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Translation: From one world to another

To translate is “to say almost the same thing”, in the words of the Italian writer Umberto Eco. A whole world is contained in this “almost”. To translate is to confront the other, the different, the unknown. It is often the essential prerequisite for those who want to access a universal, multiple, diverse culture. It is therefore no coincidence that the League of Nations took up the issue in the 1930s, envisaging the creation of an Index Translationum.

Taken over by UNESCO in 1948, this Index allowed the first census of translated works in the world. Two years later, the Representative Works programme was launched to translate masterpieces of world literature. UNESCO's support for the publication last year of a lexicon of words from indigenous languages of Mexico that are untranslatable into Spanish is a continuation of these efforts.

Although their disappearance was predicted as early as the 1950s, translators – who are most often women – have never been as numerous as they are today. The machines developed in the aftermath of the war have not been able to outdo this behind-the-scenes profession. Nor have digital translation tools, which have become the standard feature of our globalized conversations, even if they have contributed to transforming the job.

This is because language is more than just a means of communication. It is that, and much more. It is what written or oral works make of it, contributing to forge what is sometimes called the ‘genius of the language’, which the most powerful applications cannot restore. 

For to translate is to question the unconsidered in language, to confront its equivocations, to bring to light the richness, the gaps and the levels of meaning that are revealed in the passage from one language to another. It also means, through this confrontation with the other, questioning one's own language, one's culture, one's self. It is therefore essential to preserve the vitality of multilingualism so that everyone can speak and think in their own language. This is what is at stake in the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), which draws attention to the critical situation of many languages threatened with extinction. 

In an era marked by the quest for identity, translation remains an irreplaceable remedy against withdrawal from others. For without it, as the Franco-American author George Steiner wrote, “we would live in provinces surrounded by silence.”

Agnès Bardon


Culture, a global public good

MONDIACULT 2022 – the World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development is part of a long-standing commitment by UNESCO to foster an inclusive dialogue on culture at all levels of society. As in 1982, MONDIACULT will once again be held in Mexico, where the buzzing intellectual and collaborative atmosphere led to a redefinition of the notion of culture. This broadened and deepened definition includes fundamental human rights, value systems, traditions and beliefs. 

Forty years is not a long time, but it is long enough to allow us to look back at the public actions  in favour of culture catalyzed by UNESCO over the past decades, as well as to look towards the future. The very purpose of MONDIACULT is to build cultural policies adapted to our time, given the immense challenges facing us – challenges that cannot be achieved without a renewal of global solidarity.

As the world gradually recovers from a pandemic not seen for over a century, something has irrevocably changed. The crisis has revealed the strong interdependence between our societies and has exposed both the gaps and the strengths in each sector. The cultural sector is still suffering from the effects of the health crisis, which disproportionately affected regions and creative areas. Covid-19 has had a particularly severe effect on women and has deepened gender inequalities. The crisis has exposed a number of fault lines, including the total disruption of tourism, the looting of archaeological sites, the casual nature of cultural employment, the precarity of the status of artist and of the business models of museums and cultural institutions, digital exclusion, and unequal access to cultural content. On the other hand, it has also vividly highlighted the impact of culture on every area of human development, from inclusion to education, from well-being to resilience, from dialogue to peacebuilding.

To coincide with MONDIACULT 2022, this issue of the UNESCO Courier presents some illustrations of the importance of culture as a vector for change in our increasingly interconnected and multicultural societies. The reality of these plural societies calls on us to develop public policies adapted to a variety of different contexts, to rethink the drivers of social cohesion and inclusion, of citizen participation and economic, social, and environmental development through culture. Our generation has a duty to renew the social contract and to accompany future generations in learning positively about cultural diversity, in all its complexity as well as in its capacity for enrichment. This generation must also ensure the transmission of knowledge, history and traditions through the preservation of heritage, and reinforce solidarity at all levels of our societies. 

Culture is what defines us in space and time – our past and present roots, our prospects. Culture is an inexhaustible and renewable resource, which adapts to changing contexts and which speaks to humans first and foremost through their capacity to imagine, create and innovate. Culture is our most powerful global public good. In the words of Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, culture has a role “as a desirable end in itself, as giving meaning to our existence”. Today, more than ever, we need to find meaning, we need universality, we need culture in all its diversity. 

Ernesto Ottone R.
Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO

Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico.
Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico.

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Culture: global public good
July-September 2022