Monday, May 14, 2007

A Polychromatic World, or Against Ethnocide

Those who know me are well aware that anthropology is one of my big interests. My choice of a career in translation makes sense in the context of this deep enthusiasm for cultures and languages; translation can be considered a form of anthropology. As I’ve said before, translation does not simply involve finding an equivalent word in the target language for a word in the source language; rather, it is about conveying the whole culture that has helped shape each word, each phrase, each concept in a text. That’s why it isn’t enough to study a bilingual dictionary or a list of vocabulary in order to consider oneself fluent in a tongue; a deep understanding of the culture and the people is necessary.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist and National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence (an oxymoronic title, as he points out!). Someone sent me this link to a speech Dr. Davis gave a few years ago. In it, he mentions that there are currently 6000 languages on our planet, but only 3000 are still used regularly and taught to children. Dr. Davis claims that every 2 weeks, an elder who is the last speaker of his or her language dies and with that elder, the language is gone. And when a language is lost, so are the beliefs, feelings, and culture behind that language. In an interview, Dr. Davis points out that “now languages, like cultures, like species, are being lost so quickly that they don’t have time to leave descendents.”

Dr. Davis says in his speech that genocide is condemned while ethnocide (which includes the loss of cultures and languages) is not; instead, it is “celebrated as part of a development strategy”. But a “polychromatic world of diversity” is to be preferred. Anthropologists, he said, believe that “story-telling can change the world” and that “this world deserves to exist in a diverse way, that we can find a way to live in a truly multicultural, pluralistic world, where all the wisdom of all the peoples can contribute to our collective well-being.” Certainly, we translators (who are, after all, people devoted to intercultural communication and understanding, and people who help others have a voice) believe this as well.

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