Beyond the borders of language

The world’s top ten spoken languages:

1. Mandarin – 1000m,
2. English – 350m
3. Spanish – 250m
4. Hindi – 200m
5. Arabic – 150m
6. Bengali – 150m
7. Russian – 150m
8. Portuguese – 135m
9. Japanese – 120m
10. German – 100m
Data measured as mother-tongue (first-language) speakers. Source The Cambridge Factfinder, Cambridge University Press 1993.

Although we have a universal notation system for the music itself the problem of the language for the text still remains, and the table above shows that English is no longer the safe option for a libretto, and Latin no longer cuts it for sacred works. Lou Harrison (left) came up with a typically unconventional solution. His choral masterpiece La Koro Sutro is a translation into Esperanto by Bruce Kennedy of the Heart Sutra, which is one of the most profound Mahayana Buddhist texts. La Koro Sutro was first performed for an international gathering of Esperantists in San Francisco in August 1972.

There is a tendency today to dismiss Esperanto as a failed experiment, but this is far from the truth. Estimates vary, but there are around 1.5 million speakers of the language worldwide. More than 25,000 books have been written in Esperanto (originals and translations) as well as over a hundred regularly distributed Esperanto magazines. Two full-length feature films have been produced entirely in Esperanto, Angoroj in 1964 and Incubus starring William Shatner in 1965, and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin used Esperanto for signage on storefronts and buildings in his 1940 classic The Great Dictator. There are a number of music resources on the internet in Esperanto, and numerous popular and rock tracks with Esperanto lyrics available as MP3 downloads.

Gustav Mahler missed a trick when he used a volume of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge, titled, Die Chinesische Flöte ("The Chinese Flute") as the text for his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. Of course Esperanto is chump change compared with Chinese, and Tan Dun (below) has quite an advantage when it comes to setting Mandarin texts. His acclaimed Peony Pavillion uses a text by Tang Xianzu (1598) delivered in Mandarin and English, and a score that uses a range of traditional Chinese instruments as well as synthesizer, sampler and pre-recorded tracks. The linguistic efforts of Lou Harrison, Tan Dun and many others guarantee a real future for music beyond borders.

Image credit: Esperanto - lacorteweb, Lou Harrison - , Tan Dun - tandunonline. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Music beyond borders


Pliable said…
And others are looking beyond the borders of language ....

Penguin takes its 'black classics' into China

Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Wednesday August 30, 2006


It has taken more than 70 years, but Penguin has finally arrived in China. The British publisher announced yesterday that classics such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, Crime and Punishment and Moby Dick would be translated into Mandarin and sold under its logo in the world's fastest growing book market.
The first 10 novels will go on sale in November under a licensing deal with a local partner that could eventually see the UK firm marketing Chinese literature and the works of Marx and Engels to a population of 1.3 billion people.

They are unlikely to hit the best seller lists in a country where, with the exception of Harry Potter, the most popular publications are usually management guides, self-help books and biographies of the rich and famous. But the British firm is betting that the titles, which also include Dante's Inferno, Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection, will have a long shelf life and beat off competition through the quality of their translations, expert introductions and copious footnotes.

Works by the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Melville are well known in China, though they are less popular than domestic classics such as The Dream of Red Chambers, which is enjoying a revival 200 years after it was written by Cao Xueqin.

With the economy surging, all publications benefit from a market that is growing by more than $300m (£160m) a year. Industry sources say 400 new titles are launched every day, though only 6% are translations. Reflecting the mood of a country in a hurry to get ahead, almost half of all publications sold are textbooks.

At the opening of the Beijing International Book Fair this week, Yu Yongzhan, deputy administrator of the government's press and publications administration, said the country's 573 publishing houses produced 6.4bn books, including 128,578 new titles, in 2005. With the addition of newspapers and magazines, he estimated the value of the publishing market in 2003 at 193.7bn yuan (£13bn).

But, despite more than 25 years of reforms that have transformed other parts of the economy, China's publishing sector has been slow to open to outside competition.

Penguin, which was founded in 1935, has previously sold the rights to English-language titles, but this is its first venture into the market under its own logo. It is a cautious first step. Under an agreement with Chongqing Publishing Group, the print run for the first 10 titles will be just 10,000 copies. At 20 yuan (£1.45) each, the revenue will hardly make an impact on the global balance sheet, but Penguin's chairman, John Makinson, said the company was looking at China as a long-term market. "We want to establish the Penguin brand in the Chinese market."

Rampant copyright piracy has deterred many foreign firms amid estimates that 50%-90% of book sales are of fakes. But Penguin said its "black classic" series would be less vulnerable than big hits such as Harry Potter because they sold more slowly.

Beijing bound

Cervantes Don Quixote

Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights

Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre

Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Charles Dickens Oliver Twist

Dante Divine Comedy

Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment

Goethe Faust

Leo Tolstoy Resurrection

Herman Melville Moby Dick

Pliable said…
Another outstanding example of language beyond borders was the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz who died yesterday. His work would probably have been little known outside his own country and language had it not been fore the 1988 award of the Nobel prize in literature.

For more on Naguib Mahfouz visit another blog beyond borders - Renaissance Research

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