In the beginning there was the word. Before the word, the world was formless and void. By letting there be light, a distinction was made between this and that. This distinction is what separates us from the less linguistically gifted. Here we will talk about how the profession of linguists and translators has shaped and is still shaping our understanding of the incredibly diverse polyglottal multilingual world we inhabit. And how that distinguished tradition may be on the brink of extinction, or else changing, forever.
This topic hits home to me — a writer for the Tomedes translation agency, an occasional translator myself, and a world traveler – as I enjoy the multicultural delights of Hoi An, Vietnam, a delightful place and a fascinating mélange of Viet tribal cultures, Chinese, Japanese, French colonial, and – last but not least — American linguistic traditions, for better and for worse. The modern fate of the Vietnamese language, and its Southeast Asian cousins, was formed in this primordial colonial soup.
Southeast Asia’s Linguistic Romance with Roman Characters
Vietnamese is the Austroasiatic language with by far the fewest characters per word and by far the most speakers, some 80 million. Most are in this serpentine Southeast Asian coastal nation but many, thanks to the tortured colonial history of this land, are flung far in a substantial Vietnamese diaspora. Originally, the Vietnamese appropriated Chinese pictograms from their northern neighbour, but colonizing European missionaries – notably Alexander Rhodes — faithfully and fatefully transcribed the problematic pictograms into Roman characters, adding a plethora of diacritics above the Latin letters to communicate the variety of tones and pronunciations of this complex language.
Thailand, by contrast, was never colonized and therefore, preserved intact its flowing language of no less than 38 squiggly characters and a healthy collection of diacritics for its somewhat simpler set of tones. Any Thai businessperson or educator will tell you that having a non-Latin character set is a deterrent for economic integration and fluency in Western tongues. Former British colony Malaysia, by contrast, adopted Roman characters and abandoned diacritics. But Thailand, despite attaching itself inextricably to its royal linguistic traditions, had the countervailing influences of tilting West and resisting its northern neighbour in modern times, currying favor with the world powers and thus gaining a head start in technological innovation and economic development.
I have a family connection to the preservation of linguistic heritage in this region. My brother Peter is among the foremost experts in the translation of traditional Lao palm leaf manuscripts, preserving this traditional means of cultural recording and this endangered language and literature for posterity. But though Lao moved from palm leaves to paper, it never abandoned its squiggly character set. But the leaves –at least some of them — have been digitized.
Holy Writ: its Linguistic Preservation and Resurrection
And how can we ignore, at the other end of Asia, the linguistic heritage of Israel, my homeland, where the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is literally enshrined as the foremost national cultural treasure, proving as it does that the Hebrew language used in everyday parlance in Tel Aviv was used and recorded more than two millennia ago by the residents of Judea, clinging to existence on cliffs above the Dead Sea and preserving their holy writ after the Roman invasion and expulsion at the time of Jesus. Those scrolls are now sequestered in a nuclear-proof bunker in Jerusalem, so great is their importance to Israel’s identity.
Nor can we neglect the sequel of that legacy as forged in the last century by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who literally raised the Hebrew language from the dead as his indomitable will forced first his family and then his entire culture to resurrect this moribund Biblical tongue to unify a nation of immigrants returning to their long-lost homeland.
Recovering Linguistic Heritages Still at Risk
Across the Red Sea in Egypt, the Rosetta Stone once shed light for the first time on how to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics, a simultaneous translation of an edict on a stele to the Egyptian demotic script and the ancient Greek language, key to unlocking the treasure trove of the Pharaoh’s magnificent pyramidical tombs and this wonders of that otherwise lost civilization. That stone today is emblematic of the pivotal role that translation plays in cultural preservation.
That struggle is ever underway. African languages die out with each passing year, and with them this history and culture of the tribes that spoke them. Even as Brits and Americans sponsor massive programs for language teaching to cement English as the world’s lingua franca, there are voices which resist what they see as a linguistic legacy of colonialism, regardless of the economic benefits.
Swahili with 100 million speakers has some longevity assured, but less popular or localized languages are at risk of going the way of Sanskrit, among the oldest languages in the world. Nigeria considers English its official language, even though few of its citizens speak it.
Some comfort may be taken by efforts to resuscitate the Berber tongue of Tamazight, spoken by nomadic tribes in the deserts of North Africa, but long suppressed by Arab nationalist regimes. Now Morocco and Algeria have at last recognized its validity as a national language.
Machine Translation is Rewriting the Rules of Language
But these days there’s another revolution. Neural machine translation, driven by innovations in Artificial Intelligence as applied on and through the devices we carry in our pockets and hold in our hands, to make sense of the world around us. Our iPhones and iPads are the Rosetta tablets of our generation, conveying in algorithms and neural networks the distilled wisdom of all those who trod before us, and their language.
More than a hundred top languages of the world and thousands of linguistic combinations are now available for us to hear, read and voice, even if we ourselves don’t do the vocalizing. We press buttons for the magic to occur. Our personal interpreters instantly translate English to Chinese and back again, doing what previously was the exclusive talent of linguists, document translators and interpreters. Each of us can now read a sign or a menu in a language we know nothing about. We can bark instructions to cab drivers, or try to seduce that lovely Lao lass with honey words. Who is our personal interpreter who gets the rides and gets the girl? Our phones.
What is a linguist now? Who is a translator now? Will online machine translation one day replace professional translation services? Will translation apps replace translation companies? Or will translating algorithms be made to serve new masters, not replacing but supplementing the skills of human linguists, and translation companies and, in the process, perhaps, preserving endangered languages or even bringing the dead ones back to everlasting life?
Who, ultimately, controls translation technology? We do, at least for now, because we control our phones. With diminishing professional translation services or the most cunning of linguists, everyday joes have become, effortlessly and unwitting, expert polyglots. We hold the power of the word, and thus the world, in our hot little hands.
We have met the universal and eternal Translator. It is now us.