Tri-lingual system proposed for world communications

by Ezra Pound

May 15, 1939

Note: The writer of the following article, Ezra Loomis Pound, although not well-known in Japan, is one of the few foreigners who made enthusiastic introduction abroad of Japanese “Noh” plays and stands shoulder to shoulder with Ernest Fenollosa as a scholar devoted to the study of Japanese culture. Mr. Pound has a brilliant literary record and is at present visiting the United States. — Editor

Rapallo, Italy — I am reading The Japan Times with pleasure in the hope of getting some European or American news that hasn’t been doctored to suit one interest or another. The difficulty in writing to a new public is to know what they have already heard. One doesn’t want to bore the reader by telling him what his aunt Jemima has told him or what he has read in the week before last’s picture supplement.

Perhaps I had better begin with what has not yet happened. The Italian papers are full of news of the cultural pact with Japan [a cultural agreement signed ahead of the Tripartite Pact of Sep. 27, 1940]. I have three proposals for the Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai [Society for International Cultural Relations — a government body for promoting Japanese culture abroad that was active between 1934 and 1945]. First: I respectfully ask consideration for a bilingual or trilingual edition of the hundred best books of Japanese and ideogramic literature.

The Leica grainless film and microphotographic processes now make such an edition commercial. With microphotography there is no reason for not using ideogramic pages taken direct from works of master calligraphers. We in the West now have only a few such pages, notably a few from ideograms written for Ernest Fenollosa by one of the Court masters.

Secondly: The whole of the Noh could be filmed, or at any rate the best Noh music could be registered on sound-track. It is 15 years since Tami Koume’s [Japanese painter Tamijuro Kume] friends sang me fragments of Noh in Paris but the instant I heard that all-too-brief reproduction here in Rapallo (in a simple village cinema) I knew whence it came. You have there a treasure like nothing we have in the Occident. We have our masterwork: Mozart, Purcell, Janequin, Dowland, but it is a different masterwork and one is not a substitute for the other.

Thirdly: I propose a tri-lingual system for world communications. None of the schemes for esperanto or other universal languages is at all satisfactory. Ogden’s [British linguist and philosopher Charles K. Ogden] proposals for basic English could be developed. He has not the necessary tact or humanity to apply them. The greatest practical, that is possible, simplification would be a triple system: Ideogram, with the Japanese sound (syllabic) comment, Italian and English.

Culture in retrospect needs more languages, and no one wants to constrict it. Greek, Latin and as much else as you like: all very enjoyable.

Current culture could conceivably receive great aid from this triple basis. I am not proposing this with any intention of slighting French and German. The present political alliance would suggest German, Italian and Japanese. I sacrifice one party on either side of the immediate division of forces. I do this on strictly practical and linguistic grounds.

French contains a great treasure but, as language, it is tricky. The foreigner cannot learn it. Its sounds are difficult and its letters are not uniform in connotation. You say: neither are the English. True! but English has attained a syntactical plainness that is nowhere exceeded save in ideogram.

There is also the question of actual present diffusion.

A great many Germans speak English. English is common to the U.S.A. and the British Empire. It is already a common tongue for dozens of Indians who speak different languages in India. Ideogram as a written communication touches all Japan and China. Italian is the simplest of the Latin tongues. Its spelling is the clearest. (Both Spanish and French are full of tricks of speech that are not clearly printed on the page.)

I can argue my reasons for picking these three media. I could fill most of today’s paper doing it, but I think the reader will save his own time by thinking about them, and weighing up the gains against the sacrifices. The quantity of cultural heritage should be set against the sacrifices. Latin contains the matter of a great deal of Greek. I mean it [Greek] has been translated into Latin. There are great claims for German. I don’t think Russian has much claim. The Latin treasure is fairly accessible to anyone who knows Italian. Italy is a rising nation. South Americans speak a good deal of Italian as well as Spanish.

I will answer serious objections if anyone has the same set after a week’s reflection that they have on first reading this note.

Excerpts, edited for space but retaining the language of the time, from four of the articles Ezra Pound contributed to The Japan Times between May 1939 and September 1940 are used with permission from New Directions Publishing Corporation. © 1991 The Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust