Close this search box.
‘There is a future for minority languages’

Grace Gassin , ‘There is a future for minority languages’: interpreter Henry Liu on Hakka, Te Papa, 21 February 2022

In the latest instalment of the Chinese Languages in Aotearoa project, curator Grace Gassin talks with interpreter Henry Liu about Hakka and how it has influenced his career.

Few individuals can boast that they’ve worked with every New Zealand prime minister since Sir Geoffrey Palmer. For Henry Liu, however, this is but one interesting footnote among many in a decorated career. The first and only New Zealander to have held office as President of the FIT (International Federation of Translators), Henry is best-known for his work in English, Mandarin, and French. His own mother tongue, however, is Hakka, a language spoken by many Chinese in Southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia and French Polynesia.

Language and ‘guest families’

The word Hakka literally means ‘guest families’, a hint at the history of upheaval, conflict, opportunity, and adaptation which has seen Hakka communities dispersed across so many parts of the world. Although Hakka is spoken by many Chinese in New Zealand, it is less widespread than either Mandarin or Cantonese.

Growing up as a linguistic minority-among-minorities in Aotearoa, Henry says his interest in languages and the way they affect our relationships with others began at an early age.

“The fact that I grew up speaking Hakka, a minority language – your interactions are necessarily multilingual because yours is not the dominant language,” he says. “The only conversations I would have had purely in Hakka would have been with my family. As minorities, we often need to adapt or blend in some way to the dominant culture, because wherever you go, you’re always a guest – and knowing how to do that means knowing what the dominant culture’s perspectives are.”

Henry’s youthful negotiations of New Zealand’s linguistic terrain eventually helped him perceive the broader ways in which knowledge of different languages could be useful in tackling challenges in the geopolitical realm, and it was this that inspired him to become an interpreter.

“I grew up in the Cold War era, when the issue of how to solve ‘real world’ problems through multilateral negotiation was very live,” he says. “Seeing peace talks, nuclear disarmament negotiations…that all happened during my formative years.

“I worked out that, just by the mere act of translation – or even contemplating translation – you’re required to consider how different people see the same issue. That was very enlightening for me in terms of how I deal with people and I think that’s why I chose to pursue my career within a multilateral context.”

Henry Liu, right, with Director of Photography Tim Hamilton on location outside Parliament grounds, Wellington, 10 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Shijia Chen

The minutiae of translation

Conversations with Henry are always full of big, exciting ideas: from the role of algorithms in shaping our information diet to the dilemmas of language preservation in an ever-changing world. All feel relevant to Henry’s views on Hakka identity and language. Deciding what to keep in or leave out of our six-minute video is, therefore, a difficult task requiring careful consideration by our talented filmmaker, Yong-Le Chong.

Once this is worked out, further discussions are had between us all about the video’s English subtitles. I am continually amazed at the difference that changes to even a single word can make, revealing or obscuring whole layers of possible meaning. Finally comes the work of creating Chinese subtitles. As with our other videos, we choose to offer subtitles not only in ‘standard’ Chinese (Mandarin), but also in a written version of the language of focus, in this case Hakka. By doing so, we hope to highlight the unique elements of the language and show that, while often viewed as a mere ‘dialect’, Hakka can indeed be written.

All of this work involves numerous acts of translation, many small decisions and, ultimately, a measure of trust. It is a great lesson for us all in the irreducibility of identity and culture – even for one man’s story.

Henry Liu, left, and filmmaker Yong-Le Chong in Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre, 10 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Shijia Chen

Looking to the future

Though Henry’s own family history is one of relative success in mobility – a fact reflected in his fluency in multiple languages and embrace of the Hakka ‘eternal guest’ identity – many Hakka feel keenly the struggle to retain a sense of connection to their ancestral roots. The pressures of migration and life as a minority have contributed to language loss among younger generations, in some cases compounded by conflicting priorities within mixed heritage families or traumatic legacies of active language oppression (see our first blog and video, feat. Ya-Wen Ho).

Concern that Hakka is dying has correspondingly increased in recent years, though some detractors have dismissed Hakka as ‘just a dialect’ that will inevitably die out in favour of dominant languages such as Mandarin and English. Henry, for his part, is hopeful that Hakka people will find new and creative ways to ensure the language’s survival as they have done in their long history.

“It’s frustrating when I hear people say that we will all speak dominant languages in the future, because somehow that’s the only way we’ll want to communicate and that ‘small’ languages will inevitably die,” he says. “That’s not true. Small languages will have to adapt and change to survive, yes, but big languages will change too.

“So I’m confident that in the future, there is a future for minority languages. The question is: how will it form? And will it be that the language will have to transmutate in such a way that our ancestors would go, ‘what is that?’

“Maybe in 50 or 100 years’ times we will have lost our distinctive Hakka accents and some unique variants of Hakka, but will have instead a new generation of Hakka who speak a standardised form of the language. Maybe in Aotearoa this would be localised with kiwi accents or sprinkled with English and te reo Māori – would that matter? Because, you know, language always changes and every generation always blames the next generation!”

Some of the books Henry brought to the shoot, 10 Nov 2021. Photo by and courtesy of Shijia Chen

‘The only languages that don’t change are dead ones’

No matter what lies ahead, Henry is keen to see Hakka passed on to the next generation in some form. That will require its speakers, whatever their level of proficiency, to challenge themselves to use the language in a range of contexts “because the only way to revitalise a language is to use it”.

“We need to give ourselves opportunities to find new modern contexts for our languages and permission to make mistakes,” he says. “This also means accepting that the language will change, because the only languages that don’t change are dead ones.”

As Henry tells me this, I feel the ring of truth in his words not only for speakers of Hakka but for any language. Though I am a (rusty) speaker of Hokkien rather than Hakka, I am inspired to try to increase the number of ways I use Hokkien in my life and enrol in a weekly online conversation group to help me find others keen to do the same.

If you are on this journey too, whatever your language, I would love to hear from you. My hope is that this project will help us collectively build communities of support for speakers of the many Chinese languages of Aotearoa, now and in the future.

This video and blog were created for Chinese Languages in Aotearoa, the first project in our Voices of Asian Aotearoa series. This is the last commissioned video for the series, but we will soon share the diverse responses to our public callout for Chinese language-related stories – which includes collaborations with illustrators. Stay tuned!