A boatload of words, part 2: new media experiments suggest how lost languages might be saved

‘L’Arsouille’, Rennes, Brittany
Photographs by Mark Barron

Owing to chronic disruptions beyond our control, our usual timetable for new posts – roughly every six to seven days – must regrettably be abandoned for a while. ]

[ part 1 of ‘A boatload of words …’ is here ]

We are experimenting again — this time, with 21st-century ways of long-distance literary exploration. We are doing this in a multi-media collage — additions to some lines of poetry that we featured here last month.

Suppose that you discovered a beguiling poem that was a call to arms on behalf of an endangered language — lines saturated with the emphatically anti-glamorising spirit of a place, and adding up to a sort of love letter to its culture? Suppose that this place was Brittany, and that before you found the poem, you had only ever read the same clichés about its resilient, courageous, resourceful and fiercely independent people and been served, ad nauseam, the same images of its rugged coastline, its boats, its mizzling North Atlantic skies — without ever having heard a Breton speak?

Language arguably is culture.

Its sounds contain revelations inaccessible except by listening — a thought that came to mind playing back a recording of Roy Eales’s exemplary, playful-yet-serious reading of his own poem in its English original, then hearing his friend Fañch Peru recite his translation of it into his native Breton in ringing tones that are somehow both gritty and embracing. You can almost feel the inhospitable roughness of rock on your skin and taste acrid brine, halfway through the Breton version.

Beneath audio clips that any visitor to this blog can compare is the Breton text of Peru himself, a scholarly authority on the language – offered for listeners curious enough to read along. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

( … The audio files that follow work on some machines; not on others. … We are still digging to get to the bottom of the mystery. )

Roy Eales reads ‘A boatload of words:

Fañch Peru reading his translation of the poem into Breton:

Near relations of ours were in Brittany earlier this summer, and to one of them we are indebted for the photographs at the start of this post. They were taken in Rennes, where the native people speak not Breton but Gallo, the other regional language of Brittany, but whose look and mien — in the images we were lucky enough to receive — do fit Roy Eales’s descriptions of the preference for substance over style in the culture of this province.

The correspondences between sound and meaning in Breton are so unexpected, to these post-Gutenberg ears, so captivating, that we consider ourselves enlisted in the cause of saving a language we have never heard in its own home – ‘virtual’ allies. In our last post about Breton and ‘A boatload, …’, we proudly displayed a drawing by the artist Sascha Juritz, another foreign campaigner, but one who considered Brittany a home for years before he died in 2003. It has taken a while for the photograph of him that we requested to reach us, but here it is – an image well worth waiting for:

Portrait of Sascha Juritz by Ursula Leipold

The Wikipedia entry for this region – Europe’s northwestern corner — says, in part:

In 1956, Brittany was legally reconstituted as the Region of Brittany, although the region excluded the ducal capital of Nantes and the surrounding area. Over this period the Breton language declined precipitously. Children were not allowed to speak Breton at school, and were punished by teachers if they did. Famously, signs in schools read: “It is forbidden to speak Breton and to spit on the floor” (“Il est interdit de parler breton et de cracher par terre”). As a result, a generation of native Breton speakers were made to feel ashamed of their language and avoided speaking it or teaching it to their children.

Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), who had a Breton mother he adored, unfortunately identified with the French capital’s prejudice against the place. As one of his biographers, Graham Robb, has explained:

According to Hugo, … his mother was a half-wild royalist Amazon, chased through the Breton undergrowth by republican soldiers, risking her life to rescue persecuted priests. Brittany itself, in Hugo’s Parisian view of the country, was an antediluvian land inhabited by hairy, tattooed peasants, squatting in their cottages or holes in the ground, surviving on milk and chestnuts, fanatically loyal to King and Church, their worldview bounded by the horizons of the ancient forests in which they hid, bristling with Druidic superstition and mindless animosity — a contrast, in Hugo’s personal mythology, to the mountain-born genius. Only the `wash-basin’ of the Atlantic Ocean was equal to the filth of Brittany, he wrote on a visit in 1836.

Oh, the obtuse pointlessness of prejudice … Here, two centuries after Hugo was born, is an extract from a Breton poem – Fañch Peru’s rendering into English of his eulogy for Sascha Juritz:

The black knight of summer

Every summer

The black knight

Came galloping to our country.

In clothes of velvet corduroy

And leather boots

He rode his white horse

Along green paths,

[…]

To meet friends

And talk together

With fervour and passion

Of art,

Of poetry,

Of the force of words,

Of Brittany, its language,

Of black and of white,

His chosen colours,

Of the wide world

Which turns the wrong way.

.

And we were happy.

[… continues in What matters most is what you make ]

En ur porzh-mor kozh e Breizh un den, ur gasketenn martolod gantañ war e benn harpet war e c’har zehou a selle pizh ouzh un dra bennak a bouez bras.

Treiñ a reas e benn hag ober a reas un hanter tro war e c’har gleiz evit cheñch plas hag e chomas aze war e c’har zehou adarre.

Tanañ a reas e gorn ha kontañ a reas ur marvailh. Setu petra ’ oa c’hoarvezet.

Ur beurevezh yen er goañv en hevelep porzh-mor e kludas un evn mor du war e skoaz hag e kontas dezhañ e brezhoneg penaos ul lestr bras tre ruilhet ha diruilhet e-maez da Vreizh war ur Mor Atlantel rust a reas peñse abalamour d’un taoldispac’h -eus e lestrad – ur sammad gerioù, e gwirionez, holl c’heriaoueg yezh ar ro.

Richanañ a rae an evn du en ur ziskleriañ penaos ar gerioù a oa da vezañ diskarget er mor, ul lev vat er-maez e seier du krouget start merket warne e ruz: DIEZHOMM dre urzh Ministrerezh ar C’hontrollerezh Diharz.

Evel-just ne voe ket laouen ar gerioù gant se. Bet e oant trec’het kent met biskoazh ken gwazh kinnig marv n’o doa bet.

En ur brezegenn nerzhus, Gwendal, e-penn al lestrad gerioù a c’houlennas digante sevel da stourm. Ijinañ a reas ur mod d’en em zifenn. Dieubiñ an holl a rafe an ampartañ gerioù, kas al lestr d’ar strad a rafe ar re bounnerañ. Goude e tistrofe an holl c’herioù war-varin d’o bro c’henidik.

Evned mor o nijal a – us d’al lestr a glevas dre guzh komz eus difennerezh ar gerioù. Goulenn a reas ar re-mañ digante skignañ buan ha buan kemennadoù e brezhoneg e touez ar bobl.

Evel-se e voe embannet prim ar c’heleier a-dreuz ar vro ha prestik holl aodoù Breizh a virvilh, beuzet a don hag a son hag a dud o koroll hag o kanañ dirak ar mor hag al lestr o vont d’ar strad en dremmwel.

Hag o tont davete ul liñsel eonenn gwenn war ar mor, un eonenn gerioù, yezh ar vro en he fezh a voe charreet gant lorc’h betek an aod gant ar gwagennoù evel un harozez.

Adalek an deiz-se e touas ar bobl ne lezfe biken ken he yezh he-unan da rentañpenn da n’eus forzh peseurt degouezh arvarus war ar mor pe e-lec’h all.

Translation, English to Breton : Fañch Peru, Breton poet and professor of the Breton language. From the book, What matters most is what you make … 

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