Lost Wor(l)ds: an Endangered Cento (a work in progress) is a 50-line video poem, with each line selected from a powerful poem in one of the world’s endangered languages and performed by the indigenous speakers. A “cento” is a collage poem; its name in Roman (Latin) means “stitched together,” like a quilt — each line of the poem is drawn from a different source. The word “cento” also resonates with the number one hundred, and many centos are a hundred lines long. Lost Wor(l)ds is part of an multifaceted initiative to present, preserve and urge the conservation of poetry from the world’s endangered languages.
More than half of the world’s languages will disappear this century. Lost Wor(l)ds is a tribute and call to action to support the world’s endangered languages and the poetry borne in and upon their words.
City Lore believes in an ecology of languages, a whole system intertwined and interdependent as the physical ecology of Earth. As Cecilia Vicuña writes, “people speak of the disappearance of the forest as if this was one thing; and they speak of the disappearance of the language as something else. But in these indigenous conceptions, these three things, the land itself, the forest, and the language are one inseparable thing. They even say in Guaraní that language falls from the trees. So if you cut down the trees you are cutting the tongue of the earth, are cutting the rustling of the wind, you are cutting the voice of the earth itself.”
Poetry, then, is precisely what is least translatable about a language – it is the ineffable, the things that only a set of words in a particular language can say. Created by English speakers, with translations into English, Lost Wor(l)ds: an Endangered Cento, with its lines from poems in 100 languages, is an act of audacious and unabashed imagination. It imagines the ecology of languages through a world poem. It seeks to capture the luminous originals in refracted light. The voices of the indigenous speakers are beautiful, even if we cannot fully understand what they are saying. Yet, what can not be translated, what we can not do justice to, is a measure of what is being lost with the disappearance of these languages.