Thinking Global Language Justice: Notes from the Field

On September 22-23, 2017, over fifteen poets and translators from across the world arrived to New York for a workshop on Poetry as Pluriverse: Thinking Global Language Justice. Hosted by the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society as part of a seminar supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the workshop explored the complexities of multilingualism in spatial and literary zones. This two-year Sawyer Seminar series kicked off with dramatic poetry readings in six different languages with translators bridging the many conversations between them.

The line of luminary presenters at “Poetry as Pluriverse.” From left, back row: Chinese poet Bei Dao, X, Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, Senegalese poet Mohammed Bennis, NYC-based poet Anne Waldman, Navajo/Diné poet Orlando White, event co-organizer Anupama Rao. From left, front row: Columbia dean David Madigan, Chinese poet Zhai Yongming, Indian poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen and friend, event co-organizer Lydia Liu and friend.

One component of the day-long workshop was a discussion on the bolstering of digital technologies in the achievement of language justice. Daniel Kaufman, founder and executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance, began the session with a discussion on Mixteca, an indigenous language originating in Mexico whose speakers were displaced from their land after it was declared an ecological disaster zone, making it no longer arable. When many of the Mixteca speakers migrated to New York City, it became a language of “the home and the telephone” – stigmatized and relegated to conversations that took place within the privacy of closed communities. Kaufman posed the question of what language justice would mean to languages like Mixteca, and how might we further parse the close links between the loss of biodiversity and linguistic diversity.

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This was followed by a presentation on the creation of the Ethiopic script by Isabelle Zaugg, a postdoctoral research scholar at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Zaugg examined the early digitization of Amharic by diasporic communities, questioning how “digitally disadvantaged languages” could be supported by emerging technologies to increase usage and adoption by individuals across generations. The creation of common universal standards like Unicode created a platform through which an increasing number of languages could be digitized. The integration of Ethiopic into these standards raised questions of how digital vitality could be measured and how linguistic integrity could be maintained in the wake of the quantification of language.


A robust question-and-answer session followed these presentations, with important discussions on the threat to linguistic diversity in the face of standardisation and the dangers of constraining linguistic fluidity through a conformity to universal norms. These discussions flowed over into the smaller workshops that followed the presentation – one on translation and language justice and the other on form and the pluriverse.


By Anish Gawande and Josue Chavezundergraduate seniors at ICLS. The two-day kickoff event of the Sawyer Seminar Series in Global Language Justice took place on September 22-23, 2017 at Columbia University.

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