Linguistics Department

Colloquium - Tony Webster (UT Anthropology) "Everything got kinda strange after awhile: Some reflections on translating Navajo poetry that should not be translated"

Mon, October 14, 2013 | CLA 1.302B

3:00 PM - 4:30 PM



“They told us these stories to make us think.”

            Unnamed Navajo consultant

                   (Hill and Hill 1945:317)


Abstract: Inspired by an inquiry from a Navajo friend about why I had not published on a particular poem by Rex Lee Jim, this paper engages that question through three interconnected themes. First, there will be an analysis of the poem by Jim where I both translate the poem, but also place the poem within a broader context of Navajo concerns with k’é ‘reciprocity, generosity, friendship, affection, peace.’ I will also suggest something of a way of thinking about the poem based on a poetic principle of phonological iconicity that I have discussed in relation to other poems by Jim (see Webster 2013). Second, I then turn to thinking through some of the issues brought out in the translation of the Navajo word ajik’eed as ‘one fucks.’ This leads to questions—following Shaylih Muehlmann (2013)—about the ways that Indigenous languages and their speakers are imagined and represented.  Finally, I take up the foregoing issues as I reflect on my own translation practices.

Keywords: Navajo, poetry, translation, vulgarity, moral responsibility

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