In 1969 Led Zeppelin released the first recording of a song called Communication Breakdown (feel free to click below and have a listen if you’re not familiar). The song seems to be about a girl with whom the writer is enamored, and his frustration at their inability to communicate effectively.
“Communication breakdown, it’s always the same.
I’m having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!”
And who hasn’t been frustrated once or twice by trying to communicate with a significant other? Communication can “breakdown” in many different ways. Often, there is an issue of translation. At one point in the song the writer exclaims, “I don’t know what it is that I like about you, but I like it a lot,” indicating an inability to translate feelings into words. The song also resonates with the idea that men and woman speak different languages, and that perhaps we need some way to translate across genders (which is largely what the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus seeks to do).
What does this have to do with early America and the people who inhabited it? Everything.
All communication has to be translated to some extent, and translating texts from the 1800’s is perhaps even more complicated than translating what your date means when s/he says “I’ll call you…” while staring off into space, and there are multiple reasons for this. Language changes over time, but so does culture, and cultural changes are often reflected in language.
As such, translating “must occur on a cultural level, not simply linguistically.” Many huge cultural shifts have happened since the birth of this country, one of the most important being how women and people of different ethnic backgrounds are treated and regarded. This shift makes it particularly difficult to translate the words of women, slaves, and natives from early America. People who are considered “subordinate” or “marginal” rarely have the freedom to communicate completely in their own terms. What it would it mean if a woman said, “I’ll call on you” during a time when it was considered the man’s place to do so? Translation getting stickier.
Today, we have access to the written account of a very interesting woman by the name of Mary Ann Talbot. Talbot encountered many hardships in her life, one of which led her to dress as a man. She acted as a man in many ways, helping sail ships and acting as a “powder monkey” during battles, making sure gunpowder was where it needed to be. Her tale would remind modern readers of the Disney film, Mulan in many ways, except Talbot did not begin dressing as a man by choice, and according to her written account, never wanted to do such a thing, but was required to by circumstance. However, her story was written down by a publisher named Robert S. Kirby based on Talbot’s memories. So the story is first filtered through Talbot’s memory, then through Kirby’s interpretations of those memories, and then, through a modern reader’s understanding of what sailing, war, and cross-dressing might mean, which is likely very different than Talbot’s own understanding.
Some have even claimed that her story is false because certain dates and names in the story do not match up with historical record. However, when we consider the amount of translating that has to be done in order for the modern reader to access this story, inaccurate details seem almost unavoidable. Was there anything that Talbot had to lie about or leave out for her own safety (or the safety of others)? Was there anything Kirby saw fit to embellish because it would appeal to early American readers? We may never know.
The journal of Sarah Kemble Knight (mentioned in the previous blog post) is another example of a difficult translation task. It contains several lines and anecdotes that, through today’s lens, make Kemble Knight seem like a stuck-up, holier-than-thou racist with very picky taste. However, when we put her into a context where racism is common, her stomach has been bouncing up and down on horseback for days on end, and woman are expected to be weak, her demeanor doesn’t seem quite as elitist, or does it?
The early writings of Native Americans present just as many translation tangles as do those of women. At the beginning of America, many Natives were forced into a new language, a new religion, a new social order, and a new form of literacy, and (duh) they did not transition seamlessly. Native Americans infused their own culture into their writing, and their own culture comes with its own assumptions. Hilary Wyss looks at notes that Natives wrote in their bibles, and finds “both the mundane and the profound” written in the margins. While this could be taken as blasphemy (to use a bible to mark down death days), Wyss points out that this could also be a clue into how Native negotiated between Christianity and their own beliefs.
William Apess wrote what is often considered the first Native American autobiography, and judging by his writing he was very aware of the possibility for translation issues; embedded in his autobiography are instructions for interpretation. While this is helpful for understanding his arguments and stories in many ways, even these embedded instructions do not stand the translation-test of time, for they were still written in and for a particular culture. He directly addresses readers, and while we may technically be readers, and we may feel as though he is speaking to us, we are not the readers he has in mind. I, myself, read his autobiography on a laptop. In the early 1800’s, I highly doubt that Apess imagined readers taking in his words through a screen as opposed to a book. His instructions for interpretation are meant to push against common ideas and beliefs of his time, not of ours.
At one point he states,
“I presume that the reader will exclaim, ‘What savages your grandparents were to treat unoffending, helpless, children in this cruel manner.’ But this cruel and unnatural conduct was the effect of some cause. I attribute it in a great measure to the whites…”
Today, it is not uncommon to associate Native American alcoholism with terrible way that white settlers treated them and the harsh realities they faced. On top of often losing their land and their homes, “Native identity was threatened with annihilation.” A modern reader is probably more likely to associate minority struggles with majority oppression than a reader in the early 1800’s would be, so Apess’ instructions were probably meant to be more directive, and less rhetorical than you or I might interpret them.
It is also important to note, that with any of these writings, there is rarely any way for us to know under what conditions the writing happened—if any of it was forced, censored, written to please or to trick someone. Often the best we can do is guess, and try to translate as best we can.
“The modern critic must recognize that the possibility of something getting lost along the way is very real, but not to attempt any translation at all seems worse,” (Wyss p.11)
So we keep translating, trying to trust in the authors of the past as much as we can, much like we try to trust in our dates as much as we can. Maybe they’ll call us?