June 2019

Vox

Vanishing voices

By Alice Whitmore
The cultural damage of homogenising language

I am, among other things, a literary translator. When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I translate from Spanish to English. From one language to another. Which is, already, only a half-truth. What I mean – what I don’t say – is that I translate from many Spanishes: from Peninsular Spanish; from Argentine, Chilean, Caribbean and Mexican Spanish; from Spanglish Spanish; and from Spanishes flavoured with Nahuatl, Taíno and Italian.

I translate from all of these Spanishes into my mother tongue, which I call English, although I am from Australia, not England, and my mother, who is the daughter of Italian migrants, grew up speaking Neapolitan dialect at home, especially with her mother – my nonna – who was more or less illiterate, and didn’t know standard Italian.

I taught myself Italian during high school, with volumes of mail-order textbooks, and by the time I was 18 I was able to read Italo Calvino and Italo Svevo in their unadulterated (or untranslated) forms. But I was still unable to communicate with my nonna; we had to make do with the languages of food and physical affection, which, as everyone knows, are truly universal.

Our mouths are always full of half-truths. It is easier to summarise, to approximate the truth, to narrativise, than it is to tell the whole truth, whatever that might mean. Everything is a story, in the end, even language, and language has its own history – its own historia – that has been carefully cultivated over the years. Just like the cultivation of the land, this process of language-making has involved a kind of violence; it has been a process of selection and extermination, a kind of linguistic un-wilding.

The Spanish language (which is also known as Castilian, or castellano, named for its origins as the local dialect of a small region in north-western Spain called Castilla y León) is officially “safeguarded” by the Real Academia Española – the Royal Spanish Academy.

The academia was founded in 1713, modelled after the Italian Accademia della Crusca and the notoriously inflexible Académie Française, which, to this day, is governed by 40 individuals known as les immortels and headed by a “perpetual secretary”, so named because the position is a lifelong one, like the reign of a king or a dictator.

Florence’s Accademia della Crusca is the oldest of the European academies and the oldest linguistic academy in the world. It was established in 1583 in an effort to formalise the already dominant position of the Tuscan dialect as the model for Standard Italian. Language standardisation is an attempt to contain the uncontainable; to force the fluid, embodied tongue down the austere hallways of grammar, which resemble nothing so much as the ghost-thick corridors of catacombs. In their mission to define and control what we now think of as the Italian language, the foot soldiers of the accademia executed a familiar two-pronged strategy: as they laid out and enforced precise spelling and grammar rules, they simultaneously sifted out any perceived linguistic impurities. The name Accademia della Crusca in fact translates to the Bran Academy, a metaphor that likens the accademia’s work to the agricultural process of winnowing – quite literally, separating the wheat from the chaff.

In Spain, the symbolism of language purification is more blunt in its violence. The academia’s coat of arms depicts a flaming crucible with the motto Limpia, fija y da esplendor – “Cleans, fixes, and gives splendour” (Catholic Spain, as we know, has always had a thing for God’s purging fire).

It is not surprising that the rhetoric of these grand old European academies cleaves so closely to the rhetoric of colonialism, and colonialism’s most faithful handmaiden: genocide. As Patrick Wolfe famously put it, “invasion is a structure, not an event”, and the regulation of language has always been a central pillar of that structure.

The word “culture” comes from the Latin cultura, which means “agriculture”. It shares roots with the word colonia – the ancestor of the English word “colony” – which in Latin means farmed or settled land. Language – in this case, etymology – can be a rope around our tongue, tying us to history, and to the stories of the past. Those stories are often unpleasant but it is our responsibility to reckon with them.

As readers, consumers, writers, critics or, indeed, as translators, we participate in any number of local, national, international and (increasingly) transnational cultures. We know that culture, on any scale, is inextricable from language and from the politics of language. But culture is also inextricable from the land – the land on which language is spoken, the land on which language lives and dies. Culture is inextricable, too, from the seizure and exploitation of that land, from its colonisation and cultivation, and from the extinction of the languages and stories that are indigenous to it.

In their book of ekphrastic travel essays The Importance of Being Iceland, Eileen Myles writes about the ways in which homogenising systems have gradually smoothed and eroded the uneven terrain of Icelandic difference. Myles uses a musical metaphor that speaks to the true meaning of the word “polyphonic”. In Icelandic churches in the early 20th century, before Iceland achieved nationhood, churchgoers would sing the same hymns but not the same notes or tunes. There was no organ tone to set the pitch; the concept of singing in unison was (literally) unheard of. When the organ was introduced into Icelandic churches in the 1930s, Myles notes, “some of the older people stopped going to church because the idea of everyone singing the same tune at once seemed ‘obscene’ to them, it offended their Icelandic … understanding of what being part of a community could mean.” Something similar happened, Myles observes, with the advent of the radio, which played the same unvarying songs again and again. Myles writes:

All over the world regional accents are vanishing because of the homogenising power of announcers’ voices normalising everything, until everything started to go away. The landscape and the voices. There’s an ecology of sound. Of speech. We have to think about what English does. Riding roughshod over national poetries that since the room is small and no one’s in there why not step out to the bright light of day and write in English, think like us.

Myles argues that we should be mourning these lost ways of thinking and speaking, which are ways of being in the world and being with the world; ways of being with the land and with the people who live on that land. Myles describes what needs to happen as a kind of rediscovery: “the species rediscovering itself. Learning to be stubborn in our awkward speaking and hearing.”

What this rediscovery looks like, in terms of the creation and translation of literature, will depend on our willingness to allow space – or make space – for stubborn writing, for awkward and non-conforming language. This is a challenge for all of us, in our capacities as writers, as publishers, as translators, but also, and perhaps most importantly, in our capacities as readers and as listeners.

Alice Whitmore

Alice Whitmore is a writer and literary translator living on Eastern Maar country. Her translation of Mariana Dimópulos’s Imminence was awarded the 2021 NSW Premier’s Translation Prize. She is the translations editor at Cordite Poetry Review and an associate editor at Giramondo.

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