Monday, January 2, 2012

Living in Translation

Whenever I have encountered American depictions of Native American or First Nations people, I have wondered why their personal names are often given in English. Names such as "Touch the Clouds," "Sitting Bull," "Crow Foot," "American Horse," and "Buffalo Hump" are the ones that typically make it into history books and anthologies. That has often left me wondering, what happened to the original names and languages of the people of these nations? Of course they still exist to varying degrees. However, for some reason, American history has not been kind enough to take First Nations people at face value, seemingly expecting that many translate themselves into English before they are comprehensible. I realize I am generalizing. There are certainly families who have retained names and traditional naming systems, and there have been movements to preserve languages and promote their use in younger generations. But, unfortunately, these efforts are rarely foregrounded in the national US consciousness.

To me, it is sad to imagine people predominantly living in translation, to the degree that, even the names they are given within the bossoms of their families are translations or approximations of names that once were. I try to imagine a parallel scenario in East Africa, where, instead of having given names in their native Dholuo, Kigiryama, Turkana or Kipfokomo, people would have had translated given names like "Firstborn Son," "Born during Famine," "Born during the Harvest," "Hyena." Perhaps these names would have been comprehensible to a large population of English speakers, but they would have marked some sort of alienation from the people's oral traditions.

It is sad when fluency in old languages is lost, but even more profoundly so when personal names in the old languages are lost. My concern is this: if people are sentenced to live in other people's languages, even in this most fundamental of senses, then to what extent do they control their image as perceived by themselves and others? Perpetually living in translation means that one is almost always accommodating oneself to others' perceptions and ways of being, even in one's own home. There is little effort being expended to do the converse: to live on one's own terms, and to get others to understand one on one's own terms. In the best of circumstances, interaction should be a two-way street. Having to live in translation is a testament that the circumstances are far from ideal.

This particular observation applies, not just to Native Americans, but also to African Americans in their naming systems and beauty ideals. When they were brought over to the US through the Middle Passage, African peoples were reinvented. They essentially lost their names to slave names and gradually lost their languages and many of their traditions. The circumstances forced them to adopt new strategies to simply survive. However, vestiges of the old ways and languages remained in their cultural practices. I have always been intrigued by such survivals, but I don't think that the comparatively new names and practices are illegitimate. In various ways, the latter speak of the history of African peoples in the Americas, and that is valuable.

That said, it has been my observation, as a non-American living in the US, that African Americans have often lived 'in translation,' reinventing themselves to conform more closely to mainstream American ideals. The most apparent indication of this was in women's hair grooming practices: Tight African curls were so demonized that, until recently, it would have been next to impossible to see black women wearing their hair without applying some form of chemical straightener or heat to it. The issue is so controversial that black hair grooming practices have been politicized. To me this is ridiculous. How can one's natural hair texture be political in a nation that claims to be Christian? From a Christian standpoint, did God not create the world and all that was in it and declare it to be good? So how on earth can any normal and healthy phenotypic expression be deemed 'bad'? How can hair of any texture or color be 'bad'? How can skin of any complexion or eyes of any shade be 'bad'?

Many black women who have opted for natural hair textures have been demonized, largely by their own families and peers. These families' and peers' reactions, while problematic, are understandable. They have lived for so long in a world where they have had to 'translate' their hair into acceptable textures that the alternative terrifies them. To me this is the epitome of 'living in translation.'

Racism was the external factor behind the 'translation' strategies historically adopted by Native American and African American peoples. However, today, I believe that the impulse to continue 'translating' comes predominantly from within. It makes sense that the efforts to transform this cultural dynamic are being developed within these very cultures.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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