Tastes of Europe's smaller tongues

The EmLit Project
November 12, 2004

The EmLit Project is designed to bring together European minority literatures in translation. Nineteen minority languages appear here, although the question of definitions arises from the outset. Sorbian is little known and Picard little spoken, while the presence of Albanian in remote parts of Sicily underlines the fact that migration in and around Europe is by no means a recent phenomenon. But it is curious that Arabic should appear in the Spanish section, even though Moroccans make up about 30 per cent of the foreign resident population in Spain. There seems to be less justification for adding Amazic (from North Africa) and Gun (from Benin).

These are the languages of a diaspora, languages that have been passed over or that have sunk quietly into a political hinterland. They have somehow been transmitted until threatened not so much by official disapproval or changes in political boundaries but rather by the increasing standardisation caused by improvements in state education and more access to the outside world via the media. The breakdown of isolated regimes will also have had an effect, as will the ease of foreign travel, not to mention the pressures to migrate in search of safety, work or a decent standard of living.

There seems to be little here by way of common denominators, and there is no clear rationale behind the collection. Some of the authors appear to be well known in particular cultures, while others are exponents of little-known tongues or are among the few people who can speak the language in question. Languages are not placed in any particular context, though there is a perceptible difference between official languages, historic languages and those brought into Europe more recently by migrant groups.

The project serves as a curious parallel illustration of particular languages and demonstrates that more languages have survived even in Western and Central Europe than might be imagined, and that migration movements have created new communities in areas with which they have no historical or colonial connection. There is work to be done in mapping and even reviving languages that are to be found near Brussels, whose policies stress the need for equal standing, the importance of language as part of Europe's cultural heritage and the significance of minority languages to individuals' own perception of the world and their position within it.

Each language is placed in context for the non-specialist reader with an information box, though it may be helpful to cross-refer to works such as Kenneth Katzner's The Languages of the World or Andrew Dalby's Dictionary of Languages .

It was an unfortunate editorial choice to place all the translation between the main European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish) in the same volume. It might have been better to have produced a slimmer volume in each language combination, which would have allowed more space for a wider range of samples. The accompanying CD is useful even if it covers only ten of the nineteen languages used.

The EmLit Project is an interesting exercise that draws on the multilingual nature of today's Europe. Translating between lesser known and better-known languages has drawn attention to the multiple challenges of translation in this field, but it is unfortunate that those findings do not appear here.

Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University.

The EmLit Project: European Minority Literatures in Translation

Editor - Paula Burnett
Publisher - Brunel University Press
Pages - 503pp plus CD
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 902316 36 3 www.brunel.ac.uk/ faculty/arts/EnterText

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