Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2019

AALITRA Symposium, Translating Traditional Tales and Folklore, 14/9/19

AALITRA-logo-image-file1.gifThis year the annual AALITRA Symposium here in Melbourne was held at the Multicultural Hub in Elizabeth St, and was well attended.  This is always a beaut event for anyone interested in translation, and – thanks to the Copyright Agency, it’s free.

The program began with a most interesting session presented by Harley Dunnoly-Lee and Dr Ruth Singer.  Both are linguists, and their topic was the rescue and reconstruction of Indigenous languages.  Singer researches multilingual practices in north-east Arnhem Land in partnership with the Warruwi Community, and her work focusses on the collaborative translation of stories and songs from the Mawng langauge.  Dunnolly-Lee is a Dja Dja Wurrung man from north-east Victoria.  He is the first-ever Aboriginal Community Linguist and Project Officer at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VCAL).

Dr Singer explained that Aboriginal languages are owned by their speakers in the community, and not by the linguists who research them.  This concept of a language being owned is foreign to speakers of English, which is spoken everywhere, by anyone, and it gets adapted to suit the circumstances. [True, and sometimes in ways that pedants don’t like!]  Dr Singer’s practice is usually to work from audio recordings but sometimes from written records because there were over 350 books produced while the community had a bilingual school.*  However, written stories aren’t necessarily easier to work with because the Mawng language has only been written down for a few decades, and early stories were very literal transcriptions and it’s not always easy to work out what they mean.  But through a collaborative process, young people today read these stories in Mawng, and then read their translation into English.

The significance of Dunnoly-Lee’s appointment to VCAL is that for the first time, it enables the study of his languages to be undertaken by someone who has cultural authority.  Dunnoly-Lee is learning his own language.  His mother knew only fragments of it, and he is working to restore stories and songs.  His studies are in Linguistics, Archaeology, History, Anthropology and Indigenous Studies, and he made the point that in the process of decolonising Victorian Aboriginal languages and taking ownership of them, it’s necessary to have the European tools of linguists in order to be able to revive them.

It seems an impossible task when there may be only 50 words of a language left today, but Harley explained, although revival relies on 19th century texts such as miscellaneous records of missionaries, squatters, surveyors and so on (often in illegible handwriting) there are ‘families’ of languages, so that for instance, 87% of the languages of north-western victoria have features (such as word endings) in common [in the way that the Romance languages of Europe do].  So sometimes a grammar can be restored, while in other instances it has to be borrowed.

It was interesting to learn that the language families of eastern Victoria are nothing like those of the west, [but once you remember that the mountains and rivers were as much a logical boundary for tribes and clans as the Murray River that separates Victoria from New South wales, it makes perfect sense].

Dunnoly-Lee also explained the protocols involved in contemporary linguistics. Aborigines in Victoria want to lead the study of their languages.  Indeed, some families do not want to share them at all outside their community.  Much of what has been written in the past has been offensive and wrong, and interpreted by others who did not understand cultural features of the language.  (For example, missionaries could often only talk to the men, and often they did not record what was said in the right form.)  While Dunnoly-Lee was careful to say that he did not speak for others, he suggested that some Victorian Aborigines do not want to have White people telling them about their own language and culture, so there are cultural protocols, roles and behaviours to ensure that no further damage is done.

At Question Time, I asked about how optimistic Dunnoly-Lee was about the current calls for Indigenous languages to be taught in schools, (and I mentioned Bruce Pascoe as one of the advocates).  The reply was that there is not agreement about this among mobs in Victoria, and that it was up to them to decide. Some don’t want non-Indigenous people knowing their language better than they do, because of the ‘shame factor’.  OTOH some are keen to have language programs in schools.  The other complicating factor is that for some languages all that remains are ‘loose words’, just names of things.

Dr Singer also made the point that it is essential to start with respect, and then you have to learn how to do that respect.  It means a long-term commitment to respect Indigenous systems and their authority.  It involves a long time in consultation and collaboration, and you often need to pay for their time.

* I didn’t ask about this, but I assume these books were teacher-made ‘books’.  It is common practice when teaching in a language for which there are  no commercial resources, for teachers to make small ‘books’ from stories dictated by the children (or in the case of Indigenous communities, from Elders).  These little ‘books’ are usually printed on A4 paper, stapled or bound together with coverboard.  They are illustrated by the children, who like reading these teacher-made ‘books’ because they are about their familiar world and they use recognisable vocabulary, making them easier to read.   I made dozens of them when I was teaching ESL to students from Afghanistan because there were no books about their culture or lifestyle to use as teaching materials.

Image Sources: VCAL Aboriginal Languages of Victoria map, free to download here. (I wish I’d known about this when I was teaching… I reckon every school teacher in Victoria should have this map on display alongside any contemporary map of our state.)


The next speaker was Stephanie Smee in conversation with a PhD student called Caroline, whose surname I didn’t catch.  Smee is the translator of a book I really admired, No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien où poser sa tête) by Françoise Frenkel (see my review) and is about to release her translation of a French noir novel called The Godmother (La Daronne) by Hannelore Cayre.  But she also translates children’s books, including those of the 19th century French children’s author Countess de Ségur who wrote Les Malheurs de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes), but also those of the Swedish author Gösta Knutsson, who wrote The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail (Pelle Svanslös) and its sequels.

One issue that comes up when translating these older stories is that they can be dated, and the punishments meted out to naughty children, are inappropriate today.  For example, Smee gave the example of changing a ‘whipping; to a ‘beating’, and a ‘Punishment Room’ to a ‘Time-Out Room’, but there are also other tricky words like ‘nurse’ or ‘nanny’— words which may be familiar to readers of English literature but not to others of a different cultural background.  Racism—casual or otherwise—can be a problem too.

Even layout issues can crop up: today’s chapter books have a ‘he said/she said’ style, but the Countess used a declaratory style, announcing the speaker as in a play.  But the biggest difficulty is translating word play and ditties which are common in children’s books but rare in their translations, for obvious reasons.

Smee says she is guided by listening to the musicality of the text, and the voice of the author. (She sometimes tries out her version on her own children to see how they react.) The key issue is readability versus loyalty to the text, because strict loyalty can make it unreadable for its audience, that is, today’s children.


I was sorry to miss the final speaker, who was Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend but the Mountains, but I was feeling seedy so I made my way home.

Many thanks to Elaine Lewis for the invitation to attend and the warm welcome!

For more information about AALITRA or for membership enquiries, see here.




  1. How funny that you posted this about the same time that I posted on an indigenous produced book which is all about language.

    That point – ie that some Victorian Aborigines do not want to have White people telling them about their own language and culture – is the one that Kim Scott found among his Noongar people. You can understand it, given the lack of power and control indigenous people have had for so long, and given we know information is power. This is a tricky time, that will hopefully be very different hopefully in not too many decades. I reckon being a linguist researching lost or almost lost languages would be very exciting but very frustrating too!

    If I lived in Melbourne I’d go to this symposium too if I could.


    • I go to it as often as I can, it’s always been excellent:)


  2. I located another, similar map of Victorian Aboriginal languages for my review last year of Hawdon’s Journal of a Journey, on the Yorta Yorta Wikipedia page. In passing the Dja Dja Wurrung language region is shown on both maps as north west of Melbourne, in Central Victoria. Love the comments about ownership.


    • I suspect that these maps are always a work in progress:)
      It was such an interesting session!


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