Editing Modernism in Canada


May 16, 2011

Dictionaries, Translations, and the Indigenous Archive

I have spent a good part of the last two years thinking about, seeking out, and infiltrating archives. It would be pretty futile to produce an edition of Marius Barbeau’s The Downfall of Temlaham without stepping into at least one physical archive, or two, or three … well, you get the point – the process has been far more intensive than just searching through Barbeau’s papers to look at earlier manuscripts of the text. I have had to negotiate an immense amount of information spread across many dozens of archival sites (both physical and digital) in order to even begin charting the production of the novel and the resources that surround it. In having spent so much time working within and considering the nature of the archive I have become fascinated with a problem related to archival resources in relation to First Nations cultures in Canada. Specifically, in attempting to translate the words Barbeau uses to express the Gitxsan language, I have noticed the gap in the historical and cultural archives of Canadian First Nations communities.  After spending most of my time thinking about large-scale problems of linking massive amounts of information in online digital archives, I have turned towards the issues of language, translation, and what the archive means for cultural groups in which there are no archival resources. In thinking this through, I have been negotiating the problematic representation of language groups and their presence, or absence, in archives based on settler-driven desires for preservation, and anthropologically based projects of language recording. In the end, the problem of looking back at First Nations languages in Canada, especially in regards to having stories recorded in a particular cultural group’s own language, is that one typically has to look back to representations of such languages and stories through translated accounts filled with lacunae, where there is no access to “original” documents, and where they are typically filtered through political, colonial, and anthropological lenses.

Apparently the first transcription of the Gitxsan language by a settler was published in 1881 by The Colonist Steam Presses in Victoria. Bishop William Ridley, one of the first missionaries to ascend the Skeena, produced A Selection of Prayers Translated from The Book of Common Prayer in the Giatikshan Language for Use at the Public Services. A “Zimshian” version (Tsimshian or, more likely, Sm’algyax) was published in 1882 by Ridley through the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. As an example of the first phonetic dictation of these two closely related languages, one can see the beginnings of the mapping of the historical lexical changes within the dialects of two distinct cultural communities that shared a common language system that had never been recorded before. One can also chart the cultural and political forces that marked the symbolic growth of these two languages, as one can imagine from the fact that these languages were recorded for the first time for the purposes of Christian missionary work.

Because Pacific Northwest Coast communities such as the Gitxsan were colonized late in the nineteenth century (compared to other communities in contact zones throughout the Americas), things begin to blur very quickly from the first recordings of the languages and their present-day use. Franz Boas, and then Marius Barbeau, arrived shortly after Ridley’s transcription, and both produced different phonetic and graphic interpretations of the languages. In The Downfall of Temlaham, it seems that Barbeau mostly used a Sm’algyax lexicon, even though the principle figures in the novel are Gitxsan. Despite the fact that I have access to about a dozen resources from which to translate the novel, there is simply no individual resource which would allow me to discover closer connections to the words Barbeau used.  Searching for the exact spelling of Barbeau’s translations in online Gitxsan and Sm’algyax dictionaries suggests to me that Barbeau was confusing Gitxsan with Sm’algyax, but, of course, the lexical interpretations of these languages have changed since Barbeau wrote his novel, which could mean that he was simply producing his own interpretation of what he perceived as a general Tsimshianic language group. In some cases, I have found more than a dozen variants of a single word or name, often similar, but in some cases the graphemes are completely different despite similar phonemes. Searching through newspapers, maps, books, and recordings, both online and offline, produces various frustrating results when a suggested spelling using the phoneme “K’” is later changed to a hard “G.” Entire words have been changed to more fully represent the languages as they are seen by their users today, which effectively erased most of Ridley and Barbeau’s interpretations of the Gitxsan and Sm’algyax.

It becomes even more confusing when these words take on political and cultural significance. Of course all words are political and cultural, but for the Gitxsan and the Tsimshian words are a part of an inherited ability to map geographical boundaries, kin relationships, and an individual’s history across multiple living bodies. Recording such a language takes on a different cultural significance than if it is passed down orally, or told through a totem pole, marking a distinction between the cultural heritage of the communities that use it and the ethnologists that attempt to preserve it. Barbeau most likely was sincere in his desire to understand and record the Gitxsan language, but his work forces us to ask questions about how and why we produce archives, what we can do with them, and what they tell us about the past, present, and future.  I need to reconsider the issue of indigenous modernity in regards to the role of linguistic archival preservation, and what role ethnology plays in the politics of indigenous rights in relation to the archiving of cultures, and as I will be talking about this at the MLA conference this coming January, I would appreciate hearing back from anyone who has any thoughts about the role of textual and archival materialism in relation to indigenous cultures.

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