reading revival 2

the first sequel. reading revival 2 reads ngarla songs by alexander brown & brian geytenbeek: a collection of 20C indigenous songs translated from ngarla into english. for previous revival incarnation hit link below.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

more on translation from an email from jeff s

I know it is too late for your blog but i thought this may be of interest. In Giorgio Agamben's "Remnants of Auschwitz" he cites various poets. The poetry is presented in the Italian, in the format of the poem with verse or whatever, then translated into English as one paragraph, looking like a piece of prose, dispensing with the formal layout of the poem, no verses etc. The translations give a very good 'appreciation' of the poem, but do not present as being the poem as such. I thought this would have been a good way to proceed with Ngarla Songs. The translations, this is with my having no understanding of any Aboriginal languages, seemed to me to be stiltled in atempting to match appropriate phrases. I felt frustrated often, feeling that I was missing something. Perhaps the approach adopted by Daniel Heller-Roazen in translating Agamben could have been of use to Brian Geytenbeek allowing for a more open translation (?).

more from brian g

By all means, share whatever bits you wish on the blog! Languages are fascinating things, and people who enjoy reading probably also enjoy thinking about the numerous different ways in which human beings can couch their thoughts in other languages. Especially when other people's world-views are quite different from our own. The anthropological rule-of-thumb is that, "It's not wrong to be different."

(The only exception to that would be where a culture's moral standards are in serious conflict with God's. But whose isn't?! That's why he gave us the Bible, to alert us to the fact, and encourage us to do something about it.)

Incidentally, I forgot to mention last night that in Aboriginal languages in the Pilbara the pronouns do not include any gender distinction. In each language, they have just one pronoun where English has three: "he, she, it"; "his, hers, its"; "to/for him, to/for her, to/for it".

Many Aboriginal people in the Pilbara who are still switching over to speaking English have not yet learned to make the 3-way distinction, and so far have latched onto just the one form "he" and use that for all three. Thus those speakers will commonly refer to women and to things as "he". "See that woman over there. I've gotta marry his daughter." As the years go by and their control of English gets better they start to build in the extra forms.

Ngarla is an exception with regard to the "to/for him, to/for her, to/for it" set. Instead of just one form for those, Ngarla dual and plural pronouns ("those two" and "those three or more") have two, a weak one and a strong one. And for just the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular it has three, which I am currently calling "weak, medium and strong".

I don't know why it has these extra forms. I haven't worked it out, and may never be able to do so. But then, my job as a linguist is not to tell a language what it can or can't do. My job is to find out what it actually does do. And then hopefully describe what it does in a non-technical way that Aborigines literate in English can understand and enjoy and benefit from.

In contrast to the Pilbara languages, Bandjalang, that my wife and I worked on in NSW in the 1960s, had 4 noun classes: masculine, feminine, neuter, and trees.

Best wishes,


a response from brian geytenbeek, the ngarla songs translator

Re the comment on 17 August about pronouns,
(1) Ngarla often omits them once a discourse has been commenced and the "stage" set. From then on, cultural understanding of the context often makes them unnecessary, and usually they are only added if one wishes to emphasise them. E.g., "THEY are the ones at fault, not me!". Thus if you build them into ordinary Ngarla sentences you will skew the meaning considerably (from their point of view), and the readers would be quite puzzled.

(2) In the second verse about the Koolinda the composer talks to the ship in the first line, then describes what happens after the ship does what he told it to do. In the third verse the 'he' and the 'they' are the bosun and crew, then in the final line the composer talks to the ship again.

(3) In Piyuwiki/Buick all three mentions of 'he' in the second verse refer to the driver, not to the car. The pronouns are in fact non-existent in the Ngarla, but they have to be provided in English or the English would not make sense to an English speaker (though they would to a Ngarla speaker who knew a bit of English) -- an interesting example of the basic principle of translation:

"Translation must be of the meaning, not of the words."

Most people just assume that you have to translate each word in the "source" language with an equivalent word in the "receptor" language, but that is not the case at all. Figurative speech illustrates this well. For instance, if someone literally kicked the bucket on the back porch you would never translate the information in the form of "He kicked the bucket", because that would communicate the idea that he had died. Instead you would use some other circumlocution, maybe, "He bumped the bucket with his foot." It's the meaning that counts, not the words used to convey the meaning.

Actually whether you use half as many words or twice as many words in the receptor language may not be very relevant. The important things are that
(a) the result in the receptor language is so natural that the hearers/readers will not be conscious of the fact that it is a translation, and
(b) the hearers/readers in the receptor language will get the same message, and feel the same impact, as did the original hearers/readers in the source language.

That's what a translator is supposed to aim at, anyway. Whether he can always hit it or not is another matter!

Thus genre styles need to be genuine for the receptor language too. There is a marked difference in Ngarla between narrative genre and poetic genre. In some songs I had to work hard to express the poetic meanings that were in the Ngarla in suitably poetic styles in English, especially with a few songs which were expressed not in full intelligible sentences but in one-word "short-hand" poetic images. In these the Aboriginal hearers understood perfectly all the cultural clues and implications just from one word, but English readers wouldn't have had a clue what was going on!

Someone spotted Alex Beeton's Aboriginal nickname. Probably Alex Beeton never even knew that that is what they called him. (Actually his name happens to be in the Nyangumarta language that I've spent 30 years on, not the Ngarla one.) It was very descriptive. He had a huge paunch, and when he laughed he had a huge "belly-laugh", and his belly bounced up and down. Hence his nickname, "Dancing Stomach".

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