Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire is a truly amazing individual. He has conducted research, taught and studied languages at home in his native Brazil, the USSR, China, the USA, Bolivia and many other countries. He has surpassed the legendary Cardinal Mezzofanti by studying more than 115 languages. This is a continuation of my translation of an interview that he did in 2003.
Janer – How many languages have you currently mastered and what are your criteria for having mastered a language?
Carlos – Mastering a language, even one’s own native language, is an extremely difficult endeavor. For me, however, mastering a language is having a theoretic and practical knowledge that allows me to communicate in it and, even with some difficulty, translate literary text. Based on these criteria – which are a little personal – I say that I have mastered about thirty languages. I can translate a few others but I have very little practical knowledge of them. When they ask me how many languages I speak (or that I have mastered) I prefer to answer that I know, or that I have studied, with philological and linguistic criteria, more than one hundred languages during a period of fifty consecutive years. Since graduating in Neo-Latin and Anglo-Germanic Languages [PUC, 1958] I’ve kept up a tradition of systematically studying at least one new foreign language at the beginning of each year. I already chose the next one: Wolof, which I started studying on January 1st of 2003.
Janer – Translating is impossible but necessary. What is a translation from Chinese to Portuguese like?
Carlos – I don’t think that translating is impossible. The proof of that is that there are truly significant translations that are excellent, especially when the source language and the target language belong to the same linguistic group and the cultures that they are connected to are close. In the introduction to my poetry anthology, Babel de Poemas, I try to show how classical Chinese poetry is almost untranslatable. You can translate part of it but not all. Why? It is because Chinese poetry is written with ideograms, a truly visual art. It is a tonal language and therefore musical. It’s lyricism, literature because of its poetic content. A Chinese poem is a combination of these three arts: painting, music and literature.
Chinese calligraphy is an art that consists not just of characters and words for transmitting a message but also of comprehending a visual element that expresses a meaning through its form. Therefore, ideograms have a high symbolic value that is untranslatable into other languages. The discovery of ideograms’ great esthetic value by Western poets, mainly Ezra Pound, and then by our own avant-garde Concretistas was a fruitful source of inspiration.
In short, we could say that the untranslatable part of Chinese poetry is not written but painted with a brush. It’s visual art. It is heard when read aloud as a combination of tones, music. What’s left to translate is somewhat abstract and generic. It’s like taking something consubstantial out of the body of poetry. It is precisely this intrinsic harmony that exists between content, form and an extremely concise style that makes classical Chinese poetry almost untranslatable.
Janer – According to the French linguist Claude Hagège, a language disappears every fifteen days. In other words, twenty five languages die every year. More than half of the Indonesian languages would be considered on their way out. The rhythm of language extinction, which was accelerated in the last century, should become much faster in this one. Does this deprive humanity or does it facilitate our communication?
Carlos – The Malaysian/Polynesian situation is very illuminating. These languages are spoken from Madagascar to Polynesia. More than 200 different languages are spoken in the Republic of Indonesia alone. Seeing as all of these languages belong to the same language family it was relatively easy to make Indonesian the country’s official language. It’s a lingua franca, the result of simplifying and assimilating many other local languages. Only the old Indonesian languages that have literary and historical importance, like Javanese (sixty million speakers), Sudanese, Toba Batak, Madurese, Balinese and a few others will be able to survive for very long. The rhythm of language extinction must continue as long as concerned countries do not have defined language policies, the necessary economic conditions and, above all, the support of competent linguists who can study and classify minority languages that are on the path to extinction. In order for them not disappear completely, it is absolutely fundamental for them not continue unwritten and for there to be schools that teach them. Theoretically, it obviously would be easier for mankind to communicate if there were only a few languages. However, it is equally certain that this would result in a great spiritual loss. Languages are fundamental, unique and unrepeatable aspects of the human experience. Moreover, they are the greatest characteristic of our species. Every language that disappears – especially without leaving a trace or having been studied and documented – means a species becomes extinct.
Janer – There was an alarming study conducted by UNESCO stating that no less than 5,500 of the world’s 6,000 languages will disappear within a century. Do you believe that this is possible?
Carlos – If the previously mentioned measures are not taken hundreds of languages will be inescapably lost in a short amount of time.
Janer – Could the expansion of the Anglo-American language and other big languages be the reason for this language massacre?
Carlos – The expansion of the Anglo-American language, as well as all other big international languages, is the logical consequence of military and economic conquests, as much today as it was in the past. The conqueror’s language generally prevails.
Janer – Your current project is to study Wolof. It is believed that this language is as dangerous to the minority languages of Senegal as English and French since it isn’t considered a foreign language and posses the prestige of the great African languages. Do you have any thoughts about this controversy?
Carlos – In Senegal there are ten native languages, six of which are promoted as national languages. Wolof is understood by 80% of the population. The six national languages – Pulaar, Serer, Jola, Mandinka and Soninke, in addition to Wolof – are taught in elementary school and transmitted by radio and television. Senegal has, therefore, a defined language policy and I do not believe that the other languages run the risk of disappearing, like in other countries. Senegal will probably continue with French being its official language and Wolof being its different ethnicities’ most important lingua franca.
Janer – There are linguists everywhere trying hard to save languages spoken by communities of fifty to one hundred people. Are these efforts worthwhile?
Carlos – It was precisely his knowledge of one of the most ancient pre-Colombian languages, Aymara, spoken by around two million people in Bolivia and Peru, that led Guzman de Rojas to prove that this native language has a third inclusion logic embedded in its syntax. It has a trivalent logic and not a dichotomist (x is true and y is false) Aristotelian logic which all Indo-European languages and all Western cultures have. The Aymara speakers have reasoned according to that principle for centuries which, today, is recognized and defended by a large number of scientists and philosophers: Lobachewsky, Vasilev and J. Lukasiewicz in mathematics. Planck in physics, J. Lacan in psychoanalysis and many more. This is just one persuasive example that proves how much linguistics, applied to studying two minority and exotic languages, can contribute to science and to the knowledge of mankind.
I am completely convinced that more profound studies of languages that communicate for non-Aristotelian cultures can make even more contributions to this field of research which studies the third inclusion. I think that Weltanschauung research about indigenous language speakers, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean speakers – in addition to other languages that do not contribute to the principle of contradiction and classical logic – will be able to confirm, definitively, the third inclusion hypothesis in the near future. It’s worth remembering that even Einstein admitted that the third exclusion principle, in classical science, is only a metaphysical postulate.
There is no doubt! It is worth the effort. It is linguistics’ absolutely highest priority.
Janer – Schools in the Basque Country and in Catalonia are giving more emphasis to the Basque and Catalan languages than to Spanish. In Spain there are parents who can no longer communicate with their children. In your opinion, is it at all profitable to give up a language spoken by hundreds of millions of people and to lock one’s self in a minority language spoken by only a few hundred thousand?
Carlos – Basque (Euskera) and Catalan are in two different situations. Basque is still a linguistic enigma. It has no proven scientific relationship with any other linguistic group. It is a unique language that is loved, studied and spread by its speakers. Unlike hundreds of African, Asian and Amerindian languages, Basque is far away from extinction. Quite the opposite in fact; interest in this language has grown enormously and it is being taught and spread by the media at every level.
Catalan is a language with an extremely rich history and a magnificent literature. It is certain to have a steady growth. If the language policy of the Spanish government continues to be as democratic as it is now, recognizing the autonomous provinces and different cultures, its fate will be secured. Only if there is a split in the state and those provinces become independent will their speakers prefer their native language and abandon Spanish.
Janer – There is a new language being proposed in Europe: Europanto. To speakare europanto, tu basta mixare alles wat tu know in extranges linguas. It would be the only language in the world that could be learned almost without any study. It’s 42% English, 38% French, 15% a mixture of other European languages and 5% fantasy. No est englado, non est espano, no est franzo, no est keine known lingua aber du understande. Wat tu know nicht, keine worry, tu invente. Does it have a future?
Carlos – I don’t think that Europanto has a future. Moreover, the issue of an artificial international language being accepted is more political than linguistic. From a purely linguistic standpoint Esperanto is a masterpiece, nevertheless, it has yet to be implemented it as it should be.
Janer – How many languages have you forgotten?
Carlos – That’s a good question…I’ve forgotten many, or rather, many of the languages that I have studied are quite deactivated. However, with a little effort they can be activated again. Translating, for example, is one of the best ways to not forget them. On the other hand, old age – I am 70 now – is an inevitable negative factor.
This concludes my translation of this fascinating interview with one of history’s greatest linguists. You can read the first half of the interview here in English. You can read the whole interview in Portuguese here. Portuguese speakers can also watch a clip of Dr. Freire being interviewed on Brazilian T.V. which has been posted on youtube.
Filed under: Polyglots