Poems from the edge of extinction

The last line of the refrain in the Welsh national anthem is O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau (“O may the old language endure” in W.S. Gwynn Williams’ translation).

I remember learning it when I was about seven or eight; we had to in junior school. Since neither of my parents were born in Wales and didn’t speak Welsh, I had to go next door to do it. That family was Welsh speaking and they had a piano. Their children went to a Welsh-speaking school. “What’s the Welsh for curtains?” I remember asking them once. “I don’t know, we don’t have curtains in school,” the boy next door replied.

About seven years later, I did work experience in a Welsh-speaking primary school in Cardiff, where I grew up. By then I could converse pretty well, but some of the children coming in couldn’t, necessarily. They knew their colours and numbers and school vocab, but their grammar was in English. So they would say things like “I’m arlliwioing in coch” (I’m colouring in in red). My Welsh was never going to get much better, sadly. I didn’t do A level because it wouldn’t be “useful”. Though I haven’t lived in Wales since I was 18, I still regret it.

So I was more than ready for this book. And It was encouraging to see that in terms of endangered languages, Welsh doing quite well. Many others are not. Chris McCabe called for poets writing in endangered languages and got responses from every continent, in myriad scripts, and some from oral traditions that have never been written down. Each poem is in the original with the English translation on the facing page, and followed by a brief description of the language, the cultural context, the poet, and the translator(s).

One of the closest to my context is in Irish Gaelic. Gearóid Mac Lochllain’s poem hit me in the face for telling me not to do something I know I have done – ask for an English translation (even though this poem had one, by the poet and Frankie Sewell). The whole point of this book is to keep people writing in their languages, not just to fillet them and make them digestible for English speakers. This poem had whole phrases in Gaelic in the English (and vice versa), forcing the reader to confront the power dynamic between the two languages.

The same ideas were echoed in other poems from the islands near where I grew up, including the Faroese one, which wasn’t just about the sea and the fish and the birds, but has the poet, Kim Simonsen, on his iPhone in the middle of it all. It’s easy to put languages like this on historical and cultural ice, but of course a living language talks about now, in the now.

Sometimes a language is so close to death that only the barest bones of it survive, in children’s rhymes. This Hobyot equivalent of “this little piggy went to market” was transcribed and translated by linguist and ethnographer Miranda Morris, a lioness defending Middle Eastern minority languages. I can imagine doing this word game with the babies in my own life – I sent it to a family member who has been to Yemen and has young children. Hopefully he’ll pass it on… will you?

Sometimes your language is like a lover. Will you let go, or do you care enough to hold on to the relationship and make it work? What keeps you interested? The Welsh poem on this was great. So was the Kristang one, written and translated by Singaporean Martha Fernandez.

Always, language holds stories. This Ainu poem draws you into a world of gods and cosmic justice far away and long ago, but the story about wealth and poverty and community relationships has echoes everywhere. I want to read more of Chiri Yukie; the English translation of her Japanese rendering of her poem is by Kyoko Selden.

I didn’t give you it all, because I want you to read the rest, to find out what happens.

This is a book to return to again and again; whenever you find a link, however tenuous, to a new place, you’ll probably find a poem in a local or regional language here. The poems take you to long ago and far away, or make you see things that were right under your nose all the time, you just never noticed. But someone somewhere has put them into words. There are fifty poems: that’s one a week for almost a year. By the time you’ve read two poems that way, another language somewhere in the world will have died. The first step to stopping that process is to read them: buy the book from John McMurray Press now.  

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