restricted access Born in the Blood: On Native American Translation ed. by Brian Swann (review)
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Reviewed by
Brian Swann, ed. Born in the Blood: On Native American Translation. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8032-6759-6. 476 pp.

It may be fair enough to assume that anyone who has ever attempted to translate from an indigenous language into a more dominant language has encountered at least some of the many issues discussed in this volume. Those engaged in this type of work are faced with a unique challenge of attempting to do justice to the original piece. Whether it is a traditional story, a conversation, or a song, the main concern is the quality of presentation of an oral performance in one language to a written format in another. More often than not, we are working with an endangered minority language attempting to adequately translate into a more common, majority language. The original source language will almost undoubtedly differ drastically in grammatical structure from that of the target language of translation. Depending on where you might find yourself involved in such a process will likely determine your opinion of Brian Swann's latest collection of essays concerning the translation of Native American languages.

Born in the Blood: On Native American Translation consists of several different perspectives regarding the process of the above-mentioned translation. The title itself attracts attention; after all, Native Americans and blood seem to complement one another in Western literature. This is not the reasoning behind the choice of the title, however. Instead, according [End Page 94] to Swann, the title is an excerpt from a poem in which it is a word that is "born in the blood, grew in the dark body, pulsing, and flew with the lips and mouth" (8). Regardless of the etymology of the book's title or the unsettling picture that it may depict, Born in the Blood is sure to attract readers, Swann's obvious original intention. Readers will be pleased to read the reports of many individual experiences, the problems that are bound to arise, the journeys taken, and some of the lessons learned.

This latest anthology from Swann provides insight to the reader regarding many of the difficulties that a translator faces and the many decisions that must be made. In his introduction Swann is quick to clarify that what translators are concerned with is not necessarily "literature" as we understand the term in Western culture (5). Instead, we are dealing with oral performances often delivered to speakers of the same language, but as Lynn Burley points out in her essay, this is not always the case. Burley relates an instance of Dakota texts written by native Dakota speakers in which there is "evidence that the Dakota speakers were probably meant for a Western audience" (337).

Translation itself is necessarily problematic. Perhaps the most interesting challenge for many involved in this work is what Swann refers to as "complexities of collaboration between non-Native academics and Native American culture-bearers"(1). As a result the foundation of Native American translation in the Americas has been "compromised and tainted from its origins" (2). As stated in Carrie Dyck's opening essay, the Cayuga word for "female translator" is literally "she changes words" (20). Dyck discusses issues of ethics in her contribution to the collection and relates a problem that many of our Native-speaker consultants express when attempting to translate their own Native language. There is a tendency to forever be on the search for better translations (22), and often the words "mean more than English words do" (31).

In addition to the words themselves, many of the authors mention a threshold of cultural understanding that must take place before one can attempt to translate from one language to another. Some translators may struggle at not coming across as being ethnocentric or exhibiting an "as if " tone as mentioned in Swann's intro (4). A "linguist's version" of a transcribed and translated text does not include what Julie Brittain and Marguerite MacKenzie refer to as "aids of understanding" such as gestures, audience interaction, and phonological clues (252), further distancing the reader from the original delivery. [End Page 95]

Linguists and nonlinguists alike have much to...