True feelings lost in translation (Insight in Aboriginal Australia)
Thread poster: RB Translations

RB Translations  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:24
English to Italian
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Jun 22, 2006

The first Aboriginal-English dictionary reveals more than definitions, writes Steve Meacham.

IF ANYTHING epitomises two centuries of difficult dialogue between white and black Australians, says Keith Vincent Smith, it is the mistranslation of the word "beal" by Philip Gidley King of the First Fleet.

As Smith explains it, in 1790 King was a 32-year-old naval lieutenant instructed by Governor Arthur Phillip to compile the first Aboriginal to English dictionary.

King - who became the third governor of NSW - had just arrived back in Sydney Cove from the penal colony of Norfolk Island, which he had commanded since February 1788.

In just three weeks he put together a handwritten manuscript of 160 words used by the Eora, the indigenous people who inhabited the coast from Botany Bay to Broken Bay. Many of the words came from Bennelong, captured on Phillip's orders in November 1789.

But King got many words wrong - including "beal". He thought it meant "good", whereas it was the Eora's word for "no".

The way such a fundamental mistranslation occurred is almost comic, says Smith, a former war correspondent turned academic and exhibition curator.

"Bennelong would re-enact the story of his capture, and would shout 'beal, beal'. The English thought he was saying 'good, good' because they were holding two fish in front of him. In fact, he was saying in terror, 'No, no, don't put those ropes around me."' The mistake was soon realised and was corrected in later dictionaries by other members of the First Fleet.

But King's was the first such vocabulary and, thanks to Smith's urgings, it has just been published for the first time by the State Library of NSW, which is staging Smith's exhibition, Eora: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770-1850.

"These are the first indigenous words ever to be taken from Sydney to London," Smith says. The vocabulary was handed to Sir Joseph Banks, who sent it to William Marsden, the powerful secretary of the Admiralty and one of the first comparative linguists.


But one crucial word missing from King's account - and all those which followed it - is the name of the language. "No one asked the name the local people gave to their language." Fortunately, we do know what the people called themselves: "Eo-ra", translated by King as "men or people".

"King's vocabulary is very interesting for linguists," Smith points out. "Strangely, most of the Aboriginal words which eventually made their way into the English language aren't in it."

Like cooee, meaning "come here". Or woomera, the spear thrower, and even corroboree, which made it into the vocabulary later compiled by William Dawes, the First Fleet's astronomer.

What does the 200-year-old vocabulary tell us about the indigenous people who lived here before white man arrived?

"It's a very rich language with a lot of jokes in it," says Smith. For example, the Eora expression for heavy rain incorporates the words for "beat", "rain" and "urine". "Effectively it translates as that good old Australian expression 'the rain is pissing down'. They had the same sort of humour as Australians do today."

It was expressive and poetic. "Yannadah" had two meanings: eyebrow and crescent moon, and the word for dingo also meant to cry, as in "howl like a dingo".

By instructing King to compile the vocabulary, Phillip was being practical and political. [...] He was also fulfilling George III's orders to "live in peace and amity" with the locals. "That's why Bennelong and Abaroo [a young Aboriginal girl] were captured," Smith says. "So they could learn each other's languages."

Abaroo, who died in May 1789, was responsible for some of the words in the vocabulary, including "boe", the word for dead - which is how she described the smallpox-infected corpses littering Port Jackson when she was captured.

The vocabulary includes the expression "woroo-woroo!", which greeted James Cook when he landed in Botany Bay in 1770. "They are the first words spoken by indigenous Australians to the newcomers," says Smith. "They mean piss off."

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Rio Akasaka
Local time: 01:24
English to French
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Hilarious Jun 26, 2006

Absolutely great stuff. It just highlights the extent to which linguists (or folk translators) must be careful when taking language into account. I can't imagine what I'd think of 'woroo-woroo' unless gestures made that extremely clear.

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True feelings lost in translation (Insight in Aboriginal Australia)

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