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Linguistic rights
19 min read

The mother tongue of Babel

“Globalization is without a doubt a flood that will entomb more than half the languages of the world under water during the twenty-first century,” writes Carles Torner, a Catalonian author and the Executive Director of PEN International. In his thought-provoking essay Torner takes us on a personal exploration of language grounded in the question: what is really a mother tongue?

Credits Text: Carles Torner Translations from Catalan: Robin Vogelzang Photo: Marie Cirer November 21 2019

June 2003, Mexico City. Closing event of the PEN International Congress in Mexico City, dinner gala at the Plaza del Zócalo, in the capital city’s town hall. Time for dessert, speeches, and poetry readings. First there were three foreign poets, reading in their mother tongue, followed by the English translation. Then, three poets in Mexican indigenous languages. I had spent the days of the congress with the indigenous writers, talking about the challenges they faced and how to integrate their literatures into the great dialogue of literatures that is PEN International. That night, the first to read her lines was the Mayan poet Enriqueta Lúnez: she read her poem in the Tsotsil language, followed by the translation in Spanish, and that was it. She returned to her seat. Which is to say: the delegates from across the globe, who had listened to European, African and Asian poets translated into English, could not understand the poem of the Mayan poet because the organizers hadn’t realized they should also translate it into English. In fact, Enriqueta and the other indigenous poets had already told me at the table during dinner: “We’ll read at the end, it’s always like that: we’re the goldfinches. They really like to hear how we chirp.” Now I understood: the intention wasn’t for attendees to understand what they said, just for them to hear the sound of the indigenous language. An inner spring released, I jumped to the stage in a bound, I took the poem Vayijel that Enriqueta had just read, I addressed myself to all the congress attendees, and I improvised a translation of the poem into English from the Spanish. And then it happened: in the moment that I finished reading, at the table of the presidency, someone I didn’t know stood up and stared at me fixedly. He left the room. Walking slowly, ostentatiously. They told me later who he was, that intellectual who made himself out to be a liberal, who wanted all to know he did not agree with the Mayan poets also being translated into English, being welcomed as any other to our dialogue. Being part of the beloved Babel of PEN.

This is our privilege: our internationality might be vulnerable, but it is flexible and welcoming. Our world map is not fixed: it is variable. Welcome to PEN, writers in Mayan, Zapotec, Nahuatl, Inuit, Ojibwe, Mapuche, Quechua, Aymara, and the Adivasis of India’s so-called “tribal belt”, the aboriginal Australians and the Maoris and... and the Kurds.

June 2005, Diyarbakir: PEN’s first international meeting on linguistic rights in Diyarbakir. The sessions have simultaneous Kurdish-Turkish-English translation. They tell me it is the first time in this city that a session is held where Kurdish is included as a language of international dialogue. It is also, for me, the first time that a session I’ve organized for PEN has the rare privilege of being interrupted by low-flying military combat planes as they break the sound barrier above us. We are warned. Thirteen years later I will clearly remember those flyby planes and their deafening thunder when I see, after the mayor of Diyarbakir is detained and imprisoned (like so many other elected mayors from the Kurdish HDP party), workers up on scaffolding tearing from the city hall’s façade the letters that said only Diyarbakir City Hall—but they said it in the language of the Kurdish citizens.

September 2019, London. Every day, when I sit at my table in the PEN office, I look at the face of Ilham Tohti. And he looks back kind-heartedly, from the poster PEN made to call for his liberty. Tohti is condemned to life in prison for defending the Uyghur language, and for seeking a peace agreement between Uyghurs and the Chinese authorities. I look at him and think of the more than two million of his fellow citizens who live miserably in “re-education” camps. Two million: so much cruelty, so many lives cut short... How to understand the Chinese exception, why doesn’t the news of these concentration camps top our headlines every day? Today I turn on the computer and I have a request from Elnaz Baghlanian to write an article for PEN/Opp about mother tongues. Elnaz, whose mother tongue is Persian (her parents never let it cease being their language at home) and who directs the magazine in Swedish, in English—and in the mother tongues of its article writers. Elnaz, who indeed follows the proposal that Amin Maalouf made to the 2007 PEN International Congress in Trömso, as a linguistic model: for everyone to experience their world in three languages! Which? Their mother tongue, English, and a third language freely chosen (or received in the country of adoption).

I read the email with the article request from Elnaz, I look Ilham Tohti in the eyes, and I think that to defend one’s mother tongue often means to resist those who, frankly, want to erase it. Until it is never spoken. Lost forever more. It might be a hard look from someone who stands up and leaves a conversation. It might be an assaulting army, an administration imprisoning elected officials in Turkey—or in China locking up multitudes in camps called re-educational. We, writers and activists in defense of all languages and literatures, all without exception, how are we to define, in order to defend it best, a mother tongue?

June 1995, Gandia, in the País Valencià. The scientific council of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights presents the result of a year’s work. We have already gone through six or seven drafts of the declaration’s text, and we’ve received hundreds of pages of proposals from the entities of our network: the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Aymara Language Institute, the Maori Language Commission, the Burundi UNESCO House, the Kurdish Institute of Paris, and so on, up to sixty organizations defending linguistic rights, in addition to PEN centers around the world. We are in agreement. The subject of linguistic rights is, obviously, every person who has a mother tongue. But there is also a collective subject of linguistic rights: it is a human group who has these rights, who can claim them and exercise them. What shall we call it, this collective subject? Is it the nation? The people? The Kurdish, Aymara, Mayan, Inuit people…? The Mapuche, Quechua, Tibetan, Maori nation? We arrive at a consensus, make it public here in Gandia, and decide what the first article of our declaration will be: we will call it linguistic community.

May 2019, San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas. Inaugural event of the meeting “Writing the Future in Indigenous Languages”, organized by PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee together with UNESCO, Mexico’s National Indigenous Languages Institute, and the University of Arts and Sciences in Chiapas. Enriqueta Lúnez speaks, now the Director of the Culture House of San Juan Chamula, and she does so in the Tsotsil language. Well, she doesn’t quite speak at first—because before she can manage to speak, she weeps. Last night an elder died, one of the last four speakers of a world language: “Good morning to all,” says Enriqueta. “Please excuse these tears. What I just said in my language (which is not my first language, it’s my second, because I learned Spanish first) I say full of emotion because last night I read with sadness that one of the four people who speak Kiliwa has died. It is the story of many languages, what it’s their turn to go through: disappearance. I know my language is also in this process. Because of discrimination, lack of attention in cultural and educational institutions, but also a lack, on our part, of placing value on languages. I learned Tsotsil when I was six. I would have liked to learn it before, to communicate one hundred percent with my grandparents. Not that I don’t speak it now, not at all, I even dare to write in Tsotsil. But I would also like everyone who has given up the languages of their roots, of their grandparents, to return to them. Because it is necessary. There is no other way to be in contact with the people, with our history, with the historical memory that every culture, every people, every language has and retains in the accumulation of stories given to us by that language. Today I couldn’t stop my tears because last night I read that news and remembered my grandfather.” I sit in the Daniel Zebaldúa theater in San Cristóbal in the middle of the opening event and I listen closely to what Enriqueta just said: “my language is not my first language, it’s my second, because I learned Spanish first.” Which then is the mother tongue: the one you spoke with your mother? Or grandparents? And this thought transports me back more than fifty years, to another moment, to my childhood in Barcelona.

Barcelona, June 1968: I’m five years old, at the table eating with my parents and little brother, and both mother and father are speaking to me in Catalan. It is also the language in which my grandmother, Senyora Maria, my paternal grandparents, and uncle Enric, speak to me, everyone in my family speaks to me in Catalan. But to my brother Quico, at lunch while we eat, my parents speak Spanish. Why? It would be too long to explain, I would need to tell the whole history of my family and my country, which suffered a cruel fascist dictatorship that tried by any means possible to erase the Catalan language. But that would take us too far afield, here I am only interested in asking myself: when a mother speaks one language to one brother and another language to the other, which is the mother tongue?

6 June 1996, auditorium of the University of Barcelona. The World Conference on Linguistic Rights begins with a reading of the Universal Declaration:

«Article 1.

This Declaration considers as a language community any human society established historically in a particular territorial space, whether this space be recognized or not, which identifies itself as a people and has developed a common language as a natural means of communication and cultural cohesion among its members. The term language proper to a territory refers to the language of the community historically established in such a space.

2. This Declaration takes as its point of departure the principle that linguistic rights are individual and collective at one and the same time. In defining the full range of linguistic rights, it adopts as its referent the case of a historical language community within its own territorial space, this space being understood, not only as the geographical area where the community lives, but also as the social and functional space vital to the full development of the language. (...)

3. For the purpose of this Declaration, groups are also deemed to be in their own territory and to belong to a language community in the following circumstances:

i. when they are separated from the main body of their community by political or administrative boundaries;

ii. when they have been historically established in a small geographical area surrounded by members of other language communities; or

iii. when they are established in a geographical area which they share with the members of other language communities with similar historical antecedents.»

Drafting the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was a collective effort of a worldwide school: we defined equitable linguistic rights. Every linguistic community has its rights, without exception. Regardless of its political or administrative status. Regardless of those who have historically subordinated it, saying that the language is not codified enough, or doesn’t have enough speakers to consider it worthy of full rights. Regardless of whether it’s official or not in its territory, whether majority or minority, whether they call it “modern” or “archaic.”

San Cristóbal de las Casas, May 2019. The Chilean Mapuche intellectual Pedro Cayuqueo proposes to all the speakers of the meeting “Writing the future in indigenous languages” that we participate in a new indigenous cultural offensive. He wants a friendly, radical, attractive, seductive offensive, a smiling offensive that invites all citizens of the Mapuche, Mayan, or Inuit territories, all without exception, to feel themselves at home in the indigenous languages. To learn them in schools. To listen to their songs. To hear them on the general radio stations. To find them on television shows, subtitled. In the debate that follows, Maialen Sobrino, representative of the international Basque cooperative Garabide, explains that good practices have begun that can serve as a model: they have made it a point for the Mayan language schools of Guatemala to attain the highest prestige, by having them educate the students with the best test scores. They can already say the system is a success, because the “white” population, who have never spoken the Mayan language, are starting to bring their children to these schools. I listen to them and I think: how could PEN support a new cultural offensive of indigenous languages? To start, I think, by including indigenous communities in PEN International, so that we all participate in this debate precisely, which we should place at the heart of our organization. Because we have the tools to do so: two years ago now, PEN International participated very actively in the drafting, approving, and proclaiming of the Donostia Protocol to Ensure Language Rights, which specifically defines an agenda for every community to walk towards the plenitude of its linguistic rights.

Every linguistic community must assert respect for their linguistic rights, regardless of the historical conditions that have influenced it. My historical condition, that of the Catalans, includes a long exile. And whoever says exile is saying translation. After the Spanish Civil War, more than half a million exiled Republicans, fugitives of fascism, scattered around the world. My grandmother always spoke of her two brothers, exiled in Argentina. I also had the luck of knowing those who, even though they could have stayed in exile, decided to return to the Francoist cultural desert, to underground Catalan literature. My secondary school literature professor was Jordi Sarsanedas, who years before had left his work at the university of Glasgow to return to Barcelona and teach kids like me. A mother tongue, the language we call ours, depends fundamentally on collective rights, needs to be present in education, as vital as water. It was a privilege: my teacher returned from exile to help me love Catalan as well as French literature. He also taught me that mine was a European literary language with a rich tradition, and that it was a living language in play through translation. I can still see his fingers stained with white chalk, on the chalkboard all the similarities and differences between the ways the French and Catalans say oak, cork oak, large leaf and small leaf oak… Many of the veterans of PEN will recognize Sarsanedas: he was president of the Catalan PEN center from 1983 to 2001, participated in many congresses, and with Giorgy Könrad presided over the 1992 PEN International Congress in Barcelona.

September 2006: Jordi Sarsanedas has just died. I went to his funeral. During the liturgy, I read the Psalm. When I am back home, I write this poem:


for Jordi Sarsanedas

There is a moment that unexpectedly becomes
the act of giving. You gave me my tongue.
My testimony. I couldn’t say where
—in school? at the Mites? in your Glasgow?—
nor do I want to choose

among the thirteen years
of eyes open to Villon, Ausiàs March, the Voice
that dictated them to my heart, and this moment of glory
at the funeral in Sant Gervasi
with Barcelona at our feet
and all the memory of your living
gliding through the city
saying goodbye, dear teacher, goodbye, poet,
thank you for the light of the words
that keep on weaving
the warp and weft of my streets
now straight, now crooked.

Between your first irruption
and your modest, subtle, joyful, warm farewell,
between the origin and the end I will not choose
which moment, which lookwhich silence, which shout
—“Your voice must be dignified!”—
which day you gave me my tongue,

my language
(this one) ever-living in the act
of being translated and translating.
This I received.
Today I want to stop you, look at you
and make you mine forever in this essential,
extremely humble act,
link in an ancient chain
of accumulated grace
which opens its arms
to embrace me, allowing me
to open mine to the future
looking back.
Finding myself

Translation and linguistic rights. For PEN, the defense of rights is inseparable from the task of the translator. In the book of poems where I published this poem in homage to my teacher Sarsanedas, I was also able to publish translations of the poets he had taught me to love: Victor Hugo and François Villon. I also published the Catalan version of that poem by Enriqueta Lúnez which I translated so unexpectedly at the closing event of the 2003 PEN Congress.

Casa de la Cultura in San Juan Chamula, May 2019. Third day of the meeting on indigenous languages. This afternoon we heard the excruciating testimony of Tsering Kyi about the progressive substitution of the Tibetan language by Mandarin Chinese in schools, just as we commemorate sixty years of Chinese occupation in Tibet. Tonight, we will have an open-air poetry reading in front of the Casa de la Cultura where we’ll hear Tzeltal, Galician, Inuktitut...

The economicist utopia of the globalized world would eliminate the “obstacle” of languages and tend towards a world where as few languages as possible are spoken. I know die-hard supporters of English or Spanish who would simply prefer that all international relations take place in the English language, or that the supposedly four hundred million-odd speakers of Spanish not have to coexist with Basque, Wayuunaiki, Mapudungun, or the Didxa’za of the Zapotecs. The future they imagine and that they work towards—they and the economic model of complete globalization—is clearly dystopic for us, supporters of linguistic diversity and the multiplication of translations. They think they can, sooner or later, eliminate translations, which they see as an obstacle. We want them to multiply in abundance—as one of the necessary strategies for giving a hand to those excluded from globalization. We will, then, as I’ve always thought, need to mobilize our imagination in order to define a counter-utopia that will subvert the plans of the uniformers.

How to conceive of a counter-utopia? Maybe by beginning with myth, for the metaphor, for an interesting image. When we began to promote the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska gave us her total support and gifted us with her poem Into the Ark.[1] Because Szymborska gave us that poem, I reread it often. Until one day, dreaming, I saw the starry sky and crossing it a ship, which sailed through galaxies, cruising joyfully through the universe. The prow ploughed the space between stars, sedately, like a concert of voices.

I remember it now under the night sky of Chiapas, now that we have heard poetry in Tsotsil and Inuktitut, in Didxa’za and Tigrinya, and I have been able to read my Catalan translation of Enriqueta Lúnez’s Vayijel. I see men and women running through the steppe, the jungle, the banks of the deltas—the Nile, the Ganges, the Amazon—through the peaks of Chiapas, running free from the tower of Babel, which has just been demolished by the gods of monolingualism. But they do not disperse throughout the earth. They all run in the direction of the port, and when they arrive they board the new ark where Noah patiently awaits. It is the Ark of Babel. As the last are climbing aboard it begins to rain. Globalization is without a doubt a flood that will entomb more than half the languages of the world under water during the twenty-first century. But as the downpour increases the ark has set sail, receiving even speakers of languages where they are the only one left… The Ark of Babel traverses the silence of the stars with its deafening hubbub. For on board, strolling through the layered decks or in the passageways full of people from around the world, or even in the intimacy of the cabins, everyone dedicates themselves to the oldest and most beautiful of jobs: translation. Translation, which is none other than the Ark of Babel’s mother tongue.

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