restricted access 2. On the Translation of Native American Song and Story: A Theorized History

From: Red Matters

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Chapter 2 On the Translation of Native American Song and Story For Brian Swann This chapter reprints an essay published ten years ago in Brian Swann's edited volume On theTranslation of Native American Literatures. After a good deal of reflection, I decided to leave it in its original form with only this prefatory note to serve as an explanation of that decision. As the preceding chapter should have made clear, translation in the figurative mode that I have called anti-imperial translation is of particular concern to the cosmopolitan critic.This concern brings the cosmopolitan critic into regular contact with the indigenist whose knowledge can relativize and even destabilize the knowledges that support imperialism, thus helping to clear a field for the liberatory efforts of the nationalitarian or nationalist critic. In Chapter 3,1 examine on their own terms and also offer some figurative translation of Native American histories into the "language" of Euramerican discourses of history. Here, however, the translation I historicize and theorize is literal translation in its work with literary material, "Native American song and story."Although writtenbefore this book was conceived, and so not as closely linked to the other chapters of this book as they are each to another, this chapter, it is my hope, nonetheless has useful work to do in regard to this book as a whole. A TheorizedHistory Any history of translations from the various NativeAmerican languages into English —a history also necessarily of transcription, of the transfer- mation of oral literatures into textual literatures —must nave some theoretical principle guiding itsselection of examples. The most obvious principle (usually thought of by those who actually seek to apply it as the disinterested avoidance of aprioristic principle) is, of course, the principle of nonselectivity, or total inclusiveness: with world enough and time, one might produce the history of translations from Native languages by attempting to collect every translation extant. While such an encyclopedic project for most other subjectswould, today, painfully recall the deluded efforts of George Eliot's Casaubon or Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, for our particular subject, it might, in point of fact, be almost manageable , the "facts" of the case, unfortunately, being so many fewer. But even were such a history to be produced —and it would, doubtless, be a valuable resource —it would still leave open the question, What to make of all these examples of various kinds? My own attempt to sketch the history of translations of Native American literary expression will not even gesture in the direction of exhaustiveness . Instead, as a guiding principle for the examination of translations of Native American literatures from their earliest appearance until the present (and I don't pretend to know all of these), but also, potentially , for the examination as well of translations which do not as yet exist, I will suggest that all translations must situate themselves in relation to the principles of Identity and Difference (Sameness and Otherness, Likeness and Unlikeness, Ours and Theirs)—which principles, in any given translation, manifest themselves in terms of accessibility and authenticity, as these situate the particular translation in the disciplinary domain of art or of (social) science. This is to say that Euramericans, to transcribe and translate Native American verbal expression, must assume that it is in some degree like Euramerican ("Western") literary expression (otherwise it would not be recognizable to "us" asliterary art) but also that it is in some degree unlike Euramerican ("Western") literary expression (otherwise it would not take the obvious into account, that it is transmitted orally, in non-IndoEuropean languages, frequently in ritual or ceremonial performances, and so on).Western divisionsof disciplinary labor have traditionally been such that the poets and novelists or literary critics are usually in charge of that which is like the literature we know, while the anthropologists and linguists have usually been in charge of that which is unlikewhat we know. In every case, it is my claim, all English translations from Native language performances cannot help but place themselves in relation to Western conceptions of art (literature) or of (social) science as they inevitably privilege either the Sameness of Native American verbal expression in forms aspiring to what is accessibly recognizable as literary, orits Difference, in forms committed to scientific authenticity and accuracy. On the Translation of Native American Song and Story 25 As JamesClifford has written of musuem showsand collectionsof tribal art and artifacts, the decision to call certain "tribal" productions works of art or to call them artifacts...


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Subject Headings

  • Indian literature -- United States -- History and criticism
  • American literature -- Indian authors -- History and criticism
  • Indians of North America -- Intellectual life.
  • Indians of North America -- Historiography.
  • Indians in literature.
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