To mark National Poetry Day, the UK’s National Poetry Library launched a project to collect and preserve poems in endangered languages.
Via an international callout, members of the public are invited to submit a well-known poem in a language that is endangered or under threat according to the UNESCO map of endangered languages. These poems will be collected in both written and audio formats for their archives with the aim of preserving at least one poem in each language received. Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and translator-in-residence Stephen Watts will work to preserve the poems in both their original languages and in English.
To launch the project, Southbank Centre is also commissioning four internationally renowned poets to write new poems in languages under threat or which have been lost to them personally through displacement or circumstance. Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke Nation, will write a poem in the Native American endangered language Mvskoke (Creek, Seminole, Maskókî, or Muskogee); Northern Irish poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn will write in Irish Gaelic, a language classed as “minority” in Northern Ireland; Iraqi poet Nineb Lamassu will write in Assyrian, a language not officially recognized in Iraq; and Ugandan poet Nick Makoha will write in his mother tongue, Luganda, a language he lost when he was forced to flee Idi Amin’s dictatorship as a boy.
Chris McCabe, National Poetry Librarian, said, “We’re launching the Endangered Poetry Project with the aim of holding on to as much poetry as we can for future generations to hear, read, translate, enjoy, and pass on to other people. Who can imagine a world without classics such as Beowulf and the Odyssey that were written in languages that people no longer speak? We’re calling out to people everywhere to send us the poems they know so future readers can enjoy them just as much as they do.”
Lamassu, who is working with Iraqi Assyrian refugees to preserve the poems they are writing on scraps of paper in refugee camps, told the Guardian, “Any loss of any language is a loss for humanity overall… No language should die, because they are all beautiful. Imagine walking into a botanical garden and seeing just one flower—this is what makes the world beautiful, this diversity in language, and culture, and religion. Many think I’m crazy because I still coin words in this language, I still have hope, I am still fighting what is seen as the definite death of it. But I am not alone, there are many others. When I tell my son ‘I love you’ in my own language, both he and I know it means more, because words mean more in one’s own language.”