By the time you finish reading this, three or four languages will die

There’s a scene in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, where the filmmaker goes around the McMurdo base in Antarctica, interviewing the different people there. All sorts of characters pop up.

One of them was a linguist who made mention of a thesis he was writing before moving to Antarctica.

His thesis concerned the preservation of ho-chunk, the language of the Winnebago people in the USA, and, according to Herzog, how academia & powers-that-be at the university discarded this linguist’s research due to claims of there being white and black magic embedded in the ho-chunk language. The linguist appears briefly in the documentary and leaves with a memorable quote:

“So just imagine, you know, 90% of languages will be extinct probably in my lifetime. It’s a catastrophic impact to an ecosystem to talk about that kind of extinction. Culturally, we’re talking about the same thing. I mean, you know, what if you lost all of Russian literature, or something like that? If you took all of the Slavic languages and they just went away, you know, and no more Tolstoy.”


It’s been mentioned here before, UNESCO has an online version of their Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and it allows to search by country, region, languages, etc., of all the different languages in extinction or in danger of extinction.

Some results that pop up are staggering. Seeing the vast amount of dying languages reduced to colored points on a map like the nearest ice creamery on a GPS map is shocking.

Where to go from here? In past posts I’ve theorized the act or the service of translating as many things: as a form of time-travel, as a literal God-given gift, as a living microcosm of Heraclitean philosophy; but this post brings a slightly more sincere analogy. Probably not even an analogy, but more like point of fact.

Translations as language, and more than that, as cultural preservation. Translations as a deterrent to cultural genocide.

The act of translating one text from one language to another has of course many purposes, all of them useful, varying in degrees of importance, but seeing it this way adds another dimension to the service: the preservation of languages, of different texts, of different cultures, being able to massively communicate it, preserve it, and be understood by all.


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