Claude Piron

Where is Myth? Where Reality?

They told me, when I was a kid: "Don’t be afraid to ask your way. Use your tongue and you’ll go to the ends of the world." But just a few miles away people spoke another language. To ask them anything was maddeningly useless.

They told me: "To discuss with foreigners, learn languages at school." But 90% of the adults can’t properly express themselves in the foreign language which they chose as students.

They told me: "With English you can get along anywhere in the world." But in a Spanish village I saw an accident in which a French and a Swedish car were involved. Neither with one another nor with the police could the drivers communicate. In a small town in Thailand I saw an agonized tourist trying to describe his symptoms to a local doctor. He strained himself in vain. I have worked for the United Nations and the World Health Organization on all inhabited continents, and on a few islands, and I found out in the Congo, in Poland, in Japan and in many other places that English is of no use outside of major hotels, big stores, business circles and airports.

They told me: "Thanks to translations even the most remote cultures are now accessible to all." But when I compared translations with originals, I saw so many distortions, so many omissions, so little respect for the author’s style that I was forced to approve the Italian saying Traduttore, traditore: ‘to translate is to betray’.

They told me that the West helps the Third World with due respect for the local cultures. But I saw that it has no regard for language dignity, it imposes its languages from the very start, taking for granted that they afford the best means of communication. I saw that the cultural pressures linked to English or French change the mentalities and exert their destructive effects on age-old cultures whose positive values are remorselessly ignored. And I saw the countless problems encountered in the training of local people, because Western technicians don’t know the local tongues and in these languages textbooks do not exist.

They told me: "Education for all will guarantee equality of opportunity for the children of all classes." And I saw rich families in the developing world send their young to Britain and USA in order to master English, while the masses, imprisoned in their own languages, subjected to all sorts of propaganda, only have a bleak future, maintained as they are by language in an inferior position.

They told me: "Esperanto has failed miserably." Yet in a mountain village of Europe, I saw farmers’ children chatting with Japanese visitors after only a six month Esperanto course.

They told me: "Esperanto lacks human value." I learned the language, I read its poetry, I listened to its songs. In that language I received confidences of Brazilians, Chinese, Iranians, Poles and a young fellow from Uzbekistan. And here I am – a former professional translator - owing it to honesty to say that those conversations were the most spontaneous and profound I ever had in a foreign language.

They told me: "Esperanto is worthless, because it has no culture." Yet when I met speakers of Esperanto in Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, most were more cultured than their fellows of the same socio-economic level. And when I attended international debates in that language, the intellectual level really impressed me.

I tried to explain all this around me. I said: "Come! Look! Here’s something extraordinary! A language which solves the communication problem between the peoples of the world! I saw a Hungarian and a Korean discussing politics and philosophy in that language only two years after starting to learn it. This is impossible in any other tongue. And I saw this, and that, and also these…"

But they replied: "Esperanto is not serious. And, anyway, it’s artificial."

I fail to understand. When a man’s or a woman’s heart, their feelings, the finest nuances of their thoughts are expressed directly from mouth to ear in a language born of a luxuriance of intercultural communications, they tell me: "It’s artificial."

But what do I see as I wander through the world? I see travelers longing to share with local people ideas and experiences, or maybe just recipes, and sadly giving up. I see exchanges by gestures leading to grotesque misunderstandings. I see people thirsting for information prevented by language from reading what they want.

I see masses of people, after six or seven years of learning a language, hacking away at it, unable to find the right word, wearing a laughable accent, missing the point they mean to make. I see language inequality and discrimination thriving throughout the world. I see diplomats and specialists speaking into microphones and hearing through earphones a voice other than that of their partner. Is that "natural communication"? From heart or brain to mouth to ear, that is artificial, of course, but from microphone to earphone through an interpretation booth, this is obviously natural! Has the art of solving problems with intelligence and sensitivity ceased to belong to human nature?

They tell me much, but I see different. So I wander, bewildered, in this society which claims for everyone the right to communicate. And I wonder if they’re deceiving me, or if I am just plain crazy.