ICWT’s International Perspectives

In a panel discussion and poetry reading hosted by UC Irvine’s International Center for Writing and Translation on Thursday afternoon, three visiting poets explored issues of language, translation, and the relationships between English and the languages of colonized nations. The event, titled ‘Out of English: Korean, African and Irish Visions,’ was held in the Humanities Instructional Building and featured poets Hwang Chi-Woo, Kofi Anyidoho and Nuala Ni Dhomnaill, from Korea, Ghana and Ireland, respectively.
‘Out of English’ was part of the ICWT series, ‘From Here to There: Languages in Conversation.’ The event was introduced by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, professor of English and director of the ICWT, and moderated by Laura O’Connor, professor of English. In her opening presentation, O’Connor discussed the translation of poetry from other languages into English, which is ‘the very language whose dominance marginalizes [the poets’] own cultures.’
Nuala Ni Dhomnaill, who lived in England for the first five years of her life and then moved to her family’s native Ireland, talked about why she has chosen to write exclusively in Gaelic. When the Tudor monarchy of England set out to conquer Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dhomnaill said, they made sure to ‘kill the poets, [because] while the poets lived the language lived.’ The English rulers sought to make the Irish more ‘governable, domesticated [and] civilized’ by enforcing the use of the English language. Eventually, Gaelic fell out of favor with many Irish, the majority of whom now speak English on a daily basis.
Dhomnaill’s goal is to revitalize the Irish culture and language through the poetic use of Gaelic. She writes poetry in Gaelic, allowing translation into English. She also embraces the folklore of Ireland and the oral traditions that have sustained it. The Irish possess ‘a folklore deeply imbued by literary values,’ Dhomnaill said, and she strives to give credibility to these stories that have been trivialized in the past.
Also featured in the ‘Out of English’ event was Hwang Chi-Woo, who has published six collections of poetry and chairs the Department of Playwriting at the Korean National University of Arts. In his presentation, Hwang referred ironically to ‘the new Esperanto code, English.’ He noted that as English spreads, it impinges upon other languages and cultures.
Hwang discussed the influence of colonizing powers on Korea, its people and its language.
‘Through centuries, the Korean culture had to absorb Chinese and then Japanese influences,’ Hwang said.
Japan occupied Korea during World War II, and after the war, American culture and the English language came to figure prominently in Korea. When he was in high school, many classes were taught in English.
‘I read the works of all the English [writers],’ Hwang said, ‘it was a deaf-mute system without room for personal thought.’ Hwang’s plays and poems have contributed to a new intellectual atmosphere in Korea, in which artists reclaim Korea’s traditions and culture.
Kofi Anyidoho, who teaches at the University of Ghana, spoke only his native language of Ewe until he learned English in school at the age of nine. He was subsequently forced by his missionary teachers to use it exclusively. ‘If you dared speak your mother tongue at school, there was a lot of humiliation waiting for you,’ Anyidoho said.
Anyidoho found the experience of learning in English to be frustrating. Poetry became ‘a series of meaningless puzzles,’ Anyidoho said, ‘because we were too busy struggling with the grammar of English.’
Anyidoho initially wrote his poetry in English, but decided to switch to Ewe after he realized that his own family, who had given him support and help, could not read his work. He then translated all of his English work into Ewe, and wrote only in Ewe from that point on, often translating the Ewe into English.
As he recovered his native language, Anyidoho came to see the spoken word as essential to the power of African literature.
‘For me, poetry is song, performance,’ he said. ‘In the beginning was not the word; in the word was the beginning.’ Because of the expressive quality of spoken poetry as well as its ability to reach those in Africa who are non-literate, Anyidoho decided to circulate recordings of his poetry and includes compact discs with some of his books.
The ‘Out of English’ panel discussion was followed by a poetry reading that O’Connor renamed a ‘poetry sounding.’ In his closing remarks, Ngugi echoed an evocative comment made by Anyidoho: ‘Meaning is sounding, sounding meaning.’