Lost in Translation

by Marie Munkara


When I was born the languages spoken by my family in Arnhemland and the Tiwi Islands belonged entirely to us. Only we spoke them in their entirety and others who had ties to us in ceremony or trade spoke only the bits that were relevant to ensure a smooth transaction between both parties. And then after the inevitability of my removal at the age of three from my mum under the Assimilation Policy because I wasn’t black enough and my subsequent return twenty five years later, I discovered that something had happened to our languages while I was away. Linguists had begun to take an interest in our words, they wanted to record them and make word dictionaries and the like. And so our languages stopped belonging to us completely as they moved into the public domain where they were translated into the written word to be saved for posterity. Some people thought it was a good idea because they believed it meant that even if our people died, our languages would live as long as someone was interested in speaking them. Others thought that a language on paper is better than no language at all. Me, I beg to differ.

Although I had communicated with my family in a number of languages before the age of three the first language that I focused on after I found my family and was reunited with them was Tiwi as my mother was living on the Tiwi Islands. After being at a complete loss in a sea of Tiwi words because everyone refused to speak English to me (after all I did know Tiwi before English so why should they make any concessions), I was determined to be able to hold a conversation in my own language the next time I came to visit. As I have no patience I decided to speed up the process of relearning Tiwi and acquired The Tiwi Language by C.R. Osborne (1974) from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Osborne had commenced this work on the Tiwi language as a research scholar in Aboriginal Linguistics at the University of Queensland in 1966 and completed it at the University of London in 1971-72. This book also came with a tape of Tiwi speakers which I thought was handy as my ears and my brain, in that order, could begin to refamiliarise themselves as I played it in the car on the way to the shops, or in the cassette player while I soaked in the bath. There would be no repeat of my last visit where I had to bribe my younger brother for food because I couldn’t remember how to say yinkiti and my mum refused to feed me until I did. This time I would come prepared.

So September 1989 arrived and so did I on Bathurst Island with my belongings and a head full of Tiwi words and sentences. I had rigorously studied the phonology, morphology and syntax of the Tiwi language as outlined in Osborne’s text and memorised words from the dictionary, I was ready for battle. But my cockiness was to be short-lived as the more I tried to speak Tiwi the more they rolled around and slapped their thighs and laughed, they had no idea what I was saying. When I showed them Osborne’s text they laughed even more – after all what language lives in a book, it lives in the people who speak it. So after the laughter had died down I then pulled out the tape of Tiwi speakers, let’s see what they have to say about this I thought. Interestingly the voices of the four old men who were Osborne’s linguistic informants were immediately recognisable to the older people and there was much discussion as they explained what they were saying and their kinship relationships to me. But even more interesting was that the listeners, including my mum, knew the language as “old Tiwi” and much of it wasn’t spoken any more. It was a surprise to me that the Tiwi language had evolved so much in the twenty five years since the tape had been recorded as it had never occurred to me that the words of a language could change, and in that short space of time as well. I had just assumed that what was being said now was the same as what was spoken hundreds of years ago and would continue to be the same in the future.

So it was back to square one, relearn the language by listening to the real thing and not reading it from a book. Thankfully the language returned to me fairly quickly and it was after this that I decided to have another look at Osborne’s text to try and work out what had gone wrong. It was obvious to me by then that Osborne’s The Tiwi Language was a written record of “old Tiwi”, and the fault lay not in my attempts to relearn the language, but in the assumption that it was accurate and up to date. From the moment I reopened the book I began to notice that some words that were currently in use and not the “old Tiwi” were barely recognisable in their written form, little wonder that nobody could understand me. I could only attribute this to the fact that despite Osborne’s training his ears mustn’t have been able to pick up the unfamiliar inflections and nuances of Tiwi words. He would have then proceeded to record the words as he heard them not as they had been said. A bit like Chinese whispers that I played at school where someone whispers something and they in turn pass it on only to discover at the end of the line that the sentence has completely changed. And so twenty five years later when I spoke Osborne’s words they were in fact Osborne’s version of Tiwi and not real Tiwi. But I might add this is no reflection of Osborne’s abilities as a linguist, he was probably highly skilled at what he did. It was just the human factor that made things work out this way and if these words had been recorded by a Tiwi person and not spoken to Osborne to write them down, then maybe this text would be closer to what my family speaks today.

So although it is important to save our rapidly disappearing indigenous languages we need to be mindful of the fact that what is being translated from the verbal into the written word may not necessarily be an accurate interpretation. I can only wonder how much of our languages have already been lost in the translation. In my situation there are a fair number of Tiwi speakers to carry this rapidly evolving language on, but in situations where there are no speakers left and the language is being revived from the words in a book, how much of the real language is being spoken and how much is gibberish. And if this is the case, do we continue to preserve these languages in the hope that it is not a facsimile of the original or do we let the words that were once spoken by real people die with dignity rather than face a future of mangled and mispronounced utterances that bear no resemblance to their true spoken origins?