Communication Breakdown

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?


Past Meets Present

When we create Wikipedia posts, blog posts, and digital transcriptions that involve stories from the past, we put the past and the present into one room and ask them to have a conversation with each other, to go on a journey together. In the process of trying to create these digital records of history one of those most interesting and productive questions I’ve had to ask myself is how to make the history appeal to an internet audience, or in other words: an audience of the present. Now, Wikipedia and blog posts are often used for entirely different purposes: modern audiences go to Wikipedia to find researched details, modern audiences go to blog posts for a variety of reasons and would likely expect a different, less dry tone from a blog than from Wikipedia; many expect blogs to connect more with their own experiences, to be more relatable than a wikipedia article. This has forced me to see just how relatable the past really is. I’ve even felt something verging on spiritual connection to two of the women writers I’ve been exploring from the past: Sarah Kemble Knight and H. Ralston.

Sarah Kemble Knight traveled from Boston to New York City by horseback and canoe. H. Ralston traveled from England to New York City by ship. I once traveled from Texas to the California by car. All three of us kept journals or diaries of our travels. Reading their words often echoed my own, scribbled on beaten up journals that I still have in a drawer, somewhere. Unlike their journeys, mine was not done with the intention of getting from point A to point B, but rather to spend several months living out of a car and in tents, camping and seeing the world. While this may make my travels seem different from theirs, I’m finding that it actually makes it easier to connect with them in several ways:


For one, travel in the 1700 and 1800s took much longer than travel does today- Kemble Knight’s journal spans from Oct. 2nd to Jan. 6th–more than 3 months. Ralston’s diary explicitly covers 25 days, but as there are not entries for every day and the diary does not span the whole trip, it likely lasted longer than that. It is said that at the time she traveled ships typically took 6 weeks to cross the Atlantic. The drive from Texas to California takes about 30-35 hours of driving-time, considerably less time than these two women spent on their journeys. However, I spent a little over 3 months travelling around the southwest and west coast. There is a level of delirium, exhaustion, and bliss that comes from seeing so much new scenery and meeting so many new people, from being uncomfortable but stimulated so often for so long. Often I could feel that delirium, exhaustion and bliss coming off of the pages of these women’s diaries.

” …the night warm and serene, and the Tall and thick Trees at a distance, especially wn the moon glar’d light through the branches, fill’d my Imagination wth the pleasent delusion of a Sumpteous citty” -Kemble Knight

Interaction with Nature  hike

Travel in the 1700 and 1800s was also much more dependent on and affected by nature. Kemble Knight discusses the intensity of traveling in a place so dark that the sight of the moon is welcome as an almost religious experience,  of having to get in a canoe to cross rivers (instead of going over a bridge). Ralston writes about the wind, or lack there-of and how it impacts the speed of the ship, the rough-rocking motion that one feels on a ship when it storms, and recounts that the ship she was on got into a minor wreck with another ship due to fog. The desire to reconnect with nature was one the motivating forces behind the journey I took, and as such I intentionally allowed nature to play a large role in my travels.

In today’s world there are many comforts available to us as we travel, and I indeed partook in many of those comforts, I also attempted to limit them. While camping and sleeping in cars is uncomfortable, sacrificing comfort felt like a ritual sacrifice, and like a ritual, gave me a level of spiritual satisfaction I don’t think I could have achieved otherwise. This is something else that I can feel in these women’s diaries. While they may not have had the option to sacrifice comfort on their travels or not (as travel back then was generally just uncomfortable), neither of Kemble Knight or Ralston were forced to travel and as such, I must assume they both knew the risks and decided to do it anyway. This, along with some of the descriptions found in their journals, leads me to believe that on some level they sought out discomfort in the same way that I did: knowing it would be worth so much more.

 “…though the site was dreadful to look upon, it was one I would not have missed on any account.” -Ralston, speaking of a near-by ice-berg.

 Meeting New People

Kemble Knight and Ralston also describe meeting many new people on their journeys. Kemble Knight goes from one escort to another, one person’s house to another, as it was generally not safe for women to travel alone at the time. Some of the people she meets up with she had known from the past, but many were new to her. Ralston describes her shipmates at length, and writes that two of them had become like parents to her and her sister. Her descriptions lead me to believe that Ralston’s sister was the only one on board who Ralston had known previously- everyone was a stranger before the voyage. Had I taken a road-trip straight to California, I likely would have met some new people, but not nearly as many as I met while camping on beaches, going to local events, and staying with friends in different towns for multiple days on end. Meeting so many new people, like camping or being on the road for weeks on end, is both exciting and exhausting, but also like camping or being on the road, it feels expansive. That is, it feels like your community, your awareness of people, and your awareness of yourself are expanding. The length and level of discomfort experienced while travelling often correlate to the intensity with which one needs to rely on others, both for sanity and for physical comfort. This is something else present in all of the travel journals discussed here.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, two of the others are like father and mother to us. What we should do without them, I do not know.”-Ralston

In Conclusion…

I remember how dependent I felt on my journal while I was travelling, how it was often the only consistent and familiar thing I could turn to. I suspect that Kemble Knight and Ralston may have felt similarly. Perhaps I assume that we have more similarities than we really do, but the deeper I look into their travel journals, the more I can imagine being there with them, feeling the wind and the sun on our faces, our pens in hand. The differences begin to fade away (relevant though they are) and the very human similarities begin to surface. It is a feeling similar to seeing black and white photos in color for the first time.

Migrant Mother- B&W

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Migrant Mother in Color

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons