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Literary Middlemen: How Dominant Languages Hinder the Literature of Minor Languages

In geopolitics, the pecking order of status and power is complicated on the micro level yet generally clear-cut on the macro level. We possess, after all, colloquial terms grounded in history and economics such as developed countries versus developing countries, Western Europe vs. Eastern Europe, etc. to easily explain socio-politico-economic divisions. In translation, however, the “geopolitics” of literary power is even more restrictive and less fraught with complications in terms of perspective, at least (though not exclusively) when it comes to translation into the Anglosphere. As translation scholar Michael Cronin writes, English, French and German form a “translation triumvirate” (Cronin, 1995, pg. 94). Countries such as Spain, The Netherlands, Norway, and even Italy may comprise a fundamental part of the same Western world as France and Germany while also wielding considerable economic influence around the world. Spin the globe towards literature and literary translation, however, and their status as nations suddenly becomes more readily comparable to countries like Poland and Hungary in terms of marginality.

Imperial soldier stands guard between books.

If the homelands of such literary titans as Dante Alighieri, Miguel de Cervantes, and Henrik Ibsen inhabit a marginal status below English, French and German, the minority languages of Europe – i.e. Basque, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Faroese – inhabit an even more distant margin. While the explosion of translations in the 21st century have included some of the most important writers in these languages – Merce Rodoreda from the Catalan, Máirtín Ó Cadhain from the Irish, Bernardo Atxaga from the Basque, Aleksander Majkowski from the Kashubian and more works by Ramon Llull, also from the Catalan – translators, publishers and the public appetite for translations have regrettably been less able to ride the wave of the 21st-century translation boom compared to the literature of other languages.

Individual uses magnifying glass to peer closer at smaller cultures.

The State of Europe’s Minority Languages

For historical and at times political reasons, the minority cultures of Europe found themselves under the dominion of a larger culture and have, to this day, not succeeded in forming an independent state for their culture. Sometimes a generally peaceful co-existence was the norm, as has often been the case with the Lusatian Sorbs (Stone, 1972). At other times the smaller culture went through difficult times on account of the larger culture. In one unique case, the Faroe Islands were a restricted strategic zone for the Danish navy, severing the Faroese people from developments in Europe; this cultural starvation was so successful that the first Faroese violinist did not exist until the 18th century (Jones, 1992)! In another case, Ireland's native language, Irish Gaelic, became marginalized through colonization. Today, despite numerous efforts to revive the language to match historical levels, Irish remains a minority language in its own country. While Ireland is the only country in Europe to experience modern-era colonialism, the current states of Maltese in Malta and Belarusian in Belarus are to some degree comparable to Irish Gaelic in terms of status and numbers.

The minority languages of Europe form a loose category and are largely related due to their marginal status. Catalan, for instance, has around 10 million speakers, a greater population of speakers than many independent countries (Venuti, 2009, pg. 40). Other languages like Sorbian and Faroese, for instance, have roughly 50,000-60,000 speakers. While these two languages share a similar number of speakers, language conditions are vastly different between these two. While Faroese benefits from being spoken in an isolated group of islands and has some of the greatest autonomy in the world for a non-independent entity, Sorbian, whose speakers do not possess their own federal region in Germany, are facing the possibility of language extinction in the near future (Welle, 2010). Another subcategory of minority languages can be garnered from languages that were once minority languages but are now majority languages, such as the languages of the Baltic States.

Monk in Ancient Ireland.

When it comes to literature, the minority languages of Europe also have radically different histories. In the case of Irish and Catalan, both have ancient roots; for the former, it is in the ancient sagas written around the end of the first millennium AD. For the latter, its roots go back to the important and unique philosopher, theologian and writer Ramon Llull. A landmark moment in the history of the minority languages of Europe was the publication and popularity in the 18th and early 19th century of James Macpherson's Ossian poems, or at least their "English translation" from Scottish Gaelic. Filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was also a poet, wrote a lot of his poetry in the Friulian language of northeastern Italy. And the first full-length novel in Manx, for instance, was only written in 2006! (Brian Stowell...) Whatever their status, all the minority languages of Europe are source-language intensive, according to Cronin: the majority of books in general come from translations to such a high degree their own literary production does not account for a majority of their literature (Cronin, 1995, pg. 88).

Indirect Translation

While it is natural that more translations from a major language like Catalan are bound to be translated into any target language than from a smaller language, a number of other obstacles exist that hinder a more free translation flow between languages. The largest and most important is indirect translation, or translation between major languages. In the past, this was not restricted to minority languages; the works of Stanisław Lem, for instance, were often translated second-hand from their French translations, as has been the case with the novels of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. A frequent cause of this is a shortage of translators translating from a particular small language. Czech, for instance, had many more advocates during the Cold War period than neighboring Eastern bloc nations due partly to the literary association of Czechoslovak dissidents like Vaclav Havel and Ludvik Vaculik: as a result, the slightly greater popularity of Czech-to-English translation meant that there were few, if any, literary middlemen blocking the way between Czech and English (while one can cite the situation with Milan Kundera, his penchant for the French language is unrelated to this phenomenon).

A gateway to nowhere in the most literally physical sense.

For many translators, but especially for the native speakers of the original language who care about literature, second-hand translations are equivalent to the worst movie adaptations of books in terms of how negatively they are viewed. But at the same time, the works of Lem and Kadare at least made it into English somehow. With the minority languages of Europe, they tend to get stuck.

Gateway To Nowhere

While those who write books in the “translation triumvirate”, as well as in highly populated countries have many potential readers to expose themselves with without needing translation, the situation is the opposite for writers in Europe’s minority languages. They need translations for many reasons, but a big reason is to show that a minority language is not stuck in a provincial bubble. Irish Gaelic has perhaps been the most successful, with Máirtín Ó Cadhain now hailed as a modernist whose greatness matches other legendary modernist writers (O Cadhain & Da Paor, 2021, pg. vii).

English translation of Cre na Cille, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

But while Ó Cadhain has gained enough of a reputation in literary circles to be translated from Irish Gaelic into a couple other languages directly, much of Irish literature is translated as a rule almost exclusively into English first before other languages; the same happens in reverse as well (Cronin, 1995, 90). This has led many Irish language authors to resist allowing their stories to be translated into English. As the editor of a bilingual Irish-English anthology wrote in the 80's: "the idea of [Irish to English] translation was frowned upon, the general idea being that those who wished to know what was happening in Irish should be able to read the language in the first place and any concessions would dilute the chances of revival in the language (Cronin, 1995, 91). In Bolger (the editors) view and those of others, it would be a defeat of sorts for the Gaelic Revival if, by being in English, readers could read their stories without caring at all about learning Irish.


Among literature and translation scholars, debates continue as to the best ways of encouraging the flourishing of the minor languages of Europe in literature. But as seen with Sorbian, the possibility of extinction for these languages is still a real threat. There is one strategy, however, that will change the face of translation should translators around the world seize the opportunity: defy the middlemen of the "translation triumvirate." Have, say, translators into Swedish translate directly from Irish Gaelic, rather than via English. Have, say, translators into Croatian translate directly from Basque. And so on. Not only would this foster unprecedented and even pioneering cross-cultural connections between European cultures: this multi-directionalism could also be applied worldwide, to both under-translated major languages as well as the minority languages of other cultures. Minority language cultures may not only discover more advocates for their cultures: it would change – and maybe even revolutionize – the nature of cross-cultural dissemination of literature worldwide.

Bibliographical References

Atxaga, B. (2014). Lone Man. Vintage.

Atxaga, B. (2018). Nevada Days. MacLehose Press.

Brian Stowell article in the FT | Learn Manx. (n.d.). Retrieved October 9, 2022, from

Cronin, M. (1995). Altered States: Translation and Minority Languages. TTR : Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction, 8(1), 85–103.

Jones, W. G. (1992). A History of Danish Literature (S. H. Rossel, Ed.). University Of Nebraska Press. Faroese Literature

Llull, R. (2013). The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Boydell Press.

Majkowski, A. (2008). Life And Adventures of Remus. Instytut Kaszubski.

O Cadhain, M. (2015). Dirty Dust. Yale University Press.

O Cadhain, M. (2017). Graveyard Clay. Yale University Press.

O Cadhain, M., & Da Paor, L. (2021). The Quick and the Dead: Selected Stories. Yale University Press.

RodoredaM., RelañoM., & Tennent, M. (2020). Garden by the sea. Open Letter.

RodoredaM., & Tennent, M. (2011). The selected stories of Mercè Rodoreda. Open Letter.

Stone, G. (1972). The smallest Slavonie nation, the Sorbs of Lusatia. Athlene Press.

Venuti, L. (2009). Catalan Literature. World Literature Today, 83(5), 39–41.

Welle, D. (2010). Germany’s Sorbian minority risks losing their language | DW | 09.06.2010.


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Felix Purat

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