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Esperanto and the Literary Translator: An Interview with

Humphrey Tonkin

Richard Howard

By Thomas Hoeksema

The Tiger

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
in the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

La Tigro

Tigro, tigro, brile brula
En arbaro nokt-obskura,
For_is kia man eterna
Vin je semetri' konsterna?

En kia fundo au cielo
Ardis via okulhelo?
Kia lin flugil' subtenis?
Kia man' la fajron prenis?

Mention of the word "Esperanto" stimulates a number of rather predictable responses—"a game for linguistic theorists"; "another futile attempt to overcome the curse of Babel"; "synthetic languages have never worked".

Few well-educated individuals realize that Esperanto, the only project for an international language to attain the status of a complete language with its own world-wide speech community, has been in existence now for almost one hundred years. Even fewer are aware that there has been a revival of interest in Esperanto during the past decade on an international scale that demands critical attention and appraisal.

Estimates of the number of people who speak Esperanto with regularity range from one to fifteen million. The language has experienced surging growth in Eastern Europe and the Far East, particularly in parts of China where printed media and radio broadcasts routinely employ Esperanto. Although the number of books published in the Interlanguage is not known, the largest Esperanto library in the world, that of the British Esperanto Association in London, has over 33,000 registered items.

A great number of the volumes in that library are literary works, translated or original. As might be expected, there have been systematic efforts to translate the literature and important documents of ethnic languages in Esperanto.In fact, translation of major literary works into Esperanto has characterized the movement since its inception. Masterpieces from almost all national literatures have been rendered in Esperanto. They include works by Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Byron, E.A. Poe, Ibsen, Moliére, Racine, Hugo, Gogol, Goethe, Schiller, Strindberg, Akutagawa and many others. All major literary periods are reflected in translated Esperanto texts.

In 1961, the Universala Esperanto-Asocio initiated a new series of translations under the title "Orient-Occident." Sixteen major works have been published in the series, including Sartre's Nausea, Tagore's Hungry Stone, Dante's Divine Comedy, Shakespeare's King Lear, and Baudelaire's Paris Blues.

In the area of literary translation, Esperanto has served also as a bridge language. For example, a number of works originally written in the languages of Central and Eastern Europe have been translated into Esperanto and then translated into Chinese and Japanese from the Esperanto versions.

American writers are relatively underrepresented in Esperanto translation while British writers enjoy broad exposure in the language. Works by Defoe, Swift, Byron, Tennyson, Dickens, Wilde, Wells, Orwell, Chesterton, Goldsmith, Lewis Carroll and others are available in Esperanto. Among translations published in recent years are Byron's Don Juan, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and Robert Lewis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Within the past few years there have been translations of works by Camus, Böll, Brecht, and Krilov. New anthologies of Korean, Chinese, Argentine, Scottish, Slovakian, Estonian, and French literature were also published.

While translation into Esperanto is a predictably active and important dimension of the Interlanguage, the flourishing body and tradition of literature written in Esperanto itself is a more surprising development. There is literary activity evident in all genres, including poetry. William Auld's anthology of original Esperanto poetry is over six hundred pages long and contains works by ninety poets. Recent original publications in Esperanto include a six-hundred page novel by the Scotsman John Francis, a biography of Muhammad, and an anthology by Esperanto writers in Japan.

It is clear that Esperanto has grown beyond hypothesis or theory; it is a linguistic reality that seems to be assuming an increasingly active role in the international community of languages. It has become, to sue the favored term of Esperantists, a "living language."

There are several levels of interest in this linguistic, social, and political phenomenon. It represents man's indelible quest for a single language memorialized in the Genesis account of Babel. As theory, it embodies mankind's pursuit of uniform communication and understanding in spite of cultural and linguistic diversity.

However, to the writer and literary translator working with other languages, Esperanto poses some serious and challenging questions. Although it is intended as a second language for international communication--a universal linguistic donor--the existence of a thriving literature in Esperanto and the expansion of translated literary material into Esperanto gives the distinct impression that this language is, intentionally or not, evolving into a primary international language. This development would seem to pose a threat to artistic diversity, and it certainly raises questions about the role and function of the literary translator if Esperanto continues its present pattern of growth.

The following interview with Humphrey Tonkin, President of the Universal Esperanto Association and widely-published author of Esperanto studies, explores the phenomenon of literary translation within the growing Esperanto movement.

Would you agree that translation has played an important role in the Esperantist movement from the beginning?

The translation of literary works into Esperanto has been important from the very beginning of the language.In fact, as Vilmos Benczik points out in his recent volume of literary essays, without the translation programs of such major figures as Zamenhof and Kalocsay, Esperanto literature would not have developed as rapidly as it did. Echoing Benczik, we can divide the influence of translations into three categories.First, they had an obvious linguistic significance in the early days. Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto, encouraged the early adepts to take upon themselves "difficult tasks"--such as the translation of major literary works--as a means of stretching and expanding the language. This was also a means whereby stylistic norms could be established, conversational language could be strengthened through novels and plays, an Esperanto prosody could be set up, and so on.

Second, the translation of literary works was important from a social and cultural point of view. The existence of such works in Esperanto gave its earlier followers a pride in their new language, a sense of its cultural potential, and the beginnings of an intellectual tradition--even if this last was borrowed from the cultures of Europe. Third, and related to this, was the fact that the particular choice of works helped reinforce the ideology of Esperanto--its idealism, its commitment to international understanding, its humanitarian ideals.

What exactly was the focus of those early translation efforts?

Although Zamenhof himself translated largely from the major literatures, other translators concentrated especially on the literatures of the smaller peoples of Europe. Zamenhof's friend Grabowski translated Mickiewicz from Polish and produced an anthology of poetry, El Parmaso de popoloj, from many literatures.The group of writers known as the Budapost School--Baghy, Kalocsay, Tárkony and the rest--naturally stressed their own literature, particularly in the translation of Petöfi and Mádach by Kalocsay, but also gave special attention to other smaller literatures. Today Esperanto is particularly rich in such works. The extent to which this early program of translation has influenced the thought of Esperanto speakers and helped shape the direction of their culture is one of the great imponderables of Esperanto's cultural history; but certainly many speakers of Esperanto are better read in the minor literatures than the average educated speaker of English.

How extensive is the program of literary translation from ethnic languages into Esperanto today?

As the literary tradition in Esperanto has become more firmly established, translation has receded in relative importance. Some critics have gone so far as to say that translation should not be stressed at all, and that all efforts should go into the original literature. Some five years ago, UEA discontinued the translation branches in its annual literary competitions, adding first one and then a second new branch on the original side. Translation competitions have, however, expanded at the national and regional level, and translations continue to figure extensively in the output of several of the major publishers.

In the late 1960, when UNESCO launched its Major Project for the reciprocal understanding of the cultural values of the East and West, UEA started its own translation program along these lines--a program that still continues. Volumes published either by UEA or by other publishers can be included in the series as long as they satisfy certain physical specifications and if they are of high literary value and themselves constitute models of the translator's art. The first item in the series was a volume by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bengali Esperantists Sinha, and later volumes have included translations from Japanese, Arabic, Norwegian, Russian, English, and others. The books have come out at about the rate of one per year.New additions, soon to be published will be Shakespeare's Sonnets and Camoens' Insiade.

Since Esperanto is first and foremost a language and only secondarily a movement, and since even the Esperanto movement is a highly diversified and decentralized affair, it would be misleading to speak of a program of literary translation. Translations are published essentially as they come into existence and according to the particular priorities of individual publishers.In some instances, for example the publisher Stafeto, efforts will be made to produce a mix of translated and original work. This is the policy followed by several of the Japanese publishers. In other cases, national Esperanto associations or, occasionally, government publishing houses have special funding available for translation work.

What emphasis is placed on translation of modern works of literature?

Relatively little attention is given to modern works, although recent years have seen the publication of translations of such people as Brecht, Böll, Sartre, Camus, Lorca, Orwell and Wallace Stevens, to mention a few of the better known western authors. The classics of western literature have fared better, however. Over half of the plays of Shakespeare are translated, sometimes more than once. There are two translations of Dante's Inferno, one of them as part of the entire Divine Comedy. Works of Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Virgil, Goethe, Heine, Baudelaire, Lermontov, Turgenev, Strindberg, Cervantes, Hans Andersen, Swift, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, and numerous others are available, and more are on the way.

There are perhaps ten literary translations of significance published in a given year. The December 1980 issue of the journal Esperanto, for example, reviews a translation of the modern Dutch poet Jacob Maris, a translation of Ionesco's Bald Soprano, and a translated novella of the modern Japanese writer Hiroyuki Takahashi. It should perhaps be added that other works reviewed in this issue include a translation of Marcia MacDermott's biography of the Bulgarian hero Vasil Levski and an introduction to Swahili metrics.

How would you assess the quality of literary translation into Esperanto?

This is a difficult question because of the lack of a means of comparison. An answer might cover the intrinsic merits of Esperanto itself as a means of literary translation, or it might concentrate on the works that have actually been translated, assessing their relative merits.

Since I cannot myself claim to be a literary translator (although I had a hand in the Esperanto version of Winnie-the-Pooh...), my own judgment is obviously limited.Within those limitations, I would stress, however, the remarkable flexibility of Esperanto as a literary language. This flexibility manifests itself in relative freedom of word order, the interchangeability of parts of speech, and other qualities which allow for a fine conciseness of expression. This in turn makes Esperanto hospitable to a wide range of genres and types of writing, and it makes it possible to carry over into Esperanto much of the flavor of the original.

Is there Esperanto literature which has been translated into English?

Most writers in Esperanto choose to write in that language rather than their own, primarily because of its intrinsic linguistic qualities--qualities which they do not find in their own languages.In addition, a few writers may choose Esperanto because of the international readership their works will thereby acquire, or because the ideals of Esperanto appeal to them, or even because they will have a wider readership than they could hope for in their own languages.

In general, the fact that writers specifically exploit the special qualities of Esperanto means that most of their works will not easily translate into the constricting forms of national languages. The Scottish Esperanto poet William Auld has attempted several translations of original Esperanto poetry into English, bit without notable success. Certainly his own unpublished English translation of his greatest work in Esperanto, the long poem La Infana Raso, lacks the spark and special quality of the original.

As an Esperantist I suppose you find a French-English poetry anthology, for example, a frustratingly limited exercise since it can be read by a relatively small number of readers. Is the Esperantist ideal to eventually have all literature in bilingual form with Esperanto as the universal en face language?

The idea is an interesting one, but it has never, so far as I know, been enunciated as a principle. In certain respects it smacks too much of the idea of Esperanto-as-pony, an approach to Esperanto translation that seems to me misguided. Only by establishing Esperanto literature as viable on its own merits, and as capable of standing on its own feet, can we hope to produce a literary language rich in nuance and capable of fluency and flexibility. Probably our approach to literary translation should be pluralistic and pragmatic. There is a place for Esperanto ponies (I wish we had more of them; there are more or less none at all at the moment) but other things are needed too.

As for French-English poetry anthologies, I must confess that I do not find such efforts frustrating or limited. There is a place for many types of literary translation in the world, including translation in the world, including translation out of one national literature and into another.Such translation often enriches individual literatures incomparably, and there is no reason why that kind of cross-fertilization should not continue. Obviously, the more translations into Esperanto that we produce, the happier I (and others) will be, but Esperanto should not be the only avenue to foreign literatures.

You note in your essay "An Introduction to Esperanto Studies" that there have been some attempts to study the art of translation into Esperanto. Could you briefly describe the nature of these studies and summarize some of the main theoretical problems which are considered by the authors of such studies?

In the course of my answers to earlier questions, I have mentioned several of the more important translators into Esperanto--people like Antoni Grabowski, Kálmán Kalocsay, Reto Rossetti, William Auld. To these I should add Kazimierz Bein, the "Kabe" whose translations from the Polish were among the first models of translated prose. But while much can no doubt be discovered by a simple comparison of Grabowski's bold experimental style (for example in his translation of Pan Tadeusz) with the original, and while Zamenhof himself alluded incidentally to problems of translation in Lingvaj respondoj and elsewhere, it was not until the 1920's and 1930's that the whole subject received sustained attention. In our own day there have been studies of individual translations (e.g. of Zamenhof's Hamlet or the Old Testament or Kalocsay's renderings of Japanese and Chinese poetry), or introductions to translated volumes e.g. Brendon Clark's eccentric Kien la poezio?), but relatively few general studies. The matter receives most detailed attention from Auld, primarily in his essay "La internacia lingvo kiel belarta tradukilo."

William Auld is particularly important to the Esperanto movement as a writer, editor, poet, and translator. Would you summarize some of the positions he develops with respect to translation in his essay?

Auld begins by considering the present world situation with respect to translation--the strong emphasis on the major languages as means of translation and the frequent shortcomings of the translations that result. He points out that most translations are out of one major European language and into another, with almost no translation of literary works out of the lesser known languages, especially those outside Europe. Where such translations do get published, they seldom reach booksellers' shelves in the English-speaking world. He goes on to point out the extreme difficulty of translation, and, citing the Norwegian novelist Rosbach, the fact that people generally translate into their native language out of a language whose nuances they may not have totally mastered. The Esperanto translator, by contrast, he the incomparable advantage that he translates out of his native language and into the "simple, flexible, harmonious international language."

Before turning to examine some examples of Esperanto translation, Auld disposes of the rather common assertion that the translation of poetry is in any case impossible. Everything depends, he suggests, not on the particular characteristics of the source language or the target language, but on the skill of the translator. Nevertheless, Esperanto does possess its own particular advantages, among them its extreme flexibility and, because of its system of compound words and agglutination, its extreme precision. Auld offers numerous examples of this latter quality, some of them drawn from an earlier article by Waringhien on the function of the accusative in Esperanto. The poems which Auld chooses to compare are Baudelaire's "L'albatros," in translations into English (by Roy Campbell) and Esperanto; William Blake's "The Tiger," with Auld's own translation and a translation into French; and "Anchar," by A.S. Pushkin, in English and Esperanto translations.Auld's purpose, he tells us, is not to show the superiority of Esperanto but to give an example of the role that Esperanto is already playing, or could play, in the understanding of poetry on an international scale. There is little doubt that structurally Esperanto adapts considerably more easily to the poetic demands of the three poems.Whether the final result is semantically superior in Esperanto is ultimately a matter for subjective judgment.

Despite some of your earlier responses, I am still somewhat skeptical about whether Esperanto allows the translator enough freedom and flexibility, especially when it comes to rendering the idiomatic and stylistic elements of another language.

Your question carries the suggestion that in Esperanto the emphasis is on standardization. On the contrary, there are many ways in which Esperanto is notable for the very opposite--variety. A language which allows the writer to make 50,000 words out of 5,000 roots puts at the disposal of that writer a range of immediately comprehensible words which far exceed the number available to him in English or French or German--and they spring from the page with a special freshness because the writer in Esperanto can to some extent create his or her own compounds and variants out of the existing morphemic stock.

I say this not to depreciate English, a language that I love and study, nor indeed any other ethnic language, but simply to point out that one should take care before jumping to conclusions about the nature of Esperanto.

The question of idiom and style is more complex. How, for example, can one render archaism in Esperanto? There do exist records of Zamenhof's earlier attempts at an international language. Waringhien studies them in his Lingvo kau vivo. The Brazilian poet Mattes has even attempted a few poems in one of those early "dialects."Kalocsay, in Lingvo stilo formo, wrote a splendid satirical piece on one C.E.R. Bumy, the supposed discoverer of a medieval Esperanto, and Manuel Halvelik has offered us several versions of an imaginary "pro-Esperanto." But the artistic problem remains a real one.As for matters of idiom, it is obviously possible to write ungrammatically in Esperanto, or to create particular turns of phrase to suit particular occasions. This may be one of those instances where Auld's notion that a good translator conquers all does in fact obtain.

Would you consider it ideal if all important literature from natural languages were translated into Esperanto so that all people would be able to read the same Esperanto text?

Mutual understanding of a text is no doubt desirable in politics, science, and commerce. However, the reduction of literature from various languages to Esperanto versions would unavoidable dilute the singular verbal and stylistic achievement that an author has accomplished in his native tongue. It seems to me that the logical extension of attempts to translate world literature into Esperanto would be to sacrifice artistic individuality and diversity in the interest of reaching a mass audience. What I am asking is, have we really gained anything in artistic terms if the whole world can read James Joyce's Ulyssesor Kafka's The Trial in Esperanto?

You give me two questions here, and you assume that I answer in the affirmative to the first. I do not. Certainly I feel that it would be good if all important literature were available in Esperanto translation (although I wonder who will determine what is important and what is not), but at the present stage in the development of the Esperanto movement, such a situation would be unimaginable. Literary languages are not born overnight. We must develop and evolve literary language in Esperanto so that we can increase the volume and quality of translated works in the language. We must move forward at our own speed. It is more important to work gradually than to conceive of grandiose schemes to work through all of the literatures of the world like a traveling sawmill. You find grand designs where there are none.

Following your first question, you offer a series of observations in preparation for the second question. They appear to be based on the premise that translation into Esperanto is inferior to translation into an ethnic language. That is a premise that I cannot accept. If we assume, for the sake of moving ahead, that your premise fails, we are confronted with a rather different kind of question: Do all translations "dilute the singular verbal and stylistic achievement that an author has accomplished in his native tongue?" Although I have my opinions on the matter, I will not trouble your readers with my views on this oldest of chestnuts.On balance, I think I would rather have Dante secondhand than not have him at all, and would rather read the Koran in a language I know than be denied the opportunity to become acquainted with its contents. And I think I would rather have others learn something about the wonderful fecundity of Joyce's style in another language than have them totally denied Joyce for lack of English. As for Kafka, would you really prefer that he remain unknown to us? Surely not.

I wonder, by the way, what you mean when you talk of our gain "in artistic terms." Joyce has much to tell us about the processes of language itself, and Kafka has much to tell us about social organization. There are lessons other than aesthetic ones to be learned. We have undoubtedly gained a great deal by sharing such achievements, if only imperfectly, with as large an audience as we can. Why else translate?

The following penultimate concern has been implicit in some of my earlier questions: When we speak of 'learning' a language in relation to artistic expression, we do not mean by that merely the acquisition of rudimentary communication skills. We are referring to the capacity of a gifted writer to invest the rudiments of language with creative energy and unique dimensions.In effect, the artist 'destroys' language by going beyond its formal predictability and the rigidity of its forms to make a new language. Since Esperanto is designed to be learned by the largest number of speakers with the least possible difficulty, I wonder if the language contains within itself the capacity for genuine artistic expression to the degree that a natural language does. It would also appear that Esperanto must remain static to be useful as an Interlanguage. Yet, to use it as a medium for artistic expression would seem to deprive the wrier of the capacity to "destroy', and to limit the writer's creative range. It seems to me that the very purpose and nature of the language makes it difficult for the Esperanto writer to use that language creatively

Probably the best way into this very complicated question is through an assertion that you make about Esperanto at midpoint in your exposition: "Since Esperanto is designed to be learned by the largest numbers of speakers with the last possible difficulty, I wonder if the language contains within itself the capacity for genuine artistic expression to the degree that a natural language does." Like you, I also wonder whether Esperanto literature, or the other uses of the language, can ever reach the wonderful richness of French or English or the other languages with which I have some acquaintance.

But we must beware of assuming that any language is innately superior to others. If a language is complete, in the sense that it has been used successfully in a more or less in finite number and variety of human transactions, the chances are that it has "the capacity for genuine artistic expression." Esperanto may be different from other languages in that one person started it, but today it consists above all in the sum of its human transactions, as other languages do. Its history may be different, but in the present it is a total linguistic phenomenon much like other languages. And to prove the fact we can point to Esperanto literature. If I, as an average reader, am moved by Kalocsay's beautiful poem about "la insulo Margareta" or by Michalski's vision of despair in "Ajno", is my emotion or my knowledge a mere figment of my deluded imagination because Esperanto is not, cannot be, a language like all others? Surely not. Let us judge languages (if I may be allowed the biological metaphor his once by their fruits.

Having cleared this particular problem away, let us look at the first half of your sentence, particularly the word "learned." I suppose I can claim to know English perfectly--and yet I am constantly surprised by new ways in which the language is used, imaginative uses to which it is put. Like all other speakers of the language, my knowledge of English is constantly changing and adapting to take these new uses into account. By the same token, stale uses drop gradually into cliché and platitude and are rejected. In short, I can never be said to have stopped learning English.

The same is true of Esperanto. It may have been designed to be easy to learn but what that means in practice is not that someone completes his or her learning of the language and then is forbidden through some ineluctable law of linguistic physics from ever learning anything new in it, from ever engaging in the kind of linguistic play that enriches a language, from ever enjoying and absorbing other people's play. There is always more to be learned; there are always new avenues to explore.We are back to your title: Esperanto is a living language--but it is living because the language--but it is living because the people who speak it live, and they employ it in much the same way as other languages are employed.

You are right of course that linguistic change is something of a threat as well as an advantage. Changes--to which Esperanto, like other languages, is subject--may threaten the simple structures that Zamenhof had in mind.Yet it may well bring new simplifications, re-establish consistencies, eliminate the occasional oddity. There are many indications that in English this process is going on rather extensively: various subjunctive forms are falling into desuetude; past participles are becoming more regular; and comparative and superlative forms are becoming more consistent. John Wilkins' language, to which I had occasion to refer earlier, lacked the possibility of change--or at least change could have only threatened its strict logical structure.Like the other projects for a "philosophical language," it did not survive. Language must change, because people change.

A final question: despite your impressive profile of its vitality, Esperanto is still typically dismissed as a utopian ideal that will never be fully realized. Skeptics say that a universally-accepted Interlanguage is about as likely as global tranquility. As you consider the future of the Esperanto movement, how do you view its potential for world-wide growth and acceptance?

There is much that encourages me, much that makes my uneasy. I am encouraged by the recent growth in interest in the language and particularly by its popularity among younger people. I am encouraged too by what I sense is a growing awareness of the role of language in society--the fact that it can be used as an instrument of power, of oppression, of discrimination, and the need to prevent those things from happening. The growing attention to language minorities in this country (however we may feel about ways of handling the problem) is one sign of this change.

Less encouraging is the skepticism of so many people when faced with these realities--the sense that nothing can be done to change them, and that any solution is, ipso facto, utopian and impossible. The linguistic chaos of today's world, and the problems of communication that that produces in dealing with hunger, disease, illiteracy, and war, is not an insoluble difficulty. And with every year that passes, Esperanto grows better equipped to alleviate and eliminate that difficulty.

Esperanto does not threaten the national literatures or the need for us to become better acquainted with them. It adds one means whereby that acquaintance may be made. And it is not a mere promise but an everyday reality--a "living language," as you so right put it.

Translation Review, Volume 7, 1981.

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