Any linguist will tell you, language is not a static thing. Languages change, evolve, mutate, in a way similar to any living organism. Read Beowulf in its original Old English and this is clear.
But languages don’t just change. Sometimes, they disappear entirely. To a degree, this is natural and to be expected as a byproduct of natural selection, but when languages disappear, they don’t just take their vocabulary with them—they take entire cultures, histories, ideas. By some estimates, nearly half the languages spoken today will be lost within 100 years.
To the degree that poets are the keepers of language, it’s not surprising that they would find themselves drawn to the cause of endangered or otherwise forgotten languages. The act of translating a poem is more than just transferring a set of codes from one tongue to another, it is the art of attempting to resurrect what is lost, or otherwise hidden, by language. If Latin still lives, it is largely due to Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid (and perhaps medical school, but that's another story).
In the upcoming issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review (issue #45, coming soon!), we will feature poets translating work from seemingly forgotten languages. Yiddish, Euskera, Isthmus Zapotec, and Ladino--languages with unique histories and cultures, but a common story—the story of what has been displaced, often by forces that have nothing to do with “natural selection.”
In these translations we see, not only good poetry (though it cannot be forgotten that the poems are very good), but the assertion of poetic language against the forces of history. The ways in which the poem makes present that which otherwise would be ignored.
International Poetry Editor
To find out how to pre-order your copy of issue #45, due out next week, email HFR@asu.edu.