Voices from Four Directions: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America

By Swan, Daniel C. | Western Folklore, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Voices from Four Directions: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America


Swan, Daniel C., Western Folklore


Voices from Four Directions: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America. Edited by Brian Swann. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Pp. xxii + 617, introduction, contributors, index. $70.00 cloth, $27.50 paper)

Voices From Four Directions provides a substantial complement to Brian Swann's many initiatives to document the rich diversity of Native literature and make it accessible to scholarly and lay audiences (2005 . . . 1983; Krupat and Swann 2000; Swann and Krupat 2005 [1987], 1987). In the present volume Swann gives us the work of eighty-six scholars, storytellers and community members whose collaborations bring an amazing array of genres, styles and forms of oral literature to the printed page. Organized into four broad sections, each named for a cardinal direction, the book features literary works from thirty-one Native communities in North America. The material ranges widely, from retranslations of nineteenth-century ethnographic texts to self-translations of contemporary compositions. A welcome feature of the work is the presentation of translations of songs and musical traditions, including the origin story for the Kiowa Gourd Dance and inspiration for its associated musical repertoires, and an assessment of the poetic qualities of O'odham Whirlwind Songs.

Introductory essays accompany the texts, providing physical, cultural, linguistic and historical contexts for the materials presented. Many of these address political, cultural and technical issues associated with the translation of Native literature. Several of the essayists write in detail about these intricacies of translation, most of them acknowledging the inadequacy of English to convey fully the grammatical precision and cultural richness of Native languages. Other essayists provide overviews of innovative approaches that have been employed to bridge the divide between interlinear and free translations. Gaining lead from the pioneering works of Dell Hymes (2004 [1981], 2003) and Dennis Tedlock (1999 [1972], 1983), the majority of the translators present their materials in an ethnopoetic style to compensate for the loss of richness and voice often encountered when speech and narrative performance acts are rendered as written texts.

The materials provide informed examples of the underlying importance of Native literature as testament to the intellectual and creative enterprise of Native people, as evidenced in the creation stories, epic legends, trickster tales, songs, poetry, fables and sacred texts presented here. The literature is edifying at multiple levels, and a careful reading can reveal a variety of subtle insights. Among my many discoveries was the incorporation of modern concepts and phrases in renditions and translations by contemporary speakers of Native languages. Examples include the use of the lasso by contemporary Navajo cowboys as metaphor for the supernatural actions of the supreme God, Yeibichai (314), and, in a Tlingit trickster myth, use of the phrase "taking a vacation" (29) to describe the travel and spiritual encounters of Raven. …

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