Esperanto
Author: David Poulson


Success and Censorship

Author: David Poulson
Published on:August 14, 1998

The next five years after the publication of La Unua Libro were very difficult for Ludovik and Klara Zamenhof. As our subject is the history of Esperanto, and not a biography of Dr Zamenhof, I will omit most of the painful details here and concentrate instead on matters which have a direct bearing on the language.

It would have been a shattering blow to Zamenhof if, on top of all of his other troubles, the books he sacrificed so much to publish and distribute had been ignored or rejected. However, as we know, that was not the case. Zamenhof had done his work too well. Very soon, he began to receive correspondence and even visits from people who had learned his language and, from the beginning, the history of Esperanto was enlivened with many interesting and gifted individuals. And with people who have been a menace to the movement.

Let me illustrate this last point by mentioning one from each category. After the appearance of the Russian and Polish versions of La Unua Libro, Zamenhof prepared a German version himself but entrusted an English translation to one of his earliest supporters who claimed to have a competent knowledge of English. How competent may be judged from the first sentence which read: "The reader will doubtless take with mistrust this opuscule in hand, deeming that he has it here to do with some irrealizable utopy."

Zamenhof's bad luck, of having invested his rapidly dwindling capital in such a dreadful travesty, was followed by the good luck of that translation falling very quickly into the hands of Richard H Geoghegan, a severely disabled but brilliant scholar who had just received a prize from Oxford University for his abilities in the Chinese language. (In later life he studied the Aleut language and became an authority on the early history of Alaska; he helped to decipher the Mayan Calendar; and contributed to research on early Chinese and Indian literature).

The bad translation of the English version of La Unua Libro did not prevent Geoghegan from recognising the excellence of Zamenhof's creation and he became the first person from Great Britain to learn Esperanto. He also offered to write a better translation: a generous offer which Zamenhof gratefully accepted. The earlier version was withdrawn and destroyed and Geoghegan's version published instead.

More and more people became enthusiastic supporters of the new language and in 1891, only four years after the appearance of the Russian original of La Unua Libro thirty three textbooks in twelve different languages were available. Zamenhof had to work until very late every night, not only writing new translations of classical works into Esperanto, but also answering the numerous letters he received from various countries.

His postal expenses were as heavy as his workload and we should remember that Zamenhof would accept no royalties from any of the works on Esperanto which were published.

Somehow, despite this already excessive work-load, Zamenhof also managed to found a journal, called La Esperantisto, for the new supporters of "La Internacia Lingvo." (As the title of the journal shows, people had already begun to use the term "Esperanto" to describe this new language.) The number of subscribers grew to more than 500 and we can assume that the journal was read by many more than this number as Esperanto clubs began to be formed spontaneously in a number of places. It began to look as though there was definitely something called a movement but then, in 1891, Zamenhof encountered a stroke of really bad luck.

One of the most famous of the early supporters of Esperanto was the great Russian novelist and idealist, Tolstoy who claimed, rather improbably, to have "learned" Esperanto in only two hours. Well, I know from personal experience that a former student of mine (who was completing a PhD in linguistics at the time) attained a good working knowledge of elementary Esperanto in only three weeks, but two hours is stretching credulity a bit far! Probably Tolstoy meant that after two hours study he had come to a clear understanding of the underlying principles of Esperanto and fully grasped the 16 Rules. That indeed is possible.

In an effort to help Zamenhof, Tolstoy contributed two articles to the new journal but this attempt to provide assistance backfired in the worst possible way. Tolstoy was in such disfavour with the Tsarist regime, that the appearance of those articles resulted in the immediate suppression of the journal...at least within the Russian Empire where the majority of its subscribers lived.

It looked as though the emerging Esperanto movement would be destroyed before it had even got properly started.

(Some of Tolstoy's sentiments can be read here: Tolstoy)

And the issue of censorship is well-covered by a Suite101 topic which you will find here: Censorship

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IN ENGLISHPAGHOJ EN ANGLA LINGVO
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