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Using Public Domain Works to Preserve Language

This morning, I read an excellent article that reveals yet another powerful role the Public Domain can play in the world around us–the preservation of language. The article shares how Demetrio Túpac Yupanqui has taken the 1605 classic, “Don Quixote” and has translated the majority of it into Quechua, the language of the Incas in an effort to keep the language alive. Below is an excerpt from the article:

“SOMEWHERE in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago.”

Simple enough, right? But not for Demetrio Túpac Yupanqui.

Instead, he regales visitors to his home here in this gritty port city on Lima’s edge with his Quechua version of the opening words of “Don Quixote”: “Huh k’iti, la Mancha llahta suyupin, mana yuyarina markapin, yaqa kay watakuna kama, huh axllasqa wiraqucha.”

Mr. Túpac Yupanqui, theologian, professor, adviser to presidents and, now, at the sunset of his long life, a groundbreaking translator of Cervantes, greets the perplexed reactions to these words with a wide smile.

“When people communicate in Quechua, they glow,” said Mr. Túpac Yupanqui, who at 85 still appears before his pupils each day in a tailored dark suit. “It is a language that persists five centuries after the conquistadors arrived. We cannot let it die.”

Once the lingua franca of the Inca empire, Quechua has long been in decline. But thanks to Mr. Túpac Yupanqui and others, Quechua, which remains the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas, is winning some new respect.

Mr. Túpac Yupanqui’s elegant translation of a major portion of “Don Quixote” has been celebrated as a pioneering development for Quechua, which in many far-flung areas remains an oral language. While the Incas spoke Quechua, they had no written alphabet, leaving perplexed archaeologists to wonder how they managed to assemble and run an empire without writing.

SINCE the Spanish conquest, important writing in Quechua has emerged, but linguists and Quechua speakers hope that the new version of “Don Quixote” will be a step toward forming a public culture in the language, through Quechua magazines, television and books, that will keep its speakers engaged with the wider world.

(“Armed With a Pen, and Ready to Save the Incas’ Mother Tongue” by Simon Romero, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/07/world/americas/07tupac.html, accessed June 11, 2008)

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