Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Great Tradition: Translating Durrudiya's Songs

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Great Tradition: Translating Durrudiya's Songs

Article excerpt

I'm saying that the domain of poetry includes both oral and written forms, that poetry goes back to a pre-literate situation and would survive a post-literate situation, that human speech is a near-endless source of poetic forms, that there has always been more oral than written poetry, & that we can no longer pretend to a knowledge of poetry if we deny its oral dimension.1

Let us consider the consequences of 'graphocentrism' (the fetishization of the written word) and of 'technocentrism' (the fetishization of the machine) in the history of world literature. It is precisely diese two key and successive developments in the technology of language and its distribution that have supposedly placed European modernity in a leading position ever since the Enlightenment. The first, writing, defeated the frailty of human memory, and the second, printing, gave power to those ideas chosen for reproduction. While both statements are no doubt true, it is also the case that speech has not disappeared, and that our most valued ideas are still those transmitted via a more embodied proximity, through the affinities of family and friends.

In fact, it is the process of translation from spoken forms to written, and then the subsequent distribution, that gives the ideas their power. This process of translation is really hard work, and it contains all sorts of mysteries. It is far from being a simple matter of transposing form or content from the medium of the spoken word to the written or printed one. The process begins with someone noticing something strange going on, then struggling to put this event into words. If there is nothing strange, and no labour of expression, then there is no point to the events of language at all. Language would be as unexpressive as breathing - unchanging and not moving anything it encounters.

You will notice that I am not saying that speech has priority over writing, because it came first in an evolutionary sense, or still comes first in an ontogenetic or naturalist one. Jacques Derrida has been here already. I am saying that processes of translation - complex mediations of languages, things, and people - give certain ideas priority. Take the case of the Gutenberg revolution and the printing of the Bible. Certainly, the writing down of the Gospels was important for the spreading of the Word, certainly the appearance of the Bible in nearly every household was equally important. But these words still have to be read out in sermons on Sundays, repeated in schools, whispered at prayertime, sworn on in courts of law, and fought over in religious wars. These are all processes of translation in the sense of Bruno Latour, and they require embodied human effort. Christian ideas got lucky, to the extent that humans were prepared to cherish them, labour over them, fight over them - and print them. I will elaborate a little on Latour and translation later.

But first, let us take our discussion to Australia. There's a fair degree of consensus, I reckon, about what constitutes Australian literature, among the writers, publishers, academics, and critics: Australian literature is in English, and it is written.

The upheaval that was brought about in Australian archaeology and in history, when those fields engaged with data from before colonization, has not really touched the shape of our literary culture. The discovery of Mungo Lady in 1969 suddenly transformed the scale of Australian history; Australian deep history now went back 40,000 or 60,000 years, and this became a catch-cry for Indigenous politics and then for what was to become known as the cultural renaissance. This was not news for Indigenous peoples, but it made this ancient history public in a dramatic way, coupled with the kind of validation that science can bring. In the process, the concept of Indigenous sovereignty was strengthened.

In history, only a few years later, a new set of archives was being uncovered and Aboriginal histories proliferated. …

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