Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America

Feb 15th, 1996 | By | Category: 7-4: Wildlife Management, Media Reviews

edited by Brian Swann, Random House, New York, 1994

Review by Sara Wiles

Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America is an important addition to the literature of Native Americans. It is edited by Brian Swann, who comes to Native American literature not as a linguist or translator but as a teacher who wishes to share linguistically and culturally responsible translations with his students.

Swann has assembled texts (a linguistic term referring to a specific work of translation) from all over Native North America. These texts are not only the well known trickster stories and creation myths but speeches, songs, and other forms of oral performance. Sixty linguists, many of them Native Americans, have contributed translations, and each has provided an introduction to both the translation process and the cultural context of the original performance.

This volume of new translations is the outgrowth of a debate in linguistic circles for at least two decades. The debate centers around the realization that Native texts are in fact oral performances and questions how best to render these performances as written texts. Following the lead of noted linguist Dell Hymes and a few others, many linguists have moved away from literal prose translation and into a world of “ethnopoetics.” Ethnopoetics utilizes poetic form, paying attention to patterning, vocal fluctuations, and other aspects of performance.

Many of the contributors to Coming to Light have followed the ethnopoetic model. Some of the authors, including Hymes, have taken old texts, transcribed in the early 20th Century when they were obtained as mere linguistic artifacts, and retranslated them into ethnopoetic form. Some authors have done the same with more recent recordings. Other contributors have chosen to stay with prose forms, rendering them with literary expression.

This volume contains many excellent examples of both ethnopoetry and ethnoprose that are readable, enjoyable, and fascinating. By moving away from a more literal translation process, however, I fear that linguists add layers of obscurity to Native American literature. Are these translations really accurate representations of the oral cultures of Native Americans? Or have they become their own texts, new imaginative recreations of Native American originals?

For example, I question the translation presented here by Lawrence Millman of Innu Wolverine (trickster) tales. He indicates his stories were “freely” translated, without use of recording devices because “tape recorders espouse a literal-mindedness alien to the spirit of Native American storytelling.” At least one of the short translations he presents here is a “synthesized” version of a story told by three people. Also, at least two existing translations were rewritten solely to put them into ethnopoetic form. No matter how nicely the texts read in English, can the reader be sure of a relatively accurate cultural representation, given that they are now several layers removed from the original performance?

I also question who gets credit for the translations. For example, several of the texts list both a non-Native linguist and a Native linguist or performer as co-authors, or they include the performer of the texts in the title. Others, however, mention the Native American performers or co-translators only briefly in their introductions. Others mention no one at all. So who did all the work here? Are Anglo linguists ignoring the contributions of Native Americans who have worked for years to develop stories, songs, and a performance style, and those who are bilingually gifted? Have the linguists been given permission to pass on the material in culturally appropriate ways?

Still, the book includes excellent examples of linguistically and culturally sound translations. The translations of Nora Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer are perhaps the best in the book for producing a true sense of the Native experience. It is no wonder: Nora is a Native Alaskan; both have worked for years on detailed transcription and translation of many texts; Richard is a poet; they have lived in the communities they represent. Their translation of “Speech for the Removal of Grief” performed by Jessie Dalton in the Tlingit language is written as a drama with identified respondents:

they would let their down fall
like snow
over the person who is feeling grief.
GEORGE DALTON: Your brothers’ children are listening to you.
HARRY MARVIN: Thank you.
That’s when their down
isn’t felt.
That’s when
I feel it’s as if your fathers’ sisters are flying
back to their nests
with your grief.
HARRY MARVIN: Thank you indeed.

Has Brian Swann succeeded in publishing a book of Native American literature that is both linguistically and culturally responsible? For the most part he has, and this volume will be an important part of Native American literature courses for years to come. It is not perfect, however, and some problems of linguistic and cultural sensitivity need to be addressed.

Sara Wiles has worked amongst the Arapaho people on the Wind River Reservation since 1973 and has studied the Arapaho language for six years.

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