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Studies in American Indian Literatures 18.4 (2006) 43-62

Translation Moves
Zitkala-Ša's Bilingual Indian Legends
Ruth Spack

Until Zitkala-Ša (18761938) published "Impressions of an Indian Childhood" in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900 and Old Indian Legends in 1901, most of the printed knowledge available to Euroamerican readers about the lives of Dakota people was transmitted by Euroamerican ethnologists.1 The ethnologists' work had significant limitations, for they were outsiders to Dakota language and culture, and the interpreters on whom they were dependent typically had weak translation skills. In contrast, Zitkala-Ša's work was informed by intimate linguistic and cultural knowledge. Born and raised at the Yankton Agency as a speaker of the Nakota dialect, she brought native speaker intuition to the project of translation. She identified culturally as Dakota, as did other Yankton Sioux. And she was proficient in Dakota literacy, which she had acquired at a bilingual mission school.2 Named Gertrude Simmons at birth, daughter of Táte I Yóhin Win (Ellen Simmons) and a French American trader, she extended her Sioux identity by giving herself a Lakota name, Zitkala-Ša, and by including transliterated Lakota in her writing.3 By the time she reached adulthood, Zitkala-Ša had three Native linguistic and cultural identities—Nakota, Dakota, and Lakota—and she was conversant in all three dialects.

Zitkala-Ša's linguistic strengths were evident in other languages as well. Her 1895 graduation oration at White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute, an English-only Quaker boarding school, was so compelling that the Wabash Plain Dealer called it "a masterpiece" that "has never been surpassed in eloquence or literary perfection by any girl [End Page 43] in this country" (qtd. in Parker and Parker 71). At Earlham College, where she spent two years, Zitkala-Ša excelled academically in every subject, including Latin, and in 1896 won first- and second-place prizes, respectively, in college and state oratory contests.4 A report of her performance in the Indianapolis News indicates that "her pronunciation was without trace of a tongue unfamiliar with English" ("Cheers").5 The published version of her speech displays her linguistic, rhetorical, and intellectual sophistication (see Simmons). Her private letters to Carlos Montezuma, handwritten in 190102, show a dazzling control of the language, even in an unedited form (see Spack, "Dis/engagement"). Zitkala-Ša was thus a N/native speaker of English in both senses of the term. Furthermore, she reportedly translated Dakota legends into Latin to meet a college requirement at Earlham (Hadley 14). Clearly, then, Zitkala-Ša's translations can be viewed as the work of a gifted linguist.

In this article I examine Zitkala-Ša's translation of an Indian legend from Dakota into English. My title, "Translation Moves," refers not only to Zitkala-Ša's rhetorical strategies but also to different meanings of translation, as well as to the complex and dynamic process that translation entails. First, of course, there is literal translation: the movement from one language to another. As many translation scholars have shown, the process of translating is complicated, involving much more than mere word substitution. When languages are translated, they encounter one another through a translingual process in which the differences between the languages are exposed and "ambiguities [are] dissolved or created . . . until new words and meanings emerge in the host language" (Liu 26). As Zitkala-Ša moves back and forth between languages to retell a story, she creates language anew, offering new insights into linguistic and cultural choices. As Zitkala-Ša's choices show, translation inevitably demands a contextualized understanding of the two cultures in which oral and written traditions are situated.

Eric Cheyfitz extends the meaning of translation to include not simply the process of transferring ideas from one language to another but also the power to deconstruct cultural identity through the process. He examines how western European writing historically [End Page 44] translated Native cultures to the point where they were stripped of their humanity and how such writing both resulted from and...


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