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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A poetic boatload of words and a foretaste of e-publishing as bringer of light and joy

Cover drawing by Sascha Juritz
What matters most is what you make
Roy Eales
Blackbird Editions, Pawel Pan Presse, 2004

Sit up and pay attention, all you change-resistant bookworms who see no good in e-publishing; nothing but the prospect of avaricious conventional publishers charging readers more than once for the same text repackaged in different media – and witless self-publishing writers drowning us in e-drivel.

This week, post-Gutenberg offers word nerds everywhere an example of the littérature-sans-frontières that the net could – will – soon give us as a matter of course. Undeniably, no e-book could replicate the pleasure of handling the slender volume printed on luscious, textured paper from which our extract comes. Never mind, read on. See proof in many dimensions of how the net could – conceivably — help to save literary culture.

These poetic, fanciful lines with something critical to tell us about real life are introduced by their writer, Roy Eales. In his book What matters most is what you make (2004), they appear translated into Breton – the language of the French province of Brittany – as well as in French and German, alongside the English original. (Only the second translation is reproduced here, but we hope to find time to transcribe the other two.)

Roy is a fine, original, unpredictable and unclassifiable English writer and poet living in Brittany who was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by official France in 2004. He is that rare scribe not born a ‘digital native’ who has leapt from print-only to blending literature with other art in readings of his work interwoven with musical performances by members of his group. A selection of his poems in five languages has been recorded on a CD, ‘Just in Case’ by Roy Eales and his friends (2010), with original music by artists in Brittany and Wales.

Beneath Boatload, on this page, is another excerpt from the same book– the first verse of a wicked, delicious, posthumous tribute to Sascha Juritz, the artist and friend whose drawings accompany Roy’s poems, prose meditations and vignettes.

                                                 

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A note from Roy Eales:

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A boatload of words came to me in the middle of a night sometime in late 2003. Legend, mythology, mystery abound in Brittany, Bretons and their literature, and I searched for something satirical in which I could use these elements to castigate the French, heavily, for their stern, backward attitude towards other languages in their national space, and to challenge the Bretons, lightly, for not fighting back enough.

[ from the book’s introduction: ]

Boatload and the other poems in this book were dedicated to Sascha Juritz, brilliant artist, my friend and publisher of this and other books over the years. He died in 2003 as this book with his exquisite drawings was being published. He saw Brittany as a twin for Lausitz, his own Slav country locked into the Czech and Polish borders and colonized by Germany some centuries ago as independent Brittany was by the French. Like the Bretons, the people of Lausitz have sought to protect their culture and language despite the inevitable forces to conform to the ‘master’ French and German cultures and languages. 

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[ If you are reading this on the blog’s ‘front page,’ please click on the title of this post to be taken to its own separate part of the site to read the following words set out as they are meant to be. WordPress’s automated layout software tends to destroy certain types of special formatting, such as spacing for poetry. ]

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A boatload of words: a fable for Brittany

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At an old port in Brittany a man wearing a peaked black cap was

leaning on his right leg staring capital in the face.

.

He turned his head and swivelled on his left leg to an alternative

position, and rested there on his right leg again.

.

He lit his pipe and told a tale. This is what happened.

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One cold winter morning at the same port a black seabird

perched on his shoulder and told him in Breton that a huge boat

heaving off Brittany on a strong Atlantic sea had been wrecked

by a mutiny – of its cargo – a boatload of words, in fact, the entire

vocabulary.

.

The black bird twittered, in revealing that the words were to be

dumped at sea, three miles out, in black stranglehold sacks stamped in

red: SUPERFLUOUS, by order of the Ministry of Absolute Control.

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Naturally, the words didn’t like this. They had been beaten before,

but never, so overtly, threatened with extinction.

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In a mighty speech, Gwendal, their leader calls for a rebellion, and

draws up a plan. The cleverest words would free everyone, and the

heaviest words would sink the boat. Then all the words would float

back to their homeland.

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Seabirds flying over the boat learnt secretly of the plan from the words,

who asked them to speed messages in Breton back to the people.

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So the news spread quickly across Brittany, and soon all the shoreland

bristled full of music and people, dancing and singing, facing the sea

and the sinking ship on the horizon.

.

And coming towards them a sheet of white foam on the sea, a foam of

words, as the entire language was carried proudly ashore by the waves

like a hero.

.

From that day on the people vowed never again would they leave their

language alone to save itself from any perils at sea, or wherever they

may be.

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Roy Eales, 2003 

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Une cargaison de mots: fable pour la Bretagne

 

Sur un vieux port breton, un homme portant une casquette de marin

noire s’appuyait sur sa jambe droite, fixant du regard un point d’une

importance capitale.

.

It tourna la tête et pivota sa jambe gauche pour changer de position

et se tint là de nouveau sur sa jambe droite. It alluma sa pipe et raconta

une histoire. Voici ce qui s’était passé.

.

Un froid matin d’hiver sur ce même port un oiseau marin se percha

sur son épaule et lui raconta en Breton qu’un énorme navire se soulevant

au large de la Bretagne sur une forte mer atlantique avait fait naufrage à

cause d’une mutinerie – de sa cargaison – une cargaison de mots, en

fait tout le vocabulaire de la langue du pays.

.

L’oiseau noir gazouillait, alors qu’il révélait que les mots devaient être

jetés à la mer à trois miles au large, étranglés dans les sacs noirs sur

lesquels était tamponné en rouge: SUPERFLU, sur ordre du Ministère

du Contrôle Absolu.

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Naturellement, les mots ne furent pas contents. Ils avaient déjà été

battus, mais jamais, si ouvertement, menacés d’extinction.

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Dans un vibrant discours, Gwendal, leur chef appelle à la rébellion

et établit un plan. Les mots les plus habiles libéreraient tout le monde,

et les plus lourds couleraient le navire. Puis tous reviendraient en

flottant jusqu’à leur terre.

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Des oiseaux marins volant au-dessus du navire furent en secret mis au

courant du plan des mots, qui leur demandèrent de faire rapidement

passer un message en breton au peuple.

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Ainsi les nouvelles se répandirent vite à travers le pays, et bientôt

tout le littoral grouillait, repli de musique et de gens qui dansaient

et chantaient, face à la mer et un bateau coulant à l’horizon.

.

Et venant vers eux, drap d’écume blanche sur la mer, une écume de

mots, toute la langue du pays, était portée fièrement au rivage par les

vagues, comme un héros.

.

Depuis ce jour le peuple fit serment de ne jamais plus laisser sa langue

toute seule faire face aux périls en mer, ou n’importe où ailleurs.

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Roy Eales, 2003

Translated into French by Nanda Troadeg and Susan Eales ]

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And here is a snippet of Roy’s tribute to Sascha Juritz, ‘Don’t Overdrive, my dear‘ … you can read the rest in your own copy of What matters most is what you make:

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This time

Is there only the reality?

.  So don’t overdrive, my dear.

Where this genius is concerned

reality is irrationality.

The black lines

send off the normality

and poetry is just

.  a little shit

after which you feel better

and lose a bit of yourself.

.  It doesn’t matter, my dear.

.  They hear nothing

.  Say nothing

.  See nothing — scheisser — .

But every man is always

.  a Grand Poète,

has something to say,

. a small bird in the head.

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[ … continues … ]

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