Monthly Archives: December 2015

No discussions please. We’re academics.

When the majority of the Maltese people are craving answers on crucial and major questions on the Maltese language, some academics keep showing reluctance to engage with the public and provide potential solutions.

In free and modern societies, it is not only considered the right of academics to disagree or agree strongly on several issues, but even their duty in fulfilling their roles as agents of change. In dictatorial states, academia is considered purely as a technical practice in which tangible or intangible results count more than the quality of the research and ideas.
Partly thanks to the Bologna process, but also due to new “austerity measures”, European universities are developing more into technical institutes rather than as free centres of research and thought; yet somehow, and it has to be said, strangely enough, the only real “austerity” impinging on sectors of local academia is that brand of purely indigenous austerity which has come to typify the University of Malta over the years.

The badly-written and rather ambiguous statements issued recently by some academics from the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta tell surely of one thing: that they are completely against the setting up of a consultative committee to discuss the possibility of change to the language law. This position seems rather odd: when the majority of the Maltese people are craving answers on crucial and major questions on the Maltese language, some academics keep showing reluctance to engage with the public and provide potential solutions. At a time when academics are badly needed, they beat a retreat.

The Minister of Education, Evarist Bartolo has opened up new channels for debate, discussion and even the possibility of reform to address major issues in the Maltese language. Following a very well-attended national public forum on the Maltese language, called by the minister himself, the minister has now called for the setting up of a consultative committee to discuss the language law itself.

The National Council for the Maltese Language has also been called to be part of this committee. Following the barrage of contrasting views written in local newspapers and expressed during the forum itself, I cannot but presume that no consensus on the status quo and on how the language is developing in terms of the decisions taken by the Council itself, has yet been reached.

Therefore, I fail to understand why the opportunity to discuss change and progress should be neglected and opposed dogmatically. Major issues with the Maltese language when it comes to orthography and foreign words have long been dragging, and yet solutions are still lacking. Academics should now seize the moment and start giving concrete and serious answers rather than engaging themselves in their little insular political battles.

In a period of such intensive debate, academics could seize the opportunity to make a big name for themselves. Maybe a new Guzè Aquilina will give us acceptable answers to the current questions we are facing today; and yet somehow, if such answers do exist, academics are not willing to discuss them in public. During the recent language forum, I expected to hear from members of the Council for the Maltese Language and university academics from the Maltese department, presentations on the current issues and questions being discussed, such as for example, the adoption of foreign vocabulary by the native language or the formation of new words.

No such presentations were made and instead, the executive director of the National Council for the Maltese Language, Thomas Pace, treated attendees with a presentation on work made to ensure that road signs and other public signage were turned into Maltese. It was Kafkaesque if not surreal. In this way, attendees were given the impression that for the last 10 years, the Council was in fact devoting all its energy to proof-reading public entities.

Surely, a National Council for the Maltese Language can do better in political and institutional terms. National strategies and concrete legislation should be drawn up to tackle language issues on a national level.

This is not rocket science and it’s not very expensive either. It’s a job academics can do, but it seems that the chance has been lost, maybe partly due to a defective law and partly to academics wasting time on their petty and insular battles. More importantly, such a council should draw up clear strategies and provide various solutions for crucial language linguistic and orthographic issues.

Something which I proposed during the forum was that potential linguistic changes should be published in peer-reviewed journals prior to being imposed as a general rule. Academics should lead and give form to this national linguistic debate rather than ceding arms and blaming the government for the problem.

Writers, editors and translators who are all tradesmen of the word, should also be increasingly consulted on the possible solutions. The National Council for the Maltese Language can be given a great boost with some restructuring in its institutional composition. There is nothing wrong with change, and my impression is that very few people are against this.

One of the signatories of the statements was the Academy of the Maltese language, but the academy didn’t even consult its members prior to issuing its statement – I know because I am a member myself. Other members of the academy have shown their satisfaction with the issuing of such a statement without their prior consultation. I suspect the same happened with the other signatories, leaving the number of people who really believe in the statements made to be very little indeed.

Books: What needs to be done

These are exciting times for Maltese authors and publishers and the success of the recent Malta Book Festival is just one element which proves this.

Right now, there’s probably a Maltese translator in Brussels or Luxembourg writing the next big Maltese novel. Another youngster, as yet unknown, is probably mingling amongst us, observing society and reading classics and contemporaries whilst coming up with ideas for his or her debut novel.

Elsewhere, an immigrant child is probably on her way towards mastering the Maltese language to such an extent, that she’d make Walid Nabhan blush in 20 years’ time. Or maybe, there’s a publisher who has finally found the ‘X’ on the map of Maltese literature and is about to unveil the next big thing.

These are exciting times for Maltese authors and publishers and the success of the recent Malta Book Festival is just one element which proves this. New literary styles are emerging and are standing out, easily distinguishable from each other. We are a lucky audience receiving literature from more than one generation of authors and we may consider ourselves lucky for the selective editorial choices local publishers are making.

There are different kinds of writers and different kinds of publishers. The artsy pop publishers dealing in clever literature, the high-brow publishers, the popular publisher whose books go to stationeries and are read by, perhaps, slightly less discerning audiences. The authors from Brussels and Luxembourg, emerging female authors (unfortunately, still not very common in Maltese literature), young authors, the authors from the sixties and seventies who are still prolific and now even immigrant authors. As in everything else, there’s also the good, the bad and the ugly.

A sense of optimism is prevalent in the book scene – an overwhelming feeling that things are actually happening; in fact, a lot of things are. I’m not speaking about the dearth of new emerging vanity publishers which are flooding the market with books bearing tacky cover designs and texts you won’t even read as a last resort.

One need only check out the books in the recent National Book Prize shortlist to get an idea of the depth, creativity and diversity of the Maltese literary scene. There’s also a great sense of anticipation for the upcoming National Book Prize awards ceremony to be held on the 11th of December.

Still, there are things which still need to be addressed and we must not get too comfortable in our small little worlds. I’m sure that many would agree with me that a pressing problem in the local book scene is its infrastructural problem; mainly the lack of bookshops which act as cultural agents.

We have long been discussing and speaking about this problem, yet nothing concrete has been implemented to address it. The National Book Council (NBC) pressured the government to hand over the previous premises of Café Premier to the Ministry of Education so that it could partly be used by the National Library as an extension of its storage, and partly by the NBC to lease it to anyone who would be willing to open it as an excellent bookshop which would stock quality contemporary and classical texts and hold regular events.

It’s a tragedy that Valletta, our own capital city, lacks a bookshop which acts as a cultural agent, but it’s even more ludicrous when you consider that Valletta will be taking over the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Once more, books slid down to the bottom of the political agenda as Café Premier was handed over to the Valletta Local Council; its administrative work being considered a priority over an issue of cultural and national importance. Hopefully, now that the Local Council has new premises fit for its standards, it will, as a council, be in a better position to successfully manage to arrange for the collection of the city’s refuse in the early hours of the morning instead of late in the evening when tourists and locals are happily dining in restaurants and on the streets.

During my first three years at the NBC, we have made sure to work on the administrative apparatus of the council to enhance our services and give a considerable boost to the book scene with the Malta Book Festival as well as via events, subsidies and prizes. Recently, we have started focusing on the legislative and more political nature of the council so as to be able to draft our first official legislation.

Discussions and debates, both internal and in consultation with other parties are taking place and will continue more extensively at the beginning of next year; but already, what seems clear to me in this process is that authors must find a way to solve their disagreements and come together, either informally or formally to discuss their priorities and produce a collective political agenda of their own. The same applies for the publishers.

This Labour government has been the first ever Maltese government to take the book industry seriously, to put it on its agenda and start contributing towards its support in the most tangible manner. Still, if writers don’t form a union, and if publishers don’t form their own collective, we at the NBC will keep finding it difficult to convince our superiors and private entities that authors and books actually do matter.

We are moving forward in the right direction, and we do not afford to move backwards from now on, but progress should not be taken for granted and we must all work for it in a spirit of good will.