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Cherokee or Greek or English

September 30, 2011

Suzanne’s recent post, Navajo or Choctaw, provides contrastive translation situations in which two different Amerindian languages were variously translated into English.  She then draws a helpful analogy between how bible translators must translate into English and how, variously, modern novelists may work with their translators to render the works of fiction into English.  This made me think of the case of Cherokee and English in America in the late 1820s and the early 1830s.

The Cherokees started the first and the now longest-running bi-lingual newspaper in the USA.  It is called the Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ, Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi) and is available as an English-only version online.  Here’s how the front page of the first edition looked

You should be able to see that half of the paper is in English and the other half in Cherokee.  You might also be able to notice that the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation is published under CHEROKEE LAWS on the left side.  On the right side you will find the Cherokee “equivalent.”  Now, I’m using the word equivalent in scare quotes because the Cherokees newspaper publishers got to decide just how equivalent the English and the Cherokee in the paper was.  The publishers, all Cherokees were biliterate, bilingual speakers of Cherokee and English, but the majority of non-Cherokee readers, the Anglo American readers, were only literate in English.  A close, but bilingual reading of the newspaper, emphasizes in some subtle but also some not so subtle ways, the superiority of Cherokee culture, language, government, and religion.

The new paper needed subscribers.  Thus, to welcome in readers who could read English only (i.e., most citizens of the United States of America), the editors of the bilingual Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ, Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi) would do some interesting things.  For example, in this first issue that you have seen here, the editors printed a back-page English article, “CHEROKEE ALPHABET.”

In addition, in that first issue, the editors included a Cherokee translation of “Lord’s Prayer” — from the Greek of Matthew’s gospel.  Elias Boudinot (1804-1839), whose Cherokee name is Galagi’na Watie, was the translator.  He was a student of Greek and was proficient in English and in Cherokee.  He was also the first editor in chief of the newspaper.  Boudinot includes the Cherokee Lord’s Prayer seemingly to demonstrate the Christianity of the Indians.  Nevertheless, the multiliterate reader knows better.  Neither all Cherokees nor all Pequots considered Anglo-American Christianity their friend.  (Boudinot was friends with William Apess, a Pequot who was rather outspoken, from the pulpit and in his writings, against the abuses and oppressiveness of the USA churches; and Boudinot’s own “Address to the Whites” was just as critical.)

So the “Lord’s Prayer” appears in the inaugural issue of the Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ, Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi).  And yet, the Cherokee translation is not what an English-only Anglo-American might expect.   Elias Boudinot (aka Galagi’na Watie) asked his trusted friend (the bi-lingual Anglo-American) Samuel Austin Worcester to provide a back translation and commentary for English-only readers.  I’ll show this at the end of the blog post.  First, it’s worth noting how much Boudinot trusted his friend Worcester, and how together they worked on Cherokee-English translation.  To another English-speaking friend, Boudinot recalled their work together:

. . . Every Sabbath we have preaching & I am generally the Interpreter.  Mr. Worcester of Brainerd spent some time with us—while here we commenced systematizing the Cherokee language, & forming rules for the foundation of the Tenses.  I presume the Cherokee verbs are the most complicated in the world—nothing like it in any language whether learned or Savage, unless we except those spoken by the Indians generally.  You will form a slight idea of the almost infinite forms in the Cherokee verbs, when I tell you that we have discovered 29 Tenses in the Indicative mode, in all the verbs, & 30 in some; & that in the verb To tie, there are not less than 178 forms, only the present Tense indicative mode.  Mr. Worcester however proceeds rapidly in acquiring the language—he intends to preach in it—the blessing of God attend him. (Theresa Gaul, To Marry an Indian, page 154)

Now that “Lord’s Prayer” from the Greek to the Cherokee to the English. I’ve reproduced it as it appeared in the paper Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ, Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi) and what you see is from a handout I made once for a conference paper.  I do hope you’ll be able to make it big enough to read it:

Differences in meaning are most striking in the multiple versions of “The Lord’s Prayer.”  The material is clearly in two separate languages.  What is unlike the bilingual content on the front page of the newspaper, however, is that there is no side-by-side visual comparisons to make.  Rather, English frames the piece; there are general English language headers at the top of the piece and above the Cherokee passages, with general English-only commentary at the bottom of the text.

The two Cherokee passages are noticeably different from one another, the first having a horizontal orientation and the second a vertical one.  As mentioned, The TRANSLATION OF THE LORD’S PRAYER in Cherokee is from the Greek.  THE LORD’S PRAYER VERSIFIED is a transposition from the Cherokee prose (TRANSLATION) into a visually-and-audibly rhyming Cherokee hymn.  This TRANSLATION (from the Greek) and the transposition (from one Cherokee form into another) and the composition (of the Cherokee headings) are very likely Boudinot’s work, although he would have been aided by Worcester.

Althea Bass (in her book Cherokee Messenger) notes that, “Shortly before Samuel Worcester’s arrival [to the Cherokee Nation], David Brown, a Cherokee, had translated the New Testament from Greek into the Cherokee language, and circulated it in manuscript form” (4).  And yet, there was some question whether he “was able to translate much better from the Greek than from the English . . . [and] there were yet no types in existence for printing that language [of Cherokee]” (page 37).  Thus, Worcester, “once settled, and with Elias Boudinot at hand to delve into the intricacies of language—Greek and Latin and English and Cherokee—daily with him, he believed he could accomplish his great end, the translation of the entire Bible into Cherokee” (page 240).  Boudinot’s and Worcester’s first printing of some of their collaborative translation and work appears initially in Cherokee Phoenix (ᏣᎳᎩ ᏧᎴᎯᏌᏅᎯ, Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi).

The trustworthy “W.” is the contributor of the English, though not necessarily the provider of the Cherokee.  The English reader, then, is directed first to the fact that the Cherokee passages are “POETRY”:  A) the translation “from the original [Greek scriptures]” and B) the versification to be sung a well-known hymn tune “Dalton.”  These headers provide the English-only readers with some assurance that at least some of the Cherokees have been Christianized.  And the authoritative reference to “the original” with the allusion to a familiar melody would encourage the Anglo-American members of the audience to sense that the Indians now are fully converted.

Then again, the commentary in English quite resists the literal notion of “translation.”  I wonder if that could be some resistance to a figural translation of Cherokee converts into the kind of religion some Anglo Americans would enforce.  What do you think?  Certainly, the translation into English is from the Cherokee, so that English is last in the hierarchy and Cherokee is closest to the original, that is, it’s closest to the Greek.  And in some sense, Worcester may even consider the Cherokee superior to any language:  “‘There is’ Worcester wrote [elsewhere], ‘a peculiar definiteness about the Cherokee language, which compels us to settle many questions, which the English and Greek leave ambiguous.’” (Bass 92).  Worcester had utmost respect for Boudinot’s abilities and wrote as late as 1851, “The fact that none of us preach in Cherokee, or are likely to, is indeed a difficulty, and the want of an adequate number of suitable interpreters is a greater one.  And I think it now highly probable that no white missionary will hereafter acquire it” (Bass, page 93).

So it is worth noting how Worcester reads, or only attempts to “literally translate,” what he considers Boudinot’s good work.  The Cherokee authenticity comes through.  “Our Father” definitely connotes a patrilineage, but as already mentioned in his “Address to the Whites,” Boudinot says “my fathers sleeping” and “I am no longer like my fathers.”  While this could be read as a rejection of his Cherokee heritage, the rejection of the father, even God in this case, may be what good Cherokee young men do to more embrace the matrilineal community.  “Who dwellest above” and “lead us not into a place of straying” can be interpreted as a sense or a longing for the homeland and the Divine resistance to removal.  “Thy empire springing to light” ties in with the Cherokee Nation’s emphasis on nationhood and nation building and enlightenment.  “Pity” of sin rather than forgiveness suggests that Theda Perdue may be right in saying the “Christian concept of sin does not have a direct corollary in the Cherokee belief system:  for Cherokees, sin involved violating basic categories, blurring the boundaries, and upsetting the equilibrium” (See her book, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, page 28).   In this way, translation could be seen as an act of sin.  So when Boudinot and Worcester print The Lord’s Prayer, they are careful.  Their beginning note in English is unequivocal:  “Literal translations, word for word, from English into Cherokee, are beyond the limits of possibility.” And the ending, after the illustration line-by-line, is an English-language commentary on the lexical/semantic efficiency of Cherokee relative to English.

But what is truly revolutionary in Boudinot’s and Worcester’s presentation of their translations and transpositions of “The Lord’s Prayer” is not the explicit English statement denying translation.  Nor is the line-by-line demonstration of the differences between Cherokee and English particularly radical, since even a mono-literate Anglo-American or possibly even an illiterate could actually see the differences.  Rather, what’s revolutionary is Boudinot’s translation, his play with words across two languages that allows instant access (with validating inclusion) to the readers who are, as he is, multiply literate in the Cherokee alphabet with the English, as once the sole domain and dominion of the Anglo American.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 11:58 am

    One of the nice features of WordPress blogs is that when one clicks on an image, the original version comes up on the screen, making it relatively easy to read those papers that you mention.


  1. Cherokee Translators: essays from the Cherokee Phoenix « BLT
  2. Christian privilege | Mind Your Language

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