Esperanto
Author: David Poulson


Esperanto Literature: Part One

Author: David Poulson
Published on:September 4, 1998

Neither Ludovic Zamenhof nor his brother Alexander survived the First World War. After he had been again conscripted into the Russian Army in 1916, (he had previously served during the Russo-Japanese War), Alexander took his own life rather than take part in another war. And on April 14th, 1917 Ludovic Zamenhof died of heart failure. He was only fifty-seven years old.

Zamenhof's health had been deteriorating for years and even in 1911 he is reported as having told his other brother, Leon, that every international conference he attended was shortening his life by several years. But the remedy prescribed by doctors was the kind of medicine that Zamenhof was not prepared to swallow. It was "a long period of calm and rest."

It is not immediately obvious or easy to understand that although Zamenhof spent almost 15 years developing his International Language, once he had published it and it was accepted by thousands of people, his work, far from being over, had only just been done. During the period of time from his early teens until 1887, Zamenhof's role was similar to that of an artist or an inventor. Lonely work, as we have discussed, difficult work, attempted unsuccessfully by hundreds of people before and since, but nevertheless rewarding, stimulating and sustaining.

After 1887, however, Zamenhof suddenly found himself with a wide range of heavy responsibilities. Now he was required to be a teacher, a journalist, a lecturer, an organizer, and a translator. He never shirked any of these time-consuming responsibilities but he did not neglect his medical practice either. The enormous amount of extra work which Zamenhof undertook was carried out at night, after a long day with his patients and produced no financial rewards.

Furthermore, he had to fulfill all of those roles to the very highest level of excellence. All of his letters (and there were a huge number!), all of his speeches, all of his articles and all of his books had to be exemplary. Nothing but scrupulous accuracy, and the most carefully expressed explanations to written enquiries would do. His letters were lengthy and painstaking; his opening speeches to the international conferences even more so.

So, to fully appreciate Zamenhof's achievement, it is necessary to understand that not only did he produce a linguistic prototype, he also laid the foundations of a literature in all its forms - epic and lyrical poetry, dramatic verse, modern prose - and, in doing so, he ensured that the project which he began as a schoolboy would develop into a living language, used throughout the world and capable of expressing the most sublime thoughts of the human mind.

Zamenhof developed a literary style which has come to be known as "klasika," or "zamenhofa" Esperanto. Two of my friends, both outstanding Esperantists - one a member of the Esperanto Academy and the editor of the journal of the Australian and New Zealand Esperanto Associations, and the other a fine novelist and teacher - both still write in this classical style. Here is an example of how it looks.

Malproksime en la maro la akvo estas tiel blua, kiel folioj de la plej bela cejano, kaj klara, kiel la plej pura vitro, sed g^i estas tre profunda, pli profunda, ol povas atingi ia ankro...

A word for word translation reads as follows:

Far in the sea the water is so blue as the petals of the most blue cornflower, and clear, as the most pure glass, but it is very deep, more deep, than can reach any kind of anchor...

And the translation of the first line of my copy of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, published in Copenhagen, reads:

Far out at sea, the water is as blue as the petals on the fairest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass; but it is very deep, deeper than any anchorline can go...

(For an alternative version and the full text of this much-loved story, go to: The Little Mermaid

If you carefully compare Zamenhof1s version with the English translation two things are apparent. One, which is obvious to anyone with even the most elementary knowledge of Esperanto, is that Zamenhof's prose, like the ocean he is describing, is also "as clear as the purest glass."

The second is that although the Esperanto version is very similar, in structure and syntax, to the English version, there are nevertheless subtle but important differences. Even the punctuation is different.

Therefore, if somebody whose native language is English wishes to write in classical Esperanto, in other words in a style which will be not only comprehensible but aesthetically pleasing to anybody else in the world who has been taught Esperanto by a good teacher, he or she must make some effort to avoid the cadences and phrasing of his native language and emulate the stylistic model which Zamenhof created. In other words, he or she must first have a good knowledge of classical Esperanto literature so that it becomes second nature to think and to write in a way which embodies the style of Esperanto writers whose excellence is generally accepted.

In later articles I will be discussing some of these writers, but next week I want to talk more about the way Zamenhof proved that Esperanto was able to meet the challenge of reproducing some of the world's finest literary masterpieces.

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