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Translation of Haida Narratives into English

By Tiffany Templeton

Haida Gwaii, an archipelago on the Northwest coast of British Columbia, has been inhabited for as long as 13,000 years. It was named the Queen Charlotte Islands by British Captain George Dixon in 1787. Possessing a vibrant, stable culture at the time of contact, the Haida people initially benefitted from trade with Europeans, but their population was soon decimated by foreign diseases and suppressed by various forms of state-sanctioned assimilation. Statistics from the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute indicate that there are currently only 30 Northern Haida speakers and 10 Southern Haida speakers in British Columbia.

In 1905, the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology, an organization dedicated to anthropological research on North American Indians, published a volume of Haida stories transcribed and translated by anthropologist and linguist John R. Swanton. Swanton’s transcriptions are the basis for retranslations of “A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World” by poet and historian Robert Bringhurst, published in 1999 and 2011.

Researchers like traductologist Susan Bassnett insist translators should be both bilingual and bicultural.1 Languages express cultures and translators should not only be aware of power dynamics occurring during intercultural transfer, but also of the polyphonic nature of source texts. Although Swanton’s transcriptions and translations appeared long before what’s known as the “cultural turn” gained recognition in Translation Studies, it is interesting to compare aspects of Swanton’s and Bringhurst’s work and to contemplate their engagement with the texts as translators and representatives of the outsider, colonial culture. Those aspects include their familiarity with Haida language and culture, textualization of the myths, use of foreignization, and attribution of authorship.

Swanton spent five years analyzing the Haida language before spending a winter in Haida Gwaii collecting stories with Henry Moody, a prominent figure in the Haida community who served as interpreter. Swanton’s work is distinct from the earlier proselytizing efforts of missionaries who translated the Bible into Haida in that his translations  of the myths into English show that he saw value in the stories themselves, rather than seeing language acquisition as a means of converting Indigenous people to Christianity.2

As for Bringhurst, he writes about his own proximity to the culture. A good friend of renowned Haida artist Bill Reid, he has studied Haida for decades. However, he says that for him it is a literary language like classical Greek or Sanskrit, as he does not speak or understand spoken Haida “because I don’t much like to talk.”3 This reasoning seems to ignore the colonial legacy that has made it difficult for Haida to learn their ancestral language and has left the nation with about 40 speakers. Furthermore, the comparison of Haida to ancient languages implies it is already extinct: indeed, Bringhurst seems more interested in transcriptions made a century ago by Swanton than in more recent storytelling by Native Haida. He presents the myths as free verse with line breaks and stanzas, explaining that they are poetry “because they are richly patterned. But the patterns are syntactic and thematic more than rhythmical or phonemic.”4 However, using this form when translating oral narration requires interpretation and thus affects the reader’s perception. It must be said that present-day non-Native translators, rather than personally interacting with First Nations, rely on narrative collected by intellectual predecessors ostensibly to “bring it more in line with current literary aesthetics.”5

Bringhurst does not find precise transliteration of Native languages entirely adequate when it comes to translation. He writes: “Very literal, inch-by-inch translation […] is fashionable now in Native American linguistics, and such translations can be wonderfully revealing. They also give a false sense of security and of scientific precision.”6 He prefers the literary approach, and when criticized for adding a phrase not in one of the texts he translated, he explained that he added a phrase to imitate thematic repetition, admitting there is “a convenient construction in Haida which I cannot gracefully replicate in English.”7

On the other hand, Bringhurst uses Native names when possible, despite the difficulty it presents readers. For him, it is a matter of respect. Swanton too left many names and interjections in Haida, transcribing them phonetically. Both translators provide explanations of unfamiliar words in their notes. Neither translator effaces his presence; the reader is always conscious of reading stories from another culture originally told in a different language.

Attribution of authorship

Whereas Swanton consulted many storytellers about central Haida myths, Bringhurst presents only versions by individual storytellers he perceives as more gifted than others, raising questions about attribution of authorship of Native myths. He was also criticized for not obtaining permission from the Haida community to retell their stories, to which he responded,

“there are far too many Native American languages for anyone to learn to read them all, much less to speak them. . . If classical Native American literature is going to be listened to and read, it will mostly have to be heard and read in translation. I have no doubt that translations far better than mine can be made, but I don’t expect they will be made if the literary value of these works, and their genuine pertinence to our lives, are ignored and denied.”8

Although Bringhurst’s intentions of bringing Haida culture to the public is honourable, in using this method, he risks being accused of appropriation. Indeed, the stories are the copyrighted property not of individuals, but of the Council of the Haida Nation. Even in the above-mentioned 1905 volume, the publisher indicates the stories are recorded by John R. Swanton. Inclusion of various fragments indicate that the story belongs to a community where different versions coexist. Bringhurst’s belief that we should recognize the talents of individual storytellers is compelling, but it may not be the role of an outsider to decide which versions should be elevated above others or jettisoned.

Tiffany Templeton works as an educator in Montréal. She will obtain a Graduate Diploma in Translation from Concordia University this year.  


1. Bassnett, S., & Lefevere, A. (1990). “Introduction: Proust’s Grandmother and the Thousand and One Nights: The ‘Cultural Turn’ in Translation Studies.” In S. Bassnett & A. Lefevere (Eds.) Translation, history, and culture, London: Cassell, p. 11

2. Bringhurst, R. (1999). A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., p. 418.

3. Bringhurst, R. (2011). A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (2nd ed.). Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., p. 420-421.

4. Ibid. p. 113-115.

5. Cardinal, P. (2014). 1999: “Cross-Purposes: Translating and Publishing Traditional First Nations Narratives in Canada at the Turn of the Millennium.” In K. Mezei, S. Simon, & L. Von Flotow (Eds.), Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture (pp. 271-289), Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, p. 276.

6. Bringhurst, R. (2011). A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (2nd ed.). Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., p. 19.

7. Bringhurst , R. (1999). A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., p. 55.

8. Ibid. p. 422-423.

REFERENCES

Bassnett, S., & Lefevere, A. (1990). “Introduction: Proust’s Grandmother and the Thousand and One Nights: The ‘Cultural Turn’ in Translation Studies.” In S. Bassnett & A. Lefevere (Eds.) Translation, history, and culture, (pp. 1-13) London: Cassell.

Bringhurst, R. (1999). A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

Bringhurst, R. (2011). A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (2nd ed.). Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

Cardinal, P. (2014). 1999: “Cross-Purposes: Translating and Publishing Traditional First Nations Narratives in Canada at the Turn of the Millennium.” In K. Mezei, S. Simon, & L. Von Flotow (Eds.), Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture (pp. 271-289), Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute. Native Languages and Peoples. Retrieved from https://slmc.uottawa.ca/?q=native_peoples_languages

Swanton, J. R. (1905). Haida Texts and Myths, Skidegate Dialect. In W.H. Homes (Ed.), Bulletin, Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology (Vol. 29). Washington: Government Printing Office.

Wang, Hui (2009). “Postcolonial Approaches.” In M. Baker (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (pp. 200-204). London and New York: Routledge.

Willmott, G. (2004). “Modernism and Aboriginal Modernity: The Appropriation of Products of West Coast Native Heritage as National Goods,” Essays on Canadian Writing, 83 (Fall 2004), 75-139. 


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