The Dialect of the Tribe

The Dialect of the Tribe

Harry Mathews

This is a reprint of Mathews’ short story which originally appeared in The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (Dalkey Archive 2002).

Reprinted from The Human Country: New and Collected Stories. Chicago and Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002. 7-14.

For Georges Perec

Thank you for the letter suggesting I contribute to the Festschrift in your honor. I have never doubted that in translating your work I have been of service to our two cultures, but I am flattered to think that my general views on translation may be worth a hearing. I shall be happy to contribute to the homage you are deservedly to receive, not only for the privilege of collaborating in so distinguished an enterprise, but because I truly feel that the subject you have assigned me is a vital one. The longer I live - the longer I write - the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing. To put it another way: it is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift. Of course I am not saying that translation - at least not as I practice it - takes precedence over other modes of writing. On the contrary: it is its modesty that makes it so useful. But while it differs enormously in substance from true writing (like your own), the difference is only one of degree. One might then say that insofar as true writing is a kind of translation, the text from which it works is an infinitely arduous one: nothing less than the universe itself.

By coincidence - only minds poorer than ours would call it accident - I was, as you were writing your letter, engaged in radically extending my knowledge of translation, in a way as appropriate as it was unforeseen.

I had returned for ten days to Fitchwinder University in order to continue my research on the Bactrian controversy. Our old friend Ms. Maxine Moon is still a librarian there; and it was she who brought to my attention the unexpected text that was to occupy me during the rest of my stay. This text was not in Bactrian, it was not about Bactria - in fact it put the Bactrians quite out of my head. It was in, of all things, Pagolak, the speech of a small hill tribe in northern New Guinea; and it had been transcribed for an article in an Australian anthropological journal by one Ernest Botherby (bless him!). It was entitled - by Dr. Botherby perhaps - Kalo Gap Pagolak, meaning magic transformation of Pagolak. Ms. Moon, correctly, ‘thought it would interest’ me. The text, she said, was an account of a method used by the Pagolak-speaking tribe to translate their tongue into the dialects of their neighbors. What was remarkable about this method was that while it produced translations that foreign listeners could understand and accept, it also concealed from them the original meaning of every statement made.

You will understand that once I had heard this much, it was impossible not to want to learn more. To translate successfully and not reveal one’s meaning - what could be more paradoxical? What could be more relevant? (Is anything more paradoxical than the act of translation?) The crafty Ms. Moon had me hooked. She whetted my craving with the remark that Pagolak was supposedly simple, with structures I could hope to master quickly, and abetted it by supplying two Pagolak dictionaries, one English, the other Dutch.

Ms. Moon had spoken the truth: the language is, as you will see, accessible enough, and I worked long hours at it. I made such progress as to expect by the end of a week to be able to produce an English rendering of Kalo Gap Pagolak. (Need I say that you would have been the first beneficiary of this undertaking?) But there is more to any language than its mechanisms, and inherent in the very utterance of Pagolak was something that kept the roughest translation beyond my grasp.

(The dictionaries turned out to be useless. They had been compiled for traders and had only an arbitrary, mercantile utility. The problem, in any case, was not one of particular words.)

As I became familiar with the text, which was an oral declaration by the abanika or ‘chief word-chief’ of the tribe, I began wondering why Dr. Botherby had not himself supplied a translation as part of his article. He had done his other work scrupulously: his commentary was packed with useful information; he had clearly taken great care in transcribing the words of the speaker. Had he, too, encountered some obstacle to Englishing the text? The better I understood Kalo Gap Pagolak, the surer I became that Dr. Botherby, like myself, had had no choice except to leave the abanika’s declaration intact. Was it after all so surprising for a language to resist ordinary procedures of translation when it was itself capable of extraordinary ones? What could be more extraordinary than a method that would allow words to be ‘understood’ by outsiders without having their substance given away? It was true that the abanika claimed the power of controlling this method for himself; but I was starting to realize how absurd such a claim might be. For it wasn’t only those like the abanika who had this power, but every last member of his tribe. The method did not depend on individual decision; it was an integral part of the language itself. No one speaking Pagolak could escape it. No one attempting to penetrate Pagolak could elude it.

In a matter of days I found myself perfectly capable of understanding what the abanika was saying and perfectly incapable of repeating it in other terms, whether in English, or French - or Middle Bactrian. The abanika’s declaration, you see, was the very process of transforming language that I expected it to be about. It was not an account of the process, it was the process itself. And how can you translate a process? You’d have to render not only words but the spaces between them - like snapshooting the invisible air under the beating wings of flight. An impossibility. All that can be done is describe, suggest, record impressions and effects. That is what Dr. Botherby did for his anthropological colleagues. It is the best I can do for you.

From beginning to end, the abanika’s words concern the means of bringing about kalo gap, the ‘magic changing,’ the redirecting of language towards foreign ears in a way that both provides clarity and suppresses translation’s customary raison d’être - the communication of substantive content. You and I may know that such communication is at best hypothetical, perhaps impossible; that translation may, precisely, exorcise the illusion that substantive content exists at all - but what led a remote New Guinean tribe to such a discovery? Why should it care?

My questions are rhetorical: the abanika speaks only of hows, not whys. Let me acquaint you with some of his terms. The hermetic transformation he articulates is associated with the word nalaman. More precisely: nalaman is the final result of the transformation, while the means of achieving that result is namele. As you can see, or better hear, if ‘namele’ is to become ‘nalaman,’ a redistribution of phonemes must take place. Here is a first demonstration of the ‘magic of changing,’ in one of its simplest forms. The words representing these changes (kalo gap) sometimes involve namele and sometimes namelan, according to whether the means or the end is invoked.

Now if kalo gap is embodied willy-nilly in the act of speaking, awareness of it is something that has to be learned. Young males are schooled in this awareness during their initiation into manhood, or nuselek. Dr. Botherby, who underwent the initiation rite (nanmana) so as to witness and record it, says that pain and privation make initiates highly receptive, so that they master namele rapidly. (afanu) is sitokap utu sisi. This phrase leaves an impression, approximately, of ‘resettling words in [own] eggs’: aptly enough, after the youngsters emerge from afanu through sitokap utu sisi into nuselek and its attendant privileges of ton wusi and aban metse, they claim to be emerging from boyhood (rather: ‘boybeing’) seabirds from chicken eggs (utopani inul ekasese nuselek ne sami sisinam) - dear Christ, it doesn’t mean that - but can you perhaps intuit how tokkele (not ‘words,’ those words) return to their sisi to re-emerge in unexpected, unrecognizable forms?

Sitokap utu sisi - this will surprise no one familiar with the ancient Mysteries, the Kabbala, or modem linguistics - sitokap utu sisi requires sutu (you cannot call it death - perhaps dying, the dying … ), narakaviri (like fire, like burning - fire-as-burning), and kot (not just s–t, but life tumultuously swarming out of the tropical dung, or words to that effect). The crux is narakaviri. The abanika makes this deafeningly clear as he cries over and over nuselek ka namele nanmana nalaman nanasiluvo narakaviri - of course he is, as well, making a magical pun, magical in the incantatory repetition of the initial na, punning in that it identifies the initiation of the young men (nanmana) with the transformation of language they are submitting to (namele). Narakaviri ne se eleman again indicates the primordial role of fire-being-burning, although sutu and kot are never forgotten. (Examples: umanisi suta kalasawri nekkolim and tuku kot, kot kotavan.) But the moment of narakaviri is supreme - above all for us, for you and me, writer and translator. Nusu tese alukan, you might say (but they would not say it, not in nalaman, because alukan is a foreign word, meaning ‘gold’).

Now, dear colleague, and companion, please look hard at these two short passages in Pagolak. Each points to narakaviri, to this critical moment in namele. The first enacts the way up to it (pakanu), and the second the way down from it (plot). You can enter these passages. What I propose is not reasonable, not unreasonable. Enter these two passages. You have no need for more knowledge. Your awareness is equal to the task. This is a task: like all tasks correctly performed, it leads to revelation. Move (as I did) through the first passage to the last, become the bodily metamorphosis that this movement inspires, and you will have made the great lurch forward in your afanu. Then we shall walk in the light of nuselek together.

What you must provide is attention. Your attention must be absolutely ready. More than that: you must expand it in a decorum of complete accessibility, in a ripeness as for dying, with the sense of a purpose vast but as yet unknown. Do not think, do not care: Be!

First, pakanu:

Amak esodupelu mukesa dap alemok use dup ulemaka.’ (Repeat three times.)

Last, plot:

Amak esudupelu moke sadapalemuk use dup olemaka.’ (Ditto.)

Helpful hints: don’t bother with amak, a conventional opening lan; or with dup, which signals that an utterance is almost nalaman. Mukesa dap alemok includes, in a polysemistic context, ‘Like jug, cork woman[’s mouth],’ while other things refers to a folksong in which ‘impetuous [husband] withdraws-from-vagina.’ (Women are thought to create namele naturally, along with language; but as I hardly need tell you, they have no mastery of it - no power of nalaman.) Similarly, where use ule ulemaka involves ‘burning the old field,’ use olemaka leads to ‘burning (i.e. cooking) new fish.’

Submit to the passages once again. Do you see how beautiful this is? How brightly narakaviri colors the dawn sky? Brighter than any ulemaka! And now how bright and dear it must be that namele never be explained, or nalaman understood! Listen: awa nuselek kot tak nalaman namele Pagolak! I promise to steal the book for you, from this selfsame library - fuck Ms. Moon, since she won’t let me Xerox it. I shall do this for you - what wouldn’t I do for you? And even before you share the totality of the words, you - abanika yourself, abanika esolunava - can partake of my tunaga (joy-as-it-becomes-joy), my utter nasavuloniputitupinoluvasan, as the birth-wording goes, when alemok brings forth tupinohi who will some day come to nuselek. Such twenty-one carat alukan for our own namele and nalaman - words into words, sparse scraps resurrected in the plenitude of unentrammelled recreation! And I promise to turn to the composition for your Festschrift as soon as this letter is mailed. Meanwhile, nasavuloniputitupinoluvasan! And let me on this private occasion add a few last words, spoken out of the fullness of my mind and heart with admiration, with devotion, with love: Amak kalo gap eleman narna la n’kat tokkele sunawa setan anman umanisi sutu pakotisovulisanan unafat up lenumo kona kafe avanu Io se akina ba nasavuloniputitupinoluvasan (!!) abanika esolunava efaka nok ornunel put afanu nanasfluvo sitokap utu sisi narnu nanmana tes awa nuselek kot tak nalarnan namele Pagolak kama -