Thursday, May 7, 2009

Indians on Translation

Paula Gunn Allen says something more or less head on about translation (below). But (first) two white guys with academic voices (namely my blogger friend Rich Rhodes and me) are overheard arguing over her:

Rich comments:
My late father would have fallen over laughing to hear that he comes from a "powerful Christian family". I'm highly sensitized to matters of institutional oppression. (I've worked with Native Americans my entire professional life.)

But you are not tackling the inherent contradictions of the act of translation head on. Since it is an act of foreignizing the original to translate at all, there will be blood. Someone will be short-changed. That balancing act can't be held accountable to political correctness. Accept the fact that you are a white, Anglo-Saxon male, and don't apologize for it. (This doesn't preclude sensitivity, even outrage, at injustices past, but don't fall prey to the guilt trip.)
To which I say:
Blood, Rich? I'm so glad in all the family humor there's still some sensitivity. You're so right that "political correctness" and "injustices past" and our own eurocentric travels in guilt over the fear and shaming and shamefulness of our white fathers shouldn't be reduced to one single, preying problem.

So you know that my wife (as talented as she is) and my daughters (with all their potential) live in a more-or-less guilt-free world where their significance nonetheless must be significantly less (23% less in earnings and far lesser in opportunities) than males with equal talent - just because they live in bodies sexed female? And their black friends - especially females - have it worse. And their hispanic friends, even worse. And their native American friends, shall we speak of them today?

So you know why Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Sioux) calls herself an Indian and why she, to this day still, can't read Wallace Stegner.

And you know how Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna, Pueblo/Sioux and Lebanese) has to "tackle" your "inherent contradictions of the act of translation" so much differently that you do or than I must, even if we all agree on your meanings of "tackling head on" your notions of "matters of institutional oppression" and "blood."

You're a guilt-free unapologetic white, Anglo-Saxon English-speaking male in Academe. Lucky you. A professional working "with Native Americans" all your own life, highly sensitized, you know what Gunn is saying in her Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Surely you've spent time, head on, in her "Kochinnenanko in Academe."
Paula Gunn Allen has to write and teach, as we all know, "within the context of growing violence against women and the concomitant lowering of our status among Native Americans."

Beyond our pasts and beyond the mere "PC" and beyond white male contemporary academic reconciliations, she must write. And she teaches:
Certainly I could not locate the mechanisms of colonization that have led to the virulent rise of woman-hating among American men (and, to a certain extent, among many of the women) without a secure and determined feminism. Just as certainly, feminist theory applied to my literary studies clarifies a number of issues for me, including patriarchal bias that has been systematically imposed on traditional literary materials and the mechanism by which that bias has affected contemporary American Indian life, thought, and culture.

. . . for when a people finds itself living with racist, classist, and sexist reality, the oral tradition will reflect those values and will thus shape the people's consciousness to include and accept racism, classism and sexism, and they will incorporate that change, hardly noticing the shift. . . .

Such alterations have occurred and are still occurring. Those who translate or "render" narratives make certain crucial changes, many unconscious. The cultural bias of the translator inevitably shapes his or her perception of the materials being translated, often in ways that he or she is unaware of. Culture is fundamentally a shaper of perception, after all, and perception is shaped by culture in many subtle ways. In short, it's hard to see the forest when you're a tree. To a great extent, changes in materials translated from a tribal to a western language are a result of the vast difference in languages; certain ideas and concepts that are implicit in the structure of an Indian language are not possible in English. Language embodies the unspoken assumptions and orientations of the culture it belongs to. So while the problem is one of translation, it is not simply one of word equivalence. The differences are perceptual and contextual as much as verbal.

Sometimes the shifts are contextual; indeed, both the context and content usually are shifted, sometime subtly, sometimes blatantly [because of the translator]. The net effect is a shifting of the whole axis of the culture. When shifts of language and context are coupled with the almost infinite changes occasioned by Christianization, secularization, economic dislocation from subsistence to industrial modes, destruction of the wilderness and associated damage to the biota, much that is changed goes unnoticed or unremarked by the people being changed. This is not to suggest that Native Americans are unaware of the enormity of the change they have been forced to undergo by the several centuries of white presence, but much of that change is at deep and subtle levels that are not easily noted or resisted.
(pages 224-45 of The Sacred Hoop)
And haven't we WM E-nglish speakers (White and Men - or W-omen too), haven't we noticed the subtitles in (Paula Brown) Gunn Allen's "Anagram"?

Every day I get mail
addressed: Paula Brown,
I read about distinguished lectures
given before auspicious bodies,

_____or eye the pleas for donations
to United Fund
and notices of fascinating seminars
which propose to parse
the anatomy of God, the Government
and the Student Revolt,

_____and I understand that the moon which shone so deeply
in my thought has so completely become a wall
just as I dreamed it would, as a child.

_____(It seems prophetic from this side of the mail-stalls,
where there are no E's on the machine addressing me
but only W's.)

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