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“Minority” is the Expression of a Relation Not an Essence, on Minority Languages in Translation

By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris and Toby Smollett

UNESCO has proclaimed 2022–2032 as the “International Decade of Indigenous Languages,” which will “draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, and promote Indigenous language.” This important call to action led us to consider the role of minority languages in translation.

As Daniel Hahn noted during the 2012 London Book Fair panel that he chaired on Translating Minority Languages, whilst translation rates for fiction translated into English is increasing, it is largely populated by a handful of dominant languages like French, Spanish or Arabic. This therefore leaves precious room for minority languages. What do we mean by minority languages? The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, adopted in 1992 by the Council of Europe, defines minority languages based on two criteria: a numerically smaller speaker population and a lack of official status. This definition serves its purpose most of the time, but as the working definition here suggests, it is by no means an unproblematic one.

There are many advocates for minority languages, such as Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who would rather use the term “marginalised” languages than minority. In the illuminating Pen report, Culture’s Oxygen, Thiong'o noted the “lack of financial and infrastructural support for the creative industries from government and publishing houses,” which is also an issue disproportionately affecting minority languages in developing nations. Another key obstacle in translating minority languages is “the lack of mother-language education after the first three years of primary school [which impedes the] development of a readership and consequently of a consumer base for that minority language.” Translating minority languages must be fascinating due to these languages' symbiotic and fraught relationship with political power and history. Whilst translators and publishers of minority languages are faced with many challenges, brave publishers such as Francis Boutle (European minority languages), Fum D’Estampa (Catalan) and Praspar Press (Maltese) lead the way in the UK. Read on for wonderful recommendations of titles to explore from minority languages!

In Between Worlds by Máret Ánne Sara, translated from Sámi by Laura A. Janda.

DAT, 2016

In Between Worlds by Máret Ánne Sara is a young adult novel that was originally published in Sámi, the language spoken by the Sámi people indigenous to the northern parts of Europe, spanning Scandinavia and Russia. It was nominated for the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize in 2014.

The story follows teenage siblings Sanne and Lemme who come from a traditional Sámi reindeer herding family. A dirt bike track is getting built in their town, which has Lemme excited as he loves dirt biking. However, his father disapproves and tells the children that the dirt bike track is destroying land that the reindeer need for grazing. The siblings leave and disappear without a trace, leaving their parents with unanswered questions. The story deals with the conflict between the traditional Sámi lifestyle and modern life, as Sanne and Lemme learn how to find this balance.

Sámi culture is at the forefront of In Between Worlds as Máret Ánne Sara drew from her own experiences of growing up in a traditional Sámi reindeer herding family when writing the novel. The translator, Laura A. Janda, said of the novel: “I was so captivated by the story that I felt compelled to share it with a wider English-speaking audience.” The novel has a sequel that was published in Sámi in 2014 but there is no English translation as of yet.

The Mabinogion, translated from Welsh by Sioned Davies

OUP Oxford, April 2008

As one of the stated aims of UNESCO’s “International Decade of Indigenous Languages” is the preservation of these languages, literature containing stories told centuries ago becomes a crucial and central part of this goal. These stories are repeated throughout generations, linking a shared culture spanning across eras. The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh medieval tales first compiled during the latter half of the 14th century, brings this important link from the unique history of Wales to the current day, and its translation by Sioned Davies allows it the opportunity to engage with a significantly wider readership base than would otherwise be possible.

The tales within this book are not only of significant cultural importance, but also, quite frankly, are incredibly enjoyable. Shapeshifters, kings, intellectuals and witches all play their role in a series of stories which should be of particular interest to anyone who enjoys reading mythical tales. Sioned Davies does an exceptional job of bringing this fascinating source material to life: the appendix provides clarity on a number of areas where a casual reader may be slightly lost, and the translation itself is also genuinely accessible.


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