Sarah Winnemucca, Translation, and US Colonialism and Imperialism

By Sorisio, Carolyn | MELUS, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Sarah Winnemucca, Translation, and US Colonialism and Imperialism


Sorisio, Carolyn, MELUS


I can speak five tongues--three Indian tongues, English and Spanish. I can read and write, and am a school teacher. Now I do not say this to boast, but simply to show you what can be done.

--Sarah Winnemucca (qtd. in "We have referred")

Sarah Winnemucca, the nineteenth-century Northern Paiute translator, educator, author, and activist, lived within five languages. (1) To her, multilingualism was a source of power. (2) Nonetheless, throughout her life, the English language was brandished as a weapon by the US government and some reformers against American Indians. In response, she wielded English education and translation as twin tools of resistance, though her role as translator was perilous at times. Her Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883) contains some of the most detailed representations of translation by an American Indian in the nineteenth century. Yet the book is only part of her legacy. Hundreds of newspaper articles by or about Winnemucca from her first public appearance in 1864 to her death in 1891 provide evidence regarding her use of the English language and representations of translation. They indicate how some non-Native members of the media responded to Winnemucca's English-language skills and represented her role as a translator, thereby allowing us to better assess Winnemucca's interaction with her audiences. This essay furthers critical appreciation of the complexity of Winnemucca's representational strategies in the context of those audiences, allowing us to identify her as participating in what Lawrence Venuti refers to as an alternative genealogy of resistant translators (Translator's 40). (3) Drawing on Venuti's terminology, Winnemucca's representations of translation can be understood as foreignizing and subversive, though her representations of subversive translation differ substantially from those described by Venuti, particularly regarding assertions of untranslatability. To resist colonialism, Winnemucca created foreignizing representations of translation while also insisting on communicability across languages.

Analyzing Winnemucca's representational strategies regarding translation is important in its own right; (4) however, it also prompts a reconsideration of recent literary critical interest in globalization and transnationalism, because to understand better the complexity of Winnemucca's resistance and her unsettling effect on audiences, one needs to consider her representations within the late-nineteenth-century contexts of nationalisms, US colonialism, and US imperialism. Doing so partially redresses the lack of attention given to Native American literature by many scholars of transnationalism and US imperialism. Shari M. Huhndorf notes that even major innovators in the field focus on either transnationalism and imperialism outside of North America or US-Chicano frontier relations (Mapping 17). Similarly, Philip J. Deloria argues that critical attention to globalization often focuses on a "particular version of 'the transnational'" that overlooks US-Indian relations. He challenges us to consider the implications of "domestic dependent nations--literally internal trans-nations--within the boundaries of (and willing to transcend the boundaries of) the United States" ("From Nation" 371). Considering representations of Winnemucca and translation within an imperial as well as colonial context is more than a corrective gesture; it allows us to better understand the connections among nationalisms (US and American Indian), colonialism (often understood as domestic or continental), and US imperialism (typically conceptualized as outside of North America).

At first glance, there appears to be little relationship between Winnemucca and US imperial efforts beyond what would become the contiguous forty-eight United States. A Northern Paiute woman born circa 1844, Winnemucca experienced one of the fastest contact histories in North America (Knack and Stewart 45). …

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