Eroshenko, who would become one of those devotees, was captivated by how the invented language enabled him to converse with people all over the world. In Japan, he befriended activists, gave lectures in Esperanto and started writing in the language, which he would describe as “the key to all my philosophy.” He believed in its power to connect people, and change people. His body of work includes a set of Esperanto fairy tales — stories about mice and flowers and paper lanterns — that are quaint on the surface but also scathing critiques of Western civilization’s deficiencies. Eroshenko’s work explores colonization, police brutality, human destruction of the natural world, and the marginalization of the poorest and most vulnerable among us. English translations by Adam Kuplowsky of some of these works, along with translations of other fairy tales Eroshenko wrote in Japanese, are available for the first time in a new book called “The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales,” published this year by Columbia University Press.
“I heard this quote somewhere that Tolstoy only took two hours to learn Esperanto,” said Kuplowsky, who set out to learn Esperanto expressly so that he could translate Eroshenko’s work. “I thought that maybe it would take me a month.”
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Kuplowsky was right. He picked up an Esperanto textbook on Project Gutenberg and, with the help of several dictionaries, felt confident enough to translate after a month. In the process, he joined a small but dedicated group of Esperanto translators interested in preserving and disseminating original Esperanto literature. Many of them are drawn to these works because of the ideology that Zamenhof promoted when he introduced the language, including its emphasis on nondiscrimination and broad-mindedness. Passionate Esperantists are interested not just in translation but also in the preservation of Esperanto literature in its original form. There are coordinated efforts to promote the literature, including an initiative called Fenikso that aims to republish a set of Esperanto classics. Spearheaded by Esperanto-USA, the project hopes to republish 37 prose and 22 poetry books.
“It’s a literary canon if you will,” said Hoss Firooznia, an Esperanto-USA board member who is leading the effort. “These are books which, if you’re learning Esperanto, you’re advised to read, but students can’t find them anymore.”
That preservation effort is not without challenges. Copyrights on some of the books have expired. For others, Firooznia tries to secure rights by contacting publishers, authors or the descendants of authors. “The publishing houses are these mom-and-pop organizations that really don’t have much financial backing,” Firooznia said. “Once the publisher disappears and the books are out of print, you can’t find them anymore.”
Firooznia’s goal is to republish three or four books by the end of the year. The books will be available digitally and as print-on-demand. Among the first to be republished is “Viktimoj,” by the Hungarian writer Julio Baghy, a novel based on Baghy’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Siberia that was published in serial form in 1925 in the Literatura Mondo magazine.
Firooznia, who works full-time as a systems administrator at the University of Rochester, also recently completed his MFA in literary translation at the university. His thesis is an English translation of an Esperanto novel called “Ombro sur interna pejzagho,” or “Shadows on an Inner Landscape,” by the Croatian author Spomenka Stimec, a loosely autobiographical title that chronicles the collapse of a woman’s marriage.
At the University of Rochester, Firooznia runs an Esperanto club and maintains a small Esperanto lending library in his office. He’s also teaching an online course in literary translation from Esperanto to other languages.
“I’m teaching other Esperantists what I learned,” he said. “We’re talking about translation into and out of and just general questions of translation like balancing fidelity versus fluency.”
Esperanto is sometimes looked upon with disdain as a novelty language with few readers and speakers. “By now this artificial language has become something of a joke except to those few who study, speak and write it,” a Washington Post critic wrote in a 2001 review of “Masquerade,” a memoir originally written in Esperanto by Tivadar Soros, father of billionaire George Soros.
The translator of the text in question was Humphrey Tonkin, widely regarded as one of the most respected Esperantists living today. Tonkin, 83, has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. He is a former president of the University of Hartford and has twice been the president of the Universal Esperanto Association, the largest body of Esperantists in the world.
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“If you’re outside of Esperanto, and you’ve never heard of it before, then by definition it’s minuscule,” Tonkin said. “It’s about not knowing about something and belittling it.”
Tonkin said those who write in Esperanto tend to be internationalists, people who have a perspective on the world that is not rooted in their own nationality.
“You could say that Esperanto literature will assume an attitude of nondiscrimination,” he said. “There’s a kind of openness that you don’t find in other literature to the same extent.”
The preservation of Esperanto in both its spoken and written forms facilitates activism, said Giridhar Rao, an Esperantist and professor in the school of education at Azim Premji University. “The Esperanto community is already primed to think about language asymmetry, language inequality, language and power,” Rao said.
Rao became interested in Esperanto in the 1990s, when he was researching science fiction as a doctoral student and a colleague pointed him toward Esperanto literature.
“It’s a kind of large-scale planetary thinking, which Esperanto and science fiction seem to both have,” Rao said. “There’s a sense of the future, of imagining that another world is possible, that another language is possible.”
For Kuplowsky, too, the language offers a sense of connection. A second-generation Ukrainian Canadian, he does not know Ukrainian. But it was deeply meaningful to him that he was able to read — and translate — the work of Eroshenko from Esperanto to English, not least of all because the stories resonate surprisingly with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. “They expose, in the symbolic form of fairy tales, all the insanity, hypocrisy and tragedy of war,” Kuplowsky said. “They remind us how the problems of the past century remain the problems of the present century.”
Sindya Bhanoo is a reporter based in Corvallis, Ore. She teaches creative writing and journalism at Oregon State University.
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