Shakespeare ruined poetry. When modern English literature was still in its infancy, came the Bard (the Bard), with a jockstrap full of glittering coins, making people think that was the only language for this art form. That’s enough to leave us scratching the itch for our opinions, wondering what happened to poetry in the other languages of the British Isles?
The reality is that incredible poetry exists in every language of the UK and it’s not impossible that the next world classic will be written in a British language other than English. Publishers should be alert to the possibility that the next major work of literature will come from a so-called minority language.
The National Poetry Library runs the Poetry in Danger Project, an attempt to collect spoken and written poems in the world’s lesser-known languages. From there was born the anthology, published by Chambers, Poems from the Edge of Extinction: An Anthology of Poetry in Endangered Languages. This includes 50 poems from around the world, including in each of the UK’s endangered languages; from Gwyneth Lewis’ sexy detective story involving a fictional character’s dark obsession with translation, to Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s poem about a poet refusing to do translations, with a character lurking in the corner with his wine red as a famous Seamus takes the stage.
Publishers often view the “translation” market as something that takes literature from somewhere far away, translates it into English, and presents it to a readership as their next inevitable read. This may seem all the more strange since we know that the classics come from all kinds of languages, including those which are no longer spoken or which opposed the main languages of their time; for example Chaucer and Dante writing outside the literary dominance of Latin. How do you, as a publisher, know you are publishing the best literature in the country if you choose only from the ever-growing pinnacles of the English language?
In 2018, the Cornish Language Council claimed that Gwenno’s album The Kov contributed to a 15% increase in the number of people taking Cornish language exams.
Publishers might think of what Robbie Burns and Irvine Welsh have done for literature in their native Scottish; of course, there is a mutual intelligibility with English, but given that most readers are comfortable reading translated works these days, curiosity and imagination are there for chefs- hidden works published from Jersey French, for example, or Manx, and presented to a wide readership. “Fiere Love Poem” by Jackie Kay, written in Scottish, condenses a night of love into ten unforgettable lines, ending “I love you tae bits / you reply that I love you to hale”. The collection from which this poem is taken has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Scottish Book of the Year, showing that poetry in endangered languages is increasingly a dark secret.
There are publishers who are ahead in this regard; Francis Boutle, for example, who specializes in “the less widely spoken languages of Europe”, publishes individual collections and anthologies bringing together works in the Norman, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic languages, to name but a few. As editor Clive Boutle puts it: “The topic of lesser used languages and the popularity of literature in translation is probably the biggest change in publishing in the last 20 years…There is growing interest in minority and regional languages in the UK.”
Publishers need only look to the music world for signs of this change; Gwenno was shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize for her album Treasure, the first Cornish-language disc to be shortlisted for the award. If the words sung in Cornish can reach so many people, then the potential for literature presented in bilingual language is enormous.
Publishers like Chambers or Francis Boutle are leading the way in this field, perched on the discovery of a future classic. Walker Books just released Sam Winston’s One and All, a children’s book telling the ever-growing story, “The One,” that eats other stories — and alphabets — that get in its way. Illustrated with over 50 different scripts from around the world, combining watercolor and visual poetry, this book is intended to show a whole new generation of Western readers that the primary language they can speak is one of many and one that absorbs speakers of minority languages. . The magic of the book is Winston’s unique insight that opens our eyes to the “everything” – the other languages - living and past, which tell “The One” what it means to be human. Anyone who cares about languages should give this book to a child during the winter season.
The health of a language is always measured by its adoption by young people. In 2018, the Cornish Language Council claimed that Gwenno’s album The Kov contributed to a 15% increase in the number of people taking Cornish language exams. The title of his new album, “Tresor”, means “Treasure” in Cornish. Not a single bard’s scepter island, but all that is buried in the words of our islands.