Common Language for World Organization


By WILHELM SOLZBACHER, Secretary of Research, Center of Information Pro Deo, Lecturer and Linguist

Delivered before the Esperanto Interlanguage Association, New York, N. Y., December 16, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 407-409.

WHEN President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill meet Marshal Stalin or Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leaders of the United Nations cannot talk to one another directly although each one of them is to a certain extent a linguist. Both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill speak excellent French and have some knowledge of several other languages. Marshal Stalin, whose native tongue is Georgian (which is as different from Russian as it is from English), understands four or five of the languages spoken in the Soviet Union. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, having studied in Tokyo, knows Japanese. The four men together are probably able to speak or understand fifteen or sixteen languages, but they have no common tongue. If the four of them were ever to meet at the same time, every word would have to be spoken in three different languages, however strongly they may believe in One World.

It may be assumed that the very best interpreters are employed when the leaders of the United Nations meet and that misunderstandings due to faulty translations are thus limited to a minimum. They are never entirely avoided. When the veil of secrecy which surrounds important conferences is lifted, we shall certainly hear stories similar to those which have been told about the linguistic handicaps at the Peace Conference of Versailles. I do not wish to imply that linguistic difficulties are the principal obstacle to better international relations or that they are as important as ideological and political differences; but when negotiations are precarious, when the atmosphere is tense, when there is, consciously or unconsciously, a great deal of mutual distrust, all this is made worse and more complicated by faulty translations and linguistic misunderstandings.

As it is utterly impossible in international life to use many languages at a time, there has been a tendency towards giving some languages, for instance English and French, a monopoly. Usually it is discovered, however, that the use of these privileged languages leaves many problems unsolved, so that more and more other languages are given semi-official standing until matters become so complicated that the demand for one interlanguage cannot be silenced.

In this respect, the example of the League of Nations, the International Labor Office and the Permanent Court of International Justice deserves careful consideration at this time because the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals suggest a world organization (called "The United Nations") which is essentially of the League type. As the Proposals do not contain a single word on the linguistic aspect of the planned collaboration, it may be assumed that matters will be handled in approximately the same way as in the League. There may be one substantial difference: In the League, the two official languages happened to be the national languages of the two dominant powers, Great Britain and France; in the United Nations, Russia will play such an important role that it may well be necessary to add Russian to the official languages. The fact that the study of Russian has recently been made compulsory in all secondary schools of Bulgaria and liberated Yugoslavia and that a Rumanian decree has instructed school authorities to put class-rooms at the disposal of Russian language classes seems to indicate that Russia is interested in promoting the study and use of its principal language outside its own borders.

The League of Nations, the International Labor Office and the World Court were forced by circumstances to use a large number of languages in addition to English and French. Article 39 of the Statute of the Court (as amended by the Protocol of September 14, 1929) reads:

"The official languages of the Court shall be French and English. If the parties agree that the case shall be conducted in French, the judgment will be delivered in French. If the parties agree that the case shall be conducted in English, the judgment will be delivered in English. In the absence of any agreement as to whichlanguage shall be employed, each party may, in the pleadings, use the language which it prefers; the decision of the Court will be given in French and English. In this case the Court will at the same time determine which of the two texts shall be considered as authoritative. The Court may, at the request of any party, authorize a language other than French or English to be used."

The next-to-the-last sentence admits implicitly that faulty and unclear translations are sometimes inevitable in the two-language system, even when experienced international lawyers make them.

Numerous visits to the League of Nations Secretariat, through the front entrance as well as through the back door, have acquainted me with the linguistic aspect of the League's activities. My first direct contact consisted in an application for a position in the Translating and Minute-Taking Department of the League Secretariat in Geneva. I got as far as the written examination and the interview. Every applicant had to be absolutely perfect in one of the official languages of the League, very good in the other and in a third language of his choice, and had to have some knowledge of a fourth language. Altogether at least three dozen languages have been used in the League, and the staff of the Secretariat represented probably the finest group of practical linguists that has ever been gathered. I paid many other visits to the League Secretariat, from 1931 to 1937, some of them as a member of delegations of international organizations, some as a leader of study groups, and some as a research student. In one case I was responsible for planning which languages should be spoken by different members of a delegation which came to present a petition. It proved to be quite difficult to reconcile different needs of efficiency and "press appeal."

The League tried to discourage the use of other than the official languages, not always with success. At the League Assemblies, the rule was that the official languages should be used, whenever possible, and that Delegates using another language had to bring their own translator. Sometimes languages were used for which the League Secretariat had no experts available, for instance when the Negus of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, came in person to Geneva in 1937 to plead the cause of his country—in Amharic.

In the International Labor Office, which was in general more progressive than the League, matters developed in such a way that German became for all practical purposes a third official language, and Spanish in some respects a fourth. The official publications of the I.L.O. included a monthly bulletin in Esperanto.

Linguistic difficulties were so obvious in the work of the League that there was from the very beginning a lively interest in the problem of adopting one, practical, neutral and easy interlanguage. In the Assembly several resolutions were introduced in favor of Esperanto, signed by a dozen Delegations (South Africa, Persia, China, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Brazil, Chile, etc.). They were referred to the League Secretariat with the request to "study" the problem and the Esperanto movement. The Under Secretary General of the League, Dr. Inazo Nitobe (one of the few truly liberal statesmen Japan has produced), attended in 1921 as an official observer the Thirteenth World Esperanto Congress in Prague, with 2,561 Delegates present. He knew little Esperanto when he arrived in the Czechoslovak capital; a few days later, however, he was able to follow all discussions, and he grew very enthusiastic about Esperanto.

A year later, a Report entitled "Esperanto as an International Auxiliary Language" was published in English and French by the League Secretariat. Compiled in a thorough way by an impartial international authority, this Report strongly recommending Esperanto, has remained ever since one of the most important documents on the Interlanguage problem. Its conclusions can be summarized as follows:

1. Leaving aside the question of a diplomatic language, the need for an interlanguage for direct international relations appears to be keenly felt everywhere.

2. The majority of the eminent scientific and' commercial organizations, which have studied the problem, declare themselves in favor of a neutral and simplified language, which would in no way threaten the prestige of the national literary languages, and they generally recommend Esperanto.

3. Esperanto appears to be effectively the most perfect, apparently the simplest, and in any case the most widespread of the languages proposed for agreement.

4. Esperanto fulfills the role of an interlanguage, and abundant usage for writing and speaking has given it the qualities of a living and flexible language, already developed and capable of further enrichment.

5. "The use of Esperanto appears to spread the spirit of international solidarity, entirely in harmony with the aims of the League of Nations.

The League of Nations Report on Esperanto should k carefully studied by all those who will be engaged in working out the technical details of the future world organization, "The United Nations."

The International Labor Office went one step further than the League. It not only sent its representatives to several World Esperanto Congresses, but it made an experiment in the practical use of the Interlanguage by mailing out several news items in Esperanto, requesting Esperantists throughout the world to translate them into their native languages and have them published in national and local newspapers. The results were so splendid that the I.L.O. decided to issue a monthly bulletin in Esperanto. It was published for many years, printing about 10,000 copies a month, which were distributed free, mainly as a supplement to the magazine "Esperanto" organ of the Universal Esperanto Association in Geneva (which has its headquarters now in the Palais Wilson, the former League of Nations Secretariat.) If it is allowed to make a critical remark regarding the bulletin, in view of the possibility of future publications of the same kind, one might point out that it was somewhat too "dry" and technical to appeal to a general audience, and too small to satisfy the specialist. The best solution would be, in my opinion, to bring out a small bulletin for free circulation, containing material written in a popular and lively style; in addition, a more voluminous journal, containing technical and statistical data, could be sold on a subscription basis, which would cover part of the cost, and could be sent free to a small selected mailing list only.

When I visited the I.L.O. for the first time, I decided to test the use of Esperanto in that organization and asked the young lady at the reception desk for an appointment with an official who could give me information in Esperanto. I was escorted, almost without waiting, to the office of one of the Executives of the Publications Department, an Englishman whose name I cannot recall. He spoke excelled Esperanto and gave me all the information I wanted. I did not try the same procedure at the League Secretariat where visitors without official standing were not treated as courteously as at the I.L.O. I know, however, that there was a great many Esperantists among the employees of the League

as well as among those of the I.L.O. In the correspondence of the I.L.O., Esperanto ranked very high among the languages used, occupying the sixth or seventh place.

Great efforts were made in the League of Nations to obtain further results in the direction of the practical use of Esperanto in international life, and of an international agreement concerning its introduction into the schools. The results were not entirely satisfactory for a variety of reasons, one of them being the reluctance of the "big" nations, in particular France, to engage on a road which they feared might lead to consequences harmful to the worldwide importance of their national tongues. For a long time, the Persian Delegation at the League was the headquarters for work in favor of Esperanto, and the strongest support came from other "small" nations. It is not unlikely that in the United Nations matters will be similar. Efforts will be in vain unless the representatives of the United States, Great Britain, Russia, France, and China are well informed on the Interlanguage problem and sympathetic to its only practical solution: Esperanto. The Esperanto movement in these "key countries" will therefore have a special responsibility in the crucial years to come.