• Monday, May 20, 2024
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The natural law of languages: Use it—or lose it (2)


Languages survive and thrive when their owners consciously update and expand them and pass them on to their children. Take the nations of Europe: many of them are smaller than many ethnic nationalities of the ECOWAS region. And yet they have continually updated and expanded their national languages by capturing in them the entire learned culture of Europe including its mathematics, science, medicine and literature. This is no accident but a result of persistent application of conscious policy over the years.

Similarly, all of the world’s learned culture is available for adoption into any African language and nationality that is up to the task of survival through update and expansion.

How is this to be done? Let’s take it as a series of steps.

STEP 1: Accept the challenge of language conservation and acquisition outlined in Part 1 of this article, namely: train up all children in their mother-tongue; in the language of the locality in which they reside; in one major indigenous language of their nation; and in both English and French. This applies not only to West Africa but to all the presently French-speaking and English-speaking  countries of the entire continent.

STEP 2: Translate all translatables into the chosen language. Be judiciously selective. Translation is as powerful as virtually anything the human mind has conceived. As outreach, it carries on the wind all human thoughts, discoveries and projections and scatters them like seeds to the far corners of the globe. As intake, it brings home to every locality a rich foreign harvest that roots in the soil and enriches the local production as well as the language that conveyed it.

For centuries, the world’s great works of literature have circulated in translation. The literary classics of every culture, insofar as they are known beyond their native borders, are known in translation. Publishers tout the popularity of every book by the number of copies sold and the number of languages into which it has been translated. The foundation texts of the world’s major religions are known mostly in translation. The advances in science and technology, whether epochal or miniscule, are quickly transmitted, translated and domesticated globally.

Those anxious that their language should not die should learn from this ancient practice of translation. They should embark on a comprehensive campaign to preserve, update and expand their language as follows:

Translate into their language the novels, poems, plays, short stories and essays written in other languages by members of their ethnic nationality.

Do the same for works written by fellow-citizens from other ethnic nationalities.

Do the same for their folktales, proverbs, festival songs, songs of praise, songs of abuse, prayers, chants, jokes and other utterances which scholars have collected and written down in English, French or Portuguese.

Continually collect and write down more of these traditional oral literatures in their language.

Tape-record and write down the conversations and speeches of the most eloquent, especially the elder men and women.

Systematically translate works from the global repertory of science, technology, literature and business so they can be read and understood and enjoyed in the chosen  language. In doing so, the team of translators, an enlightened intelligentsia, will adapt and domesticate some foreign words and invent some new words. This, for instance, is how the “romance languages” of Europe tinkered themselves together using the Latin language. Ancient Greek is everywhere in the vocabulary of Europe’s physical, biological and social sciences. And the patch-patch work of gluing together Celt, German, French, Greek and Latin is visible all over the English language.

Translating all known knowledge into a language is the perfect guarantee for the conservation and survival of any language.

STEP 3: As much as possible, produce new literature, television programs and movies in the indigenous language; then, to reach a larger public, translate them into the major indigenous languages of the country and the continent, plus English and French.

In this regard, the great Kenyan writer and philosopher Ngugi wa Thiong’o has set the pace: some three decades ago he decided thenceforth to write all his works first in Gikuyu, then translate them into English. That way he helps keep Gikuyu alive while at the same time reaching a global reading public.

Nigeria’s Yoruba Nollywood movie industry has followed a similar policy: produce in Yoruba and add subtitles (written translations) in English. Trouble is that subtitles are not always legible against the variegated visual background, their letters are too tiny, and they change too fast for moderate-to-slow readers, who constitute the majority. This is a world-wide failing of subtitles. Yoruba Nollywood should have better success with “dubbing”—audio translation, voices speaking the dialogue in whatever the chosen language.

In contrast, Nigeria’s Igbo Nollywood movie industry has become “all-English.” But again, this failing can and should be remedied with audio-dubbing, making each and every movie accessible to any language on earth that desires it.

As we have seen, then, the bulk of the world’s literature, science and thought has circulated for centuries in translation, and continues to do so. With the powerful cultural engine of translation providing both input and output, aided by computer technology that makes so many impossible things possible, there really is no excuse for cultural isolation or relegation of any ethnic nationality or language.

Onwuchekwa Jemie