PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee has advocated for linguistic rights since it was founded in Stockholm in 1978. This Committee played a leading role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (UDLR) in 1996, and continues to advocate on behalf of minority and endangered languages.
The UDLR was the result of a long process which began in September 1994 when the promoting bodies (the Translations and Linguistic Rights Committee and the Escarré International Centre for Ethnic Minorities and Nations) entrusted a committee of specialists from a variety of backgrounds and fields of activity with the task of drafting it. Some fifty experts from many different countries took part in the preparation of the twelve successive versions.
Aiming for the Declaration to be as representative as possible, two hundred and twenty persons from almost ninety different states belonging to all five continents attended the Conference at which the Declaration was passed. Delegates included representatives of some one hundred NGOs and PEN Centres.
Thanks to the broad range of contributions, the multiplicity of sociolinguistic contexts they reflect, and the efforts made to strike a balance between different viewpoints, the Declaration does not identify with any particular school of thought but aspires to be open to all currents and applicable to any situation.
The aim of the Declaration was to give rise to an International Convention of the United Nations which would recognise the linguistic rights as a universal right. PEN International continues to support and work towards this goal.
The Declaration proclaims the equality of linguistic rights, independent of the political or administrative status of languages or criteria such as the number of speakers. It considers the collective and individual dimensions of linguistic rights to be inseparable and interdependent; therefore the exercise of individual linguistic rights can only be made effective if equal respect is granted to the collective rights of all language communities and groups.
Achieving a successful balance between the linguistic rights of communities, groups and persons who share the same space is vital to harmonious social relations but it is also a matter of extraordinary complexity. Consequently the Declaration focuses on the rights of language communities which are historically established in their own territory with a view to defining a gradation, applicable to each case, of the rights of language groups with different degrees of historicity and self-identification and those of individuals living outside their community of origin.
Though the availability of resources may condition the exercise of linguistic rights, it would be unjust to deny the validity of such rights on grounds of insufficient means. It should be recalled that the implementation of such universally acknowledged rights as the right to life, health, work or education also requires considerable financing. The Declaration seeks to foster a worldwide commitment to solidarity in the field of language rights, to rectify shortcomings and make such rights viable for the most underprivileged. Therefore, while stressing the responsibility of public authorities, the Declaration focuses on rights and not on obligations or prohibitions, and calls for solutions appropriate to each case to be sought on the basis of democratic consensus.
The Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee developed the Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights in 2011 as a tool to aid the dissemination and implementation of the UDLR. PEN Centres around the world have assisted in translating it into nearly 50 languages, accessible here.
The Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee believes that translation is inseparable from linguistic rights and that the work of translators is central to the promotion of the right of all linguistic communities to be treated as equal. PEN is committed to an understanding of translation wherein all literatures, no matter how they are defined, enrich one another.
‘To Be Translated Or Not To Be’ (2007), edited by Esther Allen, is a report on the international situation of literary translation produced by PEN International and Insitut Ramon Llull.
26 Exchanges: Journeys between and behind the lines of language (2009) is a publication of the 2009 exhibition by PEN International and UNESCO which addressed issues of translation. The stories involved pairing 11 PEN writers from around the world with 11 writers from 26, the association and group for writers, editors and language consultants.