A Fine Literary Language
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. This is the 19th chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village. You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies. You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get my permission. I welcome any suggestions about how to improve this work. My address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many Esperantists have devoted themselves to the creation of a considerable body of literature in the last hundred years. Much of this literature consists of translations from a large number of languages. Much of it consists of original work. Let us first take a look at the works in translation and then at the original works.
From Literatures Large and Small
Zamenhof understood that there was a big difference between a plan for a language and a living language. In order to show that the new language could do what any other language could do, he translated a large number of works of world literature into Esperanto. Up until a very short time before his death, during the First World War, he was working on his translation of the Jewish Bible from the original Hebrew.
A great many Esperantists have followed in his footsteps. Among the works that have been translated into Esperanto are the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, the English children’s book, Winnie the Pooh, the great masterpiece of Spanish literature, Don Quixote, the great masterpiece of Italian literature, The Divine Comedy, The great masterpiece of German literature Faust, many plays of Shakespeare including Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest, and many masterpieces of French Literature including Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Racine’s Phaedre. In addition to these we have the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit, The Koran from Arabic, the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, Plato’s Republic from Greek, and works translated from Chinese, Japanese, Hungarian, Macedonian, ancient Icelandic, Estonian, Korean, Dutch, Latin, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Swedish, Norwegian and so on.
In one way there is nothing remarkable about this. There are many more works translated from a variety of languages into English or French or German than there are works translated into Esperanto. You might admit that it is a curious and interesting fact that a great many works have been translated into Esperanto but chances are you would prefer to read them as translated into your native language.
This works very well for those who speak one of the world’s great languages, a language which has translations from a great panoply of world literature. For those who speak one of the so-called minor languages which may not have a large number of translations of world literary masterpieces, the availability of Esperanto translations could prove very helpful.
There is, however, something special about a number of these translations. When a work is translated from a foreign language into English, say, the translator is often a native speaker of English who has learned the foreign language as a second language. However, when a work is translated into Esperanto, the translator is usually a native speaker of the language in which the work was originally written.
At the United Nations when a document is translated from English into Chinese, the translator is normally a native speaker of the Chinese language who has studied English extensively. On the other hand when a document is translated from Chinese into English the translator is normally a native speaker of the English language who has studied Chinese extensively. This is because it is very hard to find someone, even on the level of the best professional translators, who can write as well in a foreign language as they can in their own language. Even though professional translators have spent tens of thousands of hours with a foreign language they will not know that language on the same level that they know their native tongue.
Esperanto, however, is so much easier than national languages that it can be thoroughly mastered after a great deal of hard work. Thus translators can learn how to write Esperanto as well as they can write their native tongue. Knowing both their native language and Esperanto thoroughly, they are in an excellent position to do a particularly fine job of translating into Esperanto.
Sometimes these translations are wonderfully done. Sometimes they are less wonderfully done. However, when translations into Esperanto are well done, the translator has had a little edge because he or she, being a native speaker of the source language, is in a special position to catch the nuances of the original, nuances which are sometimes missed by translators who are translating from a language that is not their own.
I had an interesting experience in this regard. I translated one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, into Esperanto. I sent it to Claude Piron who very kindly corrected it. In some cases he corrected grammatical errors. In a great many places he showed me a number of ways in which the translation could be stylistically improved. However, he found that my translation was very accurate.
He went to a library and got a French translation of the same story and then compared it with my Esperanto translation. Where Mrs. Watson was doing needlework in the original English, in the French version Mrs. Watson was knitting. Where Watson straightened up in his chair in the original English, in the French version he stood up. There were a good number of little inaccuracies of this nature. In my Esperanto translation, as stylistically imperfect as it might have been, there were no such little inaccuracies.
Because English is my native language I understood what Doyle wrote much more accurately than that particular French translator. Because Esperanto is a language that can be learned to a very high level in a relatively short time, I was able to accurately translate Doyle’s words.
Many of the people who translate works into Esperanto speak languages which are generally classified as minor languages. Writers in these so-called minor languages are rarely considered for the Nobel Prize for literature because their languages have not been studied by the judges and because works from their languages are rarely translated into what might be called the major world languages. Esperanto gives writers from these “minor” languages a chance to find an audience which, although very small, is distributed over the entire world.
Original Literature in Esperanto
Over the century or so of its existence Esperanto has accumulated a considerable body of original works. Major novels have been published in the language. A great deal of original poetry has been written. Short stories have come out. Essays have appeared.
Some of this work has been of poor quality, some of good quality, some of outstanding quality. Here are three examples of very fine original writing in Esperanto:
A Long Poem
In 1992 a little volume, Lasta Ĉevalo by Josef Rumler, appeared. It consisted of one long poem of about 450 lines. Rumler had previously published three collections of his poetry in his native Czech language. In 1978 the poet, who was then in his mid-fifties, learned Esperanto. When Rumler was seventy, the full version of Lasta Ĉevalo came out. Here is the opening strophe of the poem, the title of which means “Last Horse” or “A Last Horse”:
Pasas ĉevalo en mi tra la valo
en mia animo de limo al limo
ĝis ties senlimo pasas ĉevalo
ĉevalo la mimo de mia animo
pasas ĉevalo de valo al valo
en mia animo tra mia animo
moviĝas trotas ĉevalo galopas ĉevalo saltas ĉevalo danceskas ĉevalo
flugnaĝas ĉevalo en la aero freŝa aero tuj ĉe la tero
laŭ ritmo de nia komuna afero
herbriĉa afero ŝaŭmsanga afero
de l’senta sfero
The accent in Esperanto always falls on the next-to-the-last syllable. Rumler takes advantage of that fact in this poem to give it a galloping rhythm. Here is a translation of these lines:
There passes a horse in me through the valley
in my soul from border to border
up to its boundlessness passes a horse
a horse that’s the mimic of my soul
there passes a horse from valley to valley
in my soul through my soul
a horse is moving, trotting, galloping, a horse is jumping, a horse is moving like a dancer
a horse is flyswimming in the air fresh air right at the earth
according to the rhythm of our shared affair
an affair that is a mystery
an affair that is rich in grass a blood-foam affair
of the feeling sphere
I am not pretending that my translation does justice to the original, but even through the dim window of this translation something of the magic of the original might be sensed. Some of the nuances would require a masterful translator to render.
It says a great deal for Esperanto that a poet can learn the language in his fifties and then produce a masterpiece like Lasta Ĉevalo.
Trevor Steele, a young Australian author, brought out a novel, Sed Nur Fragmento (But Only a Fragment) in 1987. This work of nearly 450 pages tells the story of Nikolaj Ivanoviĉ Maklin, a Russian scientist in the 19th century who goes to live among the natives on an enormous island in the southern hemisphere, an island which is referred to only as “la Verda Insulo” (the Green Island). On this island, a fictional counterpart to New Guinea, Maklin studies not only the people and their customs but the flora and fauna and geography as well. When he arrives Maklin is a strict rationalist in the mold of his mentor, a German professor. However, on the island, and later in “civilized society” in Queensland, in Australia, this Russian rationalist undergoes experiences which transform his world-view. Nikolaj Ivanoviĉ Maklin comes to realize that the life which we see, which we experience here is only a fragment of an enormously greater whole that is beyond our comprehension.
Whereas Rumler stretches the bounds of the language, Trevor Steele employs a classically clear prose to guide his readers into the mystery.
A Book About a War
One of the most moving books ever written in Esperanto is Spomenka Štimec’s Kroata Milita Noktlibro (Nightbook of the Croatian War). In this short book, barely a hundred pages long, the author describes the experiences of Esperantists and other ordinary citizens in the disastrous war which broke out when Yugoslavia fell apart. Although both she and those whom she loves suffered terribly on account of what Serbs did, Štimec writes a book which calls for peace, a book which presents all of the pain of war while renouncing vengeance.
Štimec’s style is at the same time very simple, clear and poetic. One short paragraph demonstrates the efficacy of this pure style:
Tio kio aŭdeblis de la fenestro estis paserĉirpo. La paseroj konversaciis sur la pirarbo. Kia privilegia afero: esti vekita de la paseroj kaj ne de la sireno.
The chirping of sparrows could be heard from the window. The sparrows were speaking to each other in the pear tree. What a privilege it was to be woken by the sparrows and not by the siren.
This simple, deeply moving book has appeared in Japanese and German translations.
The Need for Esperanto Literature
Instead of providing a long list of some of the thousands of works by Esperanto poets and prose writers, I have written about three individual works which moved me deeply. In doing so I have tried to give a sense that Esperanto has successfully served as a vehicle for outstanding literature.
It may be asked what Esperanto’s use as a literary language has to do with the Esperanto dream presented at the beginning of this book. Surely a language does not have to have a great literary potential to serve as an easy-to-learn communications tool.
It would, in fact, be easy to plan a language that could be learned in even less time than Esperanto. That would not be a difficult challenge at all. Up until now thousands of plans for international languages have been devised. However, of all of those plans only one has led to a language which is used by at least hundreds of thousands of speakers all over the world. Most of the others never got out of the planning stage. Esperanto has persisted for more than a century. Although interest in Esperanto has died out in some places, at the same time interest has developed in other places. If there are very few Esperantists in India where there once was a budding movement, there is a growing number in Korea which hosted the Universala Kongreso de Esperanto in 1994, the largest international meeting in that country in that year.
Why has Esperanto become more than simply a plan for a language? Why has it become a living tongue used by at least hundreds of thousands of people today? Why does it persist long after it became apparent that the world was not ready to adopt it as the global interlanguage?
One of the reasons may be because of its literature. Authors who create poems and novels, readers who enjoy poems and novels in a language which they have worked to make their own, acquire a special feeling for that language. Just as an American wandering through some Central or Eastern European city is delighted to hear another person speaking American English, so Esperantists are delighted when they get a chance to share their language with the members of their small international community who live in some far-off part of the world. They touch each other, either directly, through face-to-face contact when they visit each other’s lands, or through correspondence by paper mail or by e-mail, or by means of the Esperanto discussion group on the Internet, or by writing or reading poems, novels, stories, essays or biographical accounts.
It is this kind of feeling that has made Esperanto a living language and has kept it a living language. This special feeling is due in no small part to the common, shared literature that has been created in this unique tongue, a language which does not belong to just one nation or a group of nations but which belongs equally to anyone who makes the effort to learn it.