#100PENMembers No.100: Carles Torner

Well, our 100th member could only really be Carles Torner, Catalan poet, human rights activist, Director of PEN International and the Director of PEN International’s Centenary programme.

Torner has had a tremendous impact on the organisation over the past twenty years, serving on PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee and advocating for writers in prison across the world.

He joined PEN in 1984 shortly after the publication of his first two books, and aged 21.

Torner has worked with a range of human rights organisations in his career but is also a poet, translator and activist. Born in Barcelona, his first job was based in Paris, working as a consultant who fed back to the Human Rights Council and UNESCO.

Torner’s impact on PEN has been important in many ways, but it is in the area of linguistic rights that he has been particularly significant. The question of literary representation and rights was a very live one from the very beginning of PEN’s history. When the first PEN centres were created in the early 1920s, they sprang up in cities and often represented particular literary and linguistic communities and traditions that cut across the nation state, as well as the attendant idea of national literatures. From the very start, for instance, there were two, completely independent PEN Centres in Spain, one in Barcelona, representing Catalan writers and writing, and one in Madrid. 

Nearly a hundred years later, PEN continues to be an organisation whose internationalism acknowledges distinct literatures within nation states. As a Catalan writer, Torner has been pivotal to furthering this understanding and exploring its implications. In an interview with Co-Investigator on this project, Peter McDonald, he describes: ‘the PEN International Congress in Oslo in 1928, where, from what I have read, it was decided that PEN Centres would be recognised not according to states but according to literatures. For me, this is very important, and helps explain my involvement, because this creates another world map.’

For Torner, PEN, and the other NGOs with whom he has been involved throughout a lifetime of activism, have furthered a globalism that recognises the importance of independent literary and linguistic rights within nation states. ‘I feel at home’, he has stated, ‘in a kind of internationality that for 99pc of my friends and for the citizens of Catalonia does not exist. For them international life always goes through Madrid and always with a lot of obstacles that I simply have never felt […] I have never found myself having to confront Spain at an international level; also I have never been supported by Spain at an international level. So that is very peculiar and that explains why, as a Catalan writer, I have felt at home in PEN from the first day and able to participate fully in its international life.’

This passion has underpinned Torner’s important work on linguistic rights. He describes how, at first, translation and linguistic rights were not his key areas of interest. It was while attending a meeting in Majorca in May 1993 that, hearing the stories of minorities from Kenya to Scotland, Basque country to Quebec, he realised what a profound issue this was within the organisation and the wider world. Word soon got out and, as Torner describes, he was suddenly in touch with ‘the research world, all the writers and translators of PEN, and UNESCO officially acknowledging [and] offering the first economic support of the project.’ 

He went on to work with 61 NGOs, 41 PEN Centres and 40 experts in linguistic rights from across the world on what would become the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights in 1996. For Torner, free expression and linguistic rights are inseparable.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights

Citing Article 1 of the Declaration, Torner describes ‘as soon as we agreed a definition of “linguistic community”, [one] that could be subject of right, then everything fell into place.’ 

It was this idea of a linguistic community, as that which might connotate a territorial, a cultural, a social but not necessarily national connection, which those gathered felt that it was essential to protect.

Torner is currently the Director of the PEN Centenary, and therefore the perfect person to end our #100PENMembers.

Read about some of the influential figures from across the world who have influenced the growth of PEN from its founder Catharine Amy Dawson Scott to Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, Tstisi Dangarembga to Salman Rushdie our other #100PENMembers.

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