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Celebrating linguistic diversity in the Commonwealth

Posted on 30/07/2019
By Myn Garcia

The Commonwealth Foundation is committed to linguistic diversity. Our cultural initiative, Commonwealth Writers, is underpinned by the conviction that stories and storytelling have the power to contribute to social transformation. Our ambition is to influence and shape discourse in the public sphere. We share the hope of Jurgen Habermas that through ‘public opinion the state is able to be in touch with the need of society.’ Nancy Fraser argues that the public sphere can be seen as ‘a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk.’

‘ “This conversation between practitioners, editors, and publishers of translation is an urgent and necessary intervention. It offers us an opportunity to begin a serious discussion about how we can build an infrastructure for translation to push against the myopias that box us in and make our world smaller.” ‘

In March 2019, as part of UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, Commonwealth Writers convened a translation symposium in Penang, Malaysia. To support translation is to encourage writing in local languages and the proliferation of diverse narratives. The symposium signals the effort to investigate the imbalances caused by the relative lack of literary translation, starting with South Asia and Southeast Asia. It aims to advance the diversity of—and diversity in—creative expression, and the status of creators.

Bilal Tanweer (third from left) joined Muhammad Haji Salleh, Mamta Sagar, and Jayapriya Vasudevan for a discussion on the politics of translation following the translation symposium in Penang, Malaysia.

Writer, academic, and translator Bilal Tanweer, from Pakistan, reflected on his participation in the symposium: ‘This conversation between practitioners, editors, and publishers of translation is an urgent and necessary intervention. It offers us an opportunity to begin a serious discussion about how we can build an infrastructure for translation to push against the myopias that box us in and make our world smaller.’

‘We argue that dynamism in creative expression and its influence to shape public discourse is one of the manifestations of a diverse, robust, and vibrant civil society.’

On 9 July, the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize award ceremony was held in Quebec City, Canada. This was the first year that the prize started accepting Greek-language submissions, and a story translated from the Greek emerged as the overall winner. This indicates that there is a vast wealth of writing around the Commonwealth yet to proliferate into the mainstream. Cypriot writer Constantia Soteriou won the Prize for her story, ‘Death Customs’, translated by Lina Protopapa. It was also announced at the ceremony that the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will accept entries in French. This brings to 11 the languages that the Prize is open to receive entries in, which also includes Bengali, Chinese, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portugese, Samoan, Tamil, and Turkish.

Lina Protopapa asserts that translation is ‘a tool of resistance’ in a world that is increasingly turning inward. Linguistic diversity is in keeping with the values of the Foundation and its commitment to promote inclusion across the Commonwealth, which includes a range of differing literary traditions. We argue that dynamism in creative expression and its influence to shape public discourse is one of the manifestations of a diverse, robust, and vibrant civil society.

Myn Garcia is Deputy Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

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Commonwealth Short Story Prize

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