Languages Big & Small

In yesterday’s post, “On the Tyranny of Big Languages,” I wrote that “so-called ‘smaller languages’ are actually languages of fewer speakers.” I put it this way to get away from the notion of stature-as-importance, and trying, in the case of Europe, to give a neutral presentation of why English, French, German, and Spanish might be considered “big languages” in comparison to the languages of the authors featured in the linked-to article, viz. Bulgarian, Romanian, and Czech. And in the case of Europe, not only is that true, but English, French, and Spanish are languages spoken in countries around the world, making them even bigger both in population and power.

Originally thinking about languages big and small in the context of Europe meant I could bypass the question of whether Chinese–one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, but still a “less commonly taught language” (LCTL) in the west–was a big or small language. I meant to give examples about the translation of Chinese into European languages was dependent on first being translated into English or French (here’s another one: the Greek version of Soul Mountain 靈山 by Gao Xingjian 高行健 was translated from the French version by Noël Dutrait; and another: in Norway, editors “follow the line-by-line edits made by US and UK publishers” of Chinese translations), but then I mentioned that the first Chinese edition of what we know in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude was translated from Russian and English editions… Is this to suggest that Chinese is a small language, then?

Well, in terms of international power, yes (although it is one of the official languages of the UN), though in terms of population clearly not. More specifically, in terms of translation into other languages, I don’t think publishers around the world are looking at what’s successful in the Chinese market to base their decision on what to do next, and the translation market in China clearly looks to other countries’ successes. Big and small are relative and vague terms, but when it comes to translation, it’s pretty plain that China is a follower rather than a leader. If we apply this retroactively to understanding the world system, we might say that while it’s clear that the current world system is not a representational democracy, it’s also clear that China could do more–or act differently–to set an international cultural agenda.