When it comes to the complexity of the Maltese language, especially in the way words are understood by those who speak them, and by those who they’re spoken to, only a few individuals can truly say they are qualified and have enough experience under their belt to make a valid commentary on.
Prof. Charles Briffa, a retired UM lecturer, is one of those few who believe that the only way to keep that commentary alive, is to keep exploring that language in as many ways as possible. Which is why he publishes his ideas in printed books, he broadcasts his research on radio and television, and he presents some material online.
Newspoint probed his mind on the media, translation in the time of COVID-19 and his writing inspiration.
As a published author who also communicates his words via other media, do you have a favourite medium or do you value them all equally?
I am fully aware of the complexity with which the media are integrated into the pattern of consumers’ lives.
For me, all the different media are significant because they can all be influential shapers of thoughts and perceptions.
My favourite medium is print, but I enjoy cultural broadcasting as a consciousness industry that provides information and presents ways of seeing and understanding the world. I receive several emails as interesting feedback from televiewers who watch my slots on the stories behind words. But I am also aware of the impact of the other media, even on those occasions when people engage with media as a secondary activity – like, for instance, when they leave the radio on while doing something else. I know many of my regular listeners who listen to the car radio on their way to or from work. And those whose experience is saturated by the social media enjoy the flow of information, but it is quite evident that in them there is a need to foster critical approaches to presented themes.
Whatever the form of the medium, it is essential to maintain thematic relevance for cultural benefits.
What inspires you to write, and what is your process of transforming ideas into the written word?
It is generally culture that stimulates my writing, but everything depends on the nature of the topic at hand. My areas of interest include mostly literary criticism and cultural linguistics, or ethnolinguistics.
In the former, I feel it my duty to promote Maltese literature and to advance the cause of the Maltese creative writer. And in the latter I feel myself fascinated when I probe the mentality of our ancestors as I explore institutionalised language. In a world that changes rapidly, cultural and national identity rests on maintaining continuity with the past and promoting cohesion in the present.
My writings engage me in a lot of meticulous research – theoretical and practical. So the process of transforming ideas into writing is the product of analysis and investigation.
In literary criticism, I often involve myself in psychostylistics. When I write analytically about authors, I normally try to read all of their works to be able to enter their minds – in my view, their minds are cultural producers. It is not just the themes they treat that is of interest to me, but primarily it is their mind style and therefore I look for those linguistic elements that cast features of cognitive structures so that I could identify relevant linguistic indicators that can function as markers of mind styles.
Themes are usually social, moral, and psychological; and mind style considerations are cognitive. Research in stylistics is an ongoing process throughout the world and it’s a good thing that I am a member (among others) of the Poetics and Language Association (UK) whose international journal of stylistics, Language and Literature, keeps me abreast of new ideas and developments in the world of literary studies. I am also a member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (Boston) – a society that is interested in the literatures of the world.
As regards cultural linguistics, I find myself actually involved in a multidisciplinary sphere of research. From institutionalised Maltese (idioms, expressions, and proverbs) and etymology I try to explore how our ancestors’ linguistic forms are entrenched in figurative language and schemas that reflect habits and mentality. It is an area of study that considers the relationship between language usage inherited from the past, culture, and conceptualisation. In exploring the relationship between language and culture I try to form a seminal profile of the way our ancestors perceived the world; this involves the way of life of the Maltese and their main cultural aspects that distinguish them from other communities.
How has COVID-19 changed the translation industry?
I think, COVID-19 has led to a significant growth of international demand for digital translation – especially technical translation. This factor fitted well in the increasingly globalised world that is facing a pandemic because the necessity to communicate effectively and to overcome language barriers became even more pronounced in the circumstances. The question poised at this stage is: could this experience stamp out the need for human translators?
I personally believe that high-quality translation can be achieved better if there is a degree of effective interaction with people in translation matters.
When it comes to literary translation (which I often see it as a cross-linguistic creation) the matter is different because I believe the human element is essential. In my case, literary translation is a significant undertaking in the promotion of Maltese writers abroad when the source text is in Maltese and it is an expressive venture when Maltese is the target language. In other words, translation is bilingual and bicultural: it is a means of exporting local literature and a way of importing foreign concepts. It is, consequently, another research activity especially when the translator is concerned with the possibilities of innovation.
Is the Maltese language an adaptive language when compared to others?
Maltese is a living language, and it behaves like any other living language in the world. Besides, languages in contact with each other influence one another.
Language is subject to constant growth and decay as new words enter the vocabulary and old ones die out, while existing terms often undergo semantic changes. Steady alteration also occurs in matters of pronunciation and grammar to meet new conditions. All these gradual modifications affect also the idiomatic nature of the language. Influences are constantly at work on a language and they tend to alter it from age to age, so that after a time the accumulated effect is one of extensive alteration that makes previous forms almost unintelligible.
Throughout the centuries Maltese made headway as it absorbed elements from other languages and gradually became the flexible, expressive, and rich language that it is today.
The importance of Maltese is inevitably associated in the mind of its people with the political, social, and cultural roles it plays in its home ground. It is a significant factor in the national identity and an influence in all internal affairs. It enjoys the people’s confidence in social positions as they meet their obligations with certainty as Maltese is increasingly contributing to the material and moral progress of the nation. And on the international scene, it is an element in linguistic diversity with a unique cultural identity.
What projects are you working on right now and which ones will you be working on in the near future?
My research interests include cultural linguistics, applied linguistics, stylistics, language and the literary mind, psychostylistics, literary criticism, translation, lexicography, semantic aspects of Maltese for translation purposes, and contrastive studies Maltese-English.
With various foreign societies I’m working on projects of literary translation. In addition to this, I am continuing my project on cultural linguistics which includes the compilation of anthropological material relating to the Maltese language. Two separate volumes have so far appeared on this subject and in the immediate future I intend to publish two more.
I am also working on the on-going advancement of the cause of the Maltese creative writer. So far I have published separate books on Anton Manwel Caruana, Trevor Zahra, Joseph Bondin, Oliver Friggieri, Victor Fenech, Mario Azzopardi, Charles Casha, and I have finished working books on Paul P.Borg, Louis Briffa, and Dun Karm.
There will also be, in the near future, a compilation of studies on different authors; this compilation is planned to appear as a series of anthologies of different studies on different writers.