Friday, March 16, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Travels with Esperanto

Anna Lowenstein was born in London, UK, but after spending some years in Edinburgh, Tel Aviv and Rotterdam has ended up in Palestrina, a small town in Italy near Rome. She is the author of two novels, and has been active for many years in the international Esperanto movement.
 
I speak Esperanto. You may ask What’s Esperanto? It’s an artificial language. You mean someone just sat down and made it up? That’s exactly what I mean. And I speak it.

A friend of mine, a language teacher, asked me some years ago whether I wouldn’t do better devoting my energies to learning a “real” language. Well, I suppose I could have done, but I know this: if I had devoted my time to learning Russian or Spanish instead of Esperanto, it would have taken me far longer, I would never have been able to speak them as well as a native speaker, and most importantly, I wouldn’t have done a fraction of the exciting things which I’ve been able to do thanks to Esperanto.

Through Esperanto I met my husband, through Esperanto I started writing, through Esperanto I’ve traveled to dozens of countries, through Esperanto I know people all over the world.

Esperanto was created in the 19th century by a young Pole, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. His aims were idealistic; he had seen the tragic consequences of linguistic and cultural misunderstandings in his home town of Bialystok. He believed that if the people of the world could communicate with a single common language, it would be a first step towards peaceful coexistence. A naïve hope of course - but my own experience as an Esperanto speaker suggests that he was not entirely wrong. After all, I have found myself in rooms where Iranians were chatting with Israelis, Americans with Cubans, all brought together by their shared enthusiasm for Esperanto.

Even if you’re hopeless at languages, you’ll be able to learn Esperanto. In his search for a second language for the world , Zamenhof considered and rejected the idea of using one of the existing national languages, or Latin (far too difficult!), and concluded that the best approach would be to create a language from scratch. Esperanto has totally regular grammar and spelling, and its vocabulary is based on European languages. If you want to know more about it, try looking here: http://en.lernu.net/enkonduko/pri_esperanto/kio.php

I learnt the language when I was 13 years old from a book I borrowed from the library. The book consisted of twenty lessons, and after working my way through them (incredibly easy, compared to French and Latin, which I was learning at school), I bought myself a book of short stories and a pocket dictionary, and started reading.

So, what kinds of things have I done in Esperanto? They’re so many that I can’t even begin to list them, but I could mention my job at the headquarters of the World Esperanto Association in Rotterdam, Netherlands, where among other things I started writing articles for the youth magazine.

I also founded and edited a magazine called Sekso kaj egaleco (Sex and Equality) in the late 70s, the heyday of the feminist movement. The magazine doesn’t look like much – it was typed on an electric typewriter (remember those?) and printed by a friend in the UK. But I doubt whether any other feminist magazine existed at the time which regularly received letters and articles from Australia, Bulgaria, both East and West Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland, USSR, the United States, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Latvia, France, Italy, Switzerland, Brazil, the UK, Estonia, Hungary, Iran, Belgium, Israel, India, Japan, Denmark, Korea, Benin, ….

After the first issue of Sekso kaj egaleco came out, I received a letter from two women in Japan requesting permission to publish the magazine in Japanese. They explained that the Japanese media did not give much information about the international situation of women, apart from the women’s liberation movement in the United States. After that, SkE came out regularly in a Japanese edition (far more professional in appearance than the Esperanto one!), while the Esperanto edition acquired many new readers and contributions from Japan. You can see me with Japanese collaborators  Yamakawa Setsuko and Hukunaga Makiko, displaying the Esperanto and Japanese editions of Sekso kaj Egaleco in the picture above.

I met my Italian husband at the World Esperanto Congress in Bulgaria in 1978, and three years later I came to live in Rome. Since we met using Esperanto, it was naturally the language we spoke at home – and still do, thirty years later. Our two sons also speak Esperanto, and when they were small, we used to take them every year to a meeting for Esperanto-speaking families in Hungary.

I started writing my first novel The Stone City in English, not in Esperanto, but without the experience I had already acquired in Esperanto journalism, I would never have had the courage to start work on a novel. The Stone City was published in 1999 by a small publisher, Citron Press, and in the meantime I translated it into Esperanto. The Esperanto edition came out in 2000, and is now in its fourth edition. The book also came out in French in 2010 (translated from Esperanto), and at the moment I’m corresponding with a Rumanian woman who has just finished translating it from Esperanto into Hungarian – mainly for her own amusement, I’m afraid, as I don’t know what chance there will be of finding a Hungarian publisher for it.

Esperanto has taken me not only to many different countries, but also to a virtual world, Second Life. Esperanto speakers have their own region within this virtual community, Esperanto-lando. I would never have imagined that one day I would find myself doing something like this, but about four years ago I started teaching a course there at advanced level (there are also two different courses for beginners, if anyone’s interested).

Party in Esperanto-lando
From time to time we also invite speakers to give a talk in our virtual classroom. Here, you see me giving a talk on Lord of the Rings http://vimeo.com/2141989 – you won’t be able to understand it if you don’t know Esperanto, but if you’re curious, you may like to listen to the first few minutes. (Hint: the first few sentences are in Old English, not in Esperanto – I started with a quotation from Beowulf, as Tolkien used to do when he was teaching at Oxford. Tolkien, by the way, admired Esperanto. As someone who had an interest in creating languages, he was able to appreciate Zamenhof’s achievement.)

So, in conclusion, do I wish I had spent my time learning Russian instead of Esperanto? No way! Russian would never have taken me to Japan, Finland, Brazil, China, Portugal, Lithuania, and all the other places I’ve visited thanks to Esperanto – and I’m sure I’d never have become a writer and journalist in Russian.

13 comments:

  1. What a wonderful way to see the world, and to be able to communicate with people from so many different places without a common language besides Esperanto. Thanks for sharing your story with us today, Anna.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks very much to you both for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks, Anna. Your post today has got me very interested in learning more about Esperanto. I delved into finding out more a few months ago and it seems everywhere I turn these days, Esperanto is mentioned. I have a feeling this is a sign!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a coincidence! Well, I hope you won't ignore the sign!

      Delete
  4. Margherita BracciMarch 20, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    Congratulations Anna! I really liked your article and totally agree with the words you used to explain why you stand for esperanto and why you chose that language rather than any other, such as Russian or Chinese. I never ventured into one of those exotic languages. What I can say is that it took me years to learn English and French well enough to become a translator; while it took me only a few holidays abroad, among esperanto speakers, to learn the language well enough to become a translator from that language, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know whether I exactly "chose" Esperanto, or whether it was more that my other attempts at language-learning just demanded too much time and energy. Of all the languages I've learnt (or started learning) at different times, Esperanto was the only one in which it was possible for me to achieve real fluency. Obviously my Italian is pretty good too after living thirty years in Italy, but it's never going to be as good as my Esperanto.

      Delete
  5. Anna, thanks for this very informative overview of Esperanto! My 4th-grade daughter learned about it from a visiting college professor last fall and after excitedly filling me in, she piqued my curiosity as well. But like Alli, I had trouble finding a solid overview like yours. I had been under the impression that it was a now-dead idea, a language that never caught on. Who knew it was part of such a vibrant international community! And such a great way to connect with folks all over the world and find such commonalities and kindred spirits. Just beautiful. Thanks again for sharing your marvelous experiences!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks very much for your comment! I'm pleased to see I have managed to get over some of the excitement of being part of the Esperanto-speaking community.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I had the pleasure of meeting Anna at the Esperanto Castle/Chateau, Gresillon (1974?) and bumping into her several times while we we both in Israel i.a. at Esperanto meetings (1976-1977?). Every few years we'll be at the same lectures at a Universala Kongreso, in particular the meetings for Atheist Esperantists, which she has co-organized well.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great blog! Easy to read. Very convincing. Mi tre sxatas gxin. Dankon. Joe (Coach at http://gelf.us)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Mi ĝuis la artikolon kaj la video estis bonega.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Oh, thank you! Yes, Neil must be my oldest Esperanto acquaintance (I mean, the one who goes furthest back!) And thanks to Joe and Lee too for their comments. / Dankon! Jes, Neil estas verŝajne mia plej malnova konato pere de Esperanto (tio estas, mia plej frua konato!) Kaj dankon ankaŭ al Joe kaj Lee pro iliaj komentoj.

    ReplyDelete