots tendres teus s'havien quedat agafadets
als voravius del meu sostenidor. I uns petits
esquiadors han relliscat fent ziga-zagues i
gatzara d'orxata per les meves espatlles: eren
les teves bromes. I allò que sóc dificil i un
parell més de mocs han rebotat al tamboret amb
un soroll de penjarobes. Un sobre l'altre els
tres vestits discrets que he triat amb desmai a la
botiga per si agradar-te fóra una cosa necessària.
Semblen records de noies; de vegades les veig en
passarel-la per la teva mirada bellugant les
caderes i les denes brillants del teu desig. No
els sóc hostil: els seus humors t'han conduït a mi.
I imagino altres dones, a les quals precedeixo i
somric: l'oreig tebi als cabells de la meva cançó.
Veig les veus... "La cremallera domina, els botons
fan bossanyes..." La banalitat sona igual en europant.
N'he triat un que deixaré a l'armari fins el dia que et vegi.
Als altaveus Gardel.
A la caixa un garbuix i xereca d'adolescents de
professió i gent rica i jo com una nena amb un ram
de clavells embolcallat amb paper de diari.
Ja veig que no és poètic. És només una història
vulgar (i tan petita) de com passo les hores que
et segueixen a tu. Com un cristall de sucre girant
a la sínia d'una tassa per la força centrípeta que
algú fa en remenar. Mica en mica em desfaig sense
el perdó que em fes desaparèixer i em transformo en
te amb gel, amb la esperança enterbolida que la set
de la pressa em regali un altre instant, em deixi
la propina d'un matí repetit,
la propina d'un matí repetit
de petons.
(Original Catalan, Anna Aguilar-Amat)

This groundbreaking, exciting and very handsome volume comes with a CD, "Writers Reading: A Sampler." Aonghas Macneacail reads in Scottish Gaelic; Twm Morys reads three poems in Welsh; Basir Sultan Kasmi reads a ghazal in Urdu; Padma Rao reads in Hindi; Rose-Marie François reads "El Punition" in Picard; Chus Pato reads in Sicilian; Abdulhadi Sadoun reads in Arabic; Agnes Agboton reads two pieces in Gun; Anna Aguilar-Amat reads the poem "Rebaixes," reproduced above, in Catalan.

I urge anyone interested in translation, in minority languages and populations, in the new Europe, in migration and immigration—or anyone who just wants to read some interesting literature—to get hold of EMLIT. Anyone affiliated with an academic institution should have an order placed for the library.

The book is slightly over 500 pages long. Some material had to be omitted for reasons of scale, but a slightly extended version of the book is available online in Brunel University's free-access e-journal EnterText (www.ac.uk/faculty/arts/EnterText).

 

   

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