Reading these myths, I can’t help but think about the authors of these myths and wonder about those who believed the myths they told (or wrote) as opposed to those who didn’t, and how that came through in their rendition of the myth.

I especially wonder about the Native American myths which have come to us through an ethnographer, yet another layer between the reader and the original myth. How much would a member of the society have told an outsider living among them? Either more, on account of additional detail and background information being required? Or less, on account of the level of comfort and other such reasons?

I also wonder about the works as translations by the ethnographer (when applicable), as we don’t know if the ethnographer missed any important details when listening to the stories. Mistranslations may have occurred, and I question how much we lose as a reader of a translated oral story.


3 thoughts on “Lost in Translation?

  1. You’re right–as much as ethnographers might be immersed in the culture they’re studying, there were simply not raised within that cultural and linguistic milieu, and as knowledgeable as they might be, it can never replace being part of the culture from birth or from a very young age. The problems coming from both ends–the storyteller him/herself and the ethnographer.

    Knowing the limitations of the ethnographer, the native storyteller may simplify the story or alter it slightly, so there might be more of a shared cultural explanation. Or there might be details that may be more sacred or personal, not to be shared with outsiders. I think of it kind of like code-switching, not just on a language level, but on a cultural level as well. One story for the insiders, another for outsiders.

    As mentioned above, the ethnographer will have their limitations, not being raised in the culture (at least we assume this might be most often the case). They will have their own cultural and language filters from which incoming information might get skewed. Just as Prof. McMaster mentioned, the time in which we live plays a crucial role in relation to our perspective of others.

    And you’re also certainly right about “yet another layer” being added on with these accounts. I could be totally wrong, but I’m assuming that many of these accounts of Native stories were written down by ethnographers, so how much of the real story (really, versions of stories) are we actually getting? I remain skeptical, but I’d also like to believe that many communities are still orally passing down these stories to the next generation. Sadly, the next generation may not be hearing it in their traditional language, but that’s a whole other topic. : )


  2. I think that the story isn’t just changed from the original because of issues translating and misunderstanding. I think some of these ethnographer were trying to record the stories in a way similar to Snorri. Trying to preserve the normally oral stories but disproving them at the same time.

    I am in a Native Studies class this term and there was an ethnographer who wrote the story traditions of the Hopi. According to students in the class who know people connected to the Hopi people, this story that was recorded had portions that were completely untrue and manipulated by the person recording to make the Hopi seem cruel and somewhat insane..

  3. This is true with all translations. While the inherent meaning can be interpreted in any translation, it is never the actual meaning the author intended upon. The specificity of language in itself is already an incredibly precise thing. Translations should attempt to capture the meaning or essence of a text/myth rather than a literal transcription. With a shift of language comes a shift of cultural context, alongside a more direct interpretation of phrases, metaphors, etc which may not make sense upon being translated.

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