From Ramon Llull to the House of Languages in Barcelona

Antoni Mir

Director of the House of Languages

For a Majorcan, Ramon Llull is present from north to south and east to west of the island territory. We visit Algaida and we find Sa Mata Pintada, we go up to Cura and we can enter the Cova del Beat (Cave of the Pious Man). If we walk through Palma, we easily find his sepulchre in the church of Sant Francesc, and just next to the church is the cloister visited by the very young French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, where he wrote that “there is no love of life without desperation at living.” Not far away we find the plaça Major where a memorial stone recalls that in one of those streets was the house where Llull was born. However, of all the places that recall Ramon Llull, most of us would probably choose Miramar, on the north coast, in Valldemossa.

As Joan Alcover expressed it in verse:

Sempre visquí vora del mar,

mes fins avui no el coneixia;

sobtadament a Miramar

m’ha revelat sa fesomia.

[I always lived by the sea,

Although unaware of it until now;

Suddenly in Miramar,

It has revealed its form to me.]

In Miramar there is no desert but there is the vast sea. It is in front of this magnificent view of the immensity of the Mediterranean where Ramon Llull founded a pioneering School of Languages.

Seven centuries later, we are commemorating the 700th anniversary of one of Llull’s three journeys to the Maghreb (Bejaia, 1307), events well illustrated in the exhibition “Raimundus, cristianus arabicus. Ramon Llull and the meeting between cultures”. Llull was aware that the success of his missions to the Arab world depended on knowledge of the language and culture of these peoples. Communication was essential and, beyond the use of the lingua franca of the merchants, it was necessary to promote knowledge of Christian and Muslim works and, therefore, also translate them.

Translation as a Journey of Languages

Llull’s journeys, linked to languages and translations, make us think that translation is in itself one of the journeys made by languages. The life and history of the Mediterranean have been forged with thousands of years of relations, exchanges and also of wars and misunderstandings. Our small sea has been at the same time a bridge and a wall, according to the whim of the leaders of each era, kingdom, empire or alliance.

Languages and cultures travel when they pass, through translation, to another language and another culture. Every translation is like one of the travels of Ibn Battuta, the “time traveller”, the “Arabian Marco Polo”, whose work has been translated into Catalan by Manuel Forcano and Margarida Castells, a channel both for trade relations between peoples and for penetrating their emotions through the translation of literature.

Languages also travel because individuals and peoples travel; and when languages come into contact, it is the individuals and peoples speaking them that come into contact. This occurs, for example, with immigration; Catalonia is today a host land, a destination, an arrival point for many people who come from the south shore, which brings so many languages into contact with our own.

So it is clear that we are living at the best moment of history since Ramon Llull for translation as an industry and as a resource for dialogue between languages and cultures. Globalisation means that there is more talk than ever about languages, about the need to learn them and the need for translation, communication, technology and cultural diversity. Never before has the linguistic diversity of the planet been as threatened as now. Moreover, never have there been so many points of contact and so much presence of languages; never have languages had within their reach the opportunities of the technological revolution that, with the motor of Internet, is transforming global society into a “network society”. We live in a “glocal” world, where technology is a bridge and a door opening new possibilities to the views of other cultures, to dialogue between them.

The divine retribution of the men of Babel represents the defence of a small known finite world, a tribal world, in which fear of difference is the expression of the obsession with survival. Language perceived as a barrier leads to confusion, misunderstanding and chaos.

However, we can consider that another feature of the myth of Babel is the eulogy of communication. At the start of the 21st century, linguistic diversity is a heritage that represents the essence of humanity. The new fears and the new obsessions are now also about the survival of the whole planet. Therefore, it will be necessary for peoples to understand each other, dialogue, talk, recognise one another as members of different cultures with distinct languages but with common problems and challenges. Technology makes all of this more accessible, so that, led by the will of men and women, dialogue between different peoples, the opportunity to recognise, understand and accept the other and to confront the new tempests together with different languages has never been easier.

Nevertheless, Babel would mean making the same mistake and not wanting to understand each other. Divine retribution would come if we did not use the tools within our grasp: using technology to advance and joining forces instead of confronting each other. There have never been two challenges like the current ones: biodiversity and the peoples of the planet must overcome the challenge of global warming, and the misery of the disdain of cultural and linguistic diversity.

If Ramon Llull had had the possibility of imagining a little of what today technology can do for communication, what would the School of Languages, which he founded in 1276, be like? What would be his vision of the world? Apart from Catalan, Arabic and Latin, how many languages and cultures would form part of his dialogue on the power of reason over violence?

The creation of the House of Languages has been conceived based on this reflection. This is an organisation, created and supported by the Government of Catalonia, whose mission is to promote the preservation and use of the languages of the world, as a vehicle of communication, civilisation and dialogue, as cultural heritage of humanity and as a right of people and linguistic communities.

Barcelona City Council has ceded 5,000 m2 in Can Ricart, in the heart of the new technology district of the city. The opening date of the House of Languages to the general public has been established for 2010. It will be a centre for the languages of the world, a space to spread knowledge open to all, including specialists. The multilingual website (in 20 languages) incorporates a section of information on the languages of the Mediterranean, which will soon be the subject of a television documentary and a travelling exhibition.

It will encompass many aspects such as multilingualism in cyberspace and the management models of multilingualism based on principles of equality, as a service focused on the needs of organisations and companies; as well as a database of successful experiences (in Catalan and any of the languages of the five continents) and the constitution of an audiovisual platform at the service of linguistic communities of the world. Also of special note is the Cyber-Translation Centre which, conceived as a work station for translators, will be a meeting place for sharing experiences and knowledge of translation. It will have the most advanced tools and resources, a wide range of services and activities for translation professionals, a practical classroom and a translation record centre specialised in the languages of immigrants present in Catalonia, including those of the Mediterranean area.

In short, the House of Languages will continue the thought and the zeal for knowledge that Ramon Llull sought to teach, and whose foundations rest on dialogue between cultures, as a vehicle of learning and development.