On Translating Choctaw Poems

By Marcia Haag

Featured Art: Sunset on the Sea by John Frederick Kensett 

The challenges of translating from one language to another are well discussed and lamented. These challenges increase when poetry is involved: not only must the meaning emerge, but the product must sound like something that could count as a poem. When working in a native American language, these problems are, frankly, insuperable, but we are not thereby let off the hook. I am a linguist and scholar of the Choctaw language who comes to translation indirectly.

It is not clear that native Americans composed much poetry. (How would we know? What’s the difference between a war chant and a poem?) One group that, to my reckoning, clearly composed lyrical poetry was the Uto-Aztecans. The southern tribes, the Mixteca, had writing, after all, and we have a bit of the stupendous lyrical literature that was left unburned when the Spanish chose to rid humanity of indigenous cultural artifacts.

The Choctaws, living in what is now Mississippi, attained a writing system in the 1820s as a result of intensive missionizing and intermarriage with whites. A number of them attended school, and when they relocated to Oklahoma, they formed a Republic that created numerous social institutions, including common education in the Choctaw language. The first evidence of Choctaw poetry that I have seen was written in 1878 by William H. McKinney, a highly educated bilingual Choctaw man. The poem “A Leaf That Reminds Me of Thee”1 was actually written first in English, rhymed and metered, and is imitative of the Tennysonian style. McKinney then translated it to Choctaw so that people who could not speak English would nevertheless be exposed to this art form. The translation is fascinating in that McKinney gave up entirely on attendant phonological challenges and produced a version wherein none of his fancy English word choices found correspondence in Choctaw. Just to illustrate: how does one translate the archaic English pronoun thee into a language that entirely lacks such a distinction? How is a bark different from any other kind of boat?

More modern efforts are based on the gospel song. Gospel singing is one of the most dominant Choctaw folk forms, taken from Protestant churches in the mid-1800s and grown into a singular cultural emblem. All-night sings are a popular form of entertainment, and the hymn lyrics are often the only Choctaw language that many know. From this form have evolved unsung verses that nevertheless have the structure of the traditional hymn. The poem that I present here was written by Henry Willis, a fluent speaker whose first language is Choctaw, as a eulogy on the death of a beloved sister. It is now part of the funerary canon.

I will present the original Choctaw poem, then how Willis and his family translated it. I will then give the Choctaw glosses, not at the deep linguistic level, but closer to the word meanings and clause organization of that language. Finally I will give my comments on ways that the Choctaw might have been rendered to better convey the Choctaw spirit. The poem is entitled simply “Chimilhfiopak,” “Your Life.”2 Willis says that the metaphor comes from a story told in a Sunday school class, when Jesus was said to comment on the forget-me-not, whose bloom lasts but a single day. (Note: the letter v corresponds to a “short a” sound. Underscoring a vowel makes it nasal.)

Yakni apaknaka ilvppa ish’la kvt,
chimilhfiokpak vt,
hvshi akuchaka imma hvshi vt awakaiya ako chiyuhmi tok.

You came upon the earth,
your life,
like the sun rising in the east.

Upon this land you arrived here, your breath like the sun rising up toward where
the sun comes out.

The Choctaw word ilhfiopak is used to mean “life,” but it also refers to “breath, wind.” It is literally the animation created by the breath. I like the idea of preserving the Choctaw description of directions in terms of the sun’s behavior, which is the central metaphor for the poem. Hvshi akuchaka imma, “toward where the sun comes out” is a thoroughly Choctaw expression. However, the use of “earth” rather than “land” for yakni probably better fits the sense of human birth.

Micha yakni apaknaka ish-nohowa moyyoma ka,
chimilhfiopkat vt
lhamko mikmvt shohpakali achukma kvt,
hvshi vt tabokoli ako chiyyohmi tok.

And while you were walking upon this earth, your life
was strong and bright as the midday sun.

And as you were still walking upon the land, your life, strong and well shining, was like the sun as it ascended and reached the sky’s highest point.

I find the Choctaw verb tabokoli meaning “to ascend to the highest point in the sky” far lovelier than midday. It continues the strong metaphor of the sun’s literal movement. Similarly, shohpakali achukma, “well shining,” is perfectly comprehensible, and does not need conversion into a more conventional English term.

Himak a Hvshi vt ikvtolat mahaya ka e-chibanohowa tok,
himak vla kia il-anowat aya atukvt ont aivlhit mahaya.
Ilvppa hikiat ia hokano
chishno akbano hosh ish-nohowa makachi pulla.

Until now we have walked with you as the sun has moved west, however, we are coming to a journey’s end.
From here on
you shall ever walk alone.

Now, as the sun has been moving forward to where it falls into the water, we have continued walking with you. It shall be that, standing and going from here, it is you alone who must keep walking.

Again, the compound word hvshi okvtola, “the sun falls into the water” gives insight into the Choctaw sense of the world and continues the metaphor of the sun’s movement. (In this stanza, the word for “sun,” Hvshi is capitalized.) The translation of from here is an idiom made of the verbs hikiat ia, “stand and go.” The Choctaw has a stronger deontic sense, with two verbal forms: makachi, “it shall be” and pulla, “must.” The Choctaw also puts “you” into focus, using both morphological markers and syntax: chishno akbano hosh, “it is you alone.” The English “however” is not a very poetic expression and is not in the Choctaw.

Yohmi kia ish-onak ma,
lawa kvt chi-afvmmachi,
micha na
yukpa hosh chi-ayukpachi afehna achi hoke.

However, when you reach there,
many will meet you,
with gladness they will welcome you well.

But that being so, when you arrive there, many will meet you, and then, happily they will salute you, very much, indeed.

I still don’t like “however.” But Choctaw insists on making strong contrast whenever there’s any to be made, and the more literal yohmi kia, “but that being so” does not help the lyricism. Choctaw has stacked-up intensity constructions marked here in separate predicates afehna, “very much” and hoke, “indeed”that are so much a part of the language that one cannot speak without them. The verb ayukpachi, which is translated here as “to welcome,” has a huge set of synonyms. But this word always carries the nuance of “approving, revering, saluting, congratulating, honoring” that is far more about the positive evaluation of the recipient than the warm acceptance that “welcome” connotes.

I noticed in helping with this project that it was very important to the author to use the commonest possible English words when translating. Hence, “well shining” would become “bright,” and all the descriptions of the sun’s movement were straightforwardly mapped to English equivalents. Were I ever to translate a lyrical piece for public consumption, I would use translations closest to the root forms of words, literal translations of compounds and idioms when this would not completely obscure meaning, and make attempts to include special kinds of emphasis, which is often done syntactically and with an array of special and untranslatable words and particles. I would also make some considered substitutions when an English word might capture the sense that a literal gloss of a root word might not. But this would be perhaps too bold, and I would risk opprobrium from the community. Status as a native speaker of Choctaw  is highly prestigious. It is considered unseemly for someone who lacks that gift (and particularly a white person!) to presume to have enough insight into the language to question, let alone override, the opinion of a speaker. One would not undertake a new translation without expert advice. In my many years working with speakers, I have made suggestions for alternative translations humbly and in private, and I always acquiesce to their judgment.

As for the sound: the prosodic organization of Choctaw is based on the relative weights of syllables. A number of rules operate over various strings of differently weighted syllables, resulting in a complicated rhythm. A high pitch is placed on the penultimate syllable of a phrase to mark it. Choctaw prosody is not a stress-based system, so there is no meter based on the organization of feet. To incorporate Choctaw sound patterns, a Choctaw poet might choose words with combinations of heavy and light syllables and arrange them in phrases to exploit the phrase accent in interesting ways.

Both Willis’s Choctaw poem and its English translation are meaning-based, without regard for either syllable number or weight, or for the number of words in a line, or for the quality of the sounds themselves (no alliteration, no rhyme)— in other words, they are free verse. What we may hope for in the future is a Choctaw poem, as well as its English-language translation, that fully exploits the sounds of Choctaw-language.

¹ Manuscript from the Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma.
² From Haag, M. and H. Willis. 2007. Choctaw Language and Culture: Chahta Anumpa Volume 2. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. Pp. 47-48.

Marcia Haag is Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. She specializes in American Indian languages, particularly Choctaw and Cherokee. She and her long-time Choctaw collaborator Henry Willis recently published A Gathering of Statesmen: Records of the Choctaw Council Meetings 1826-1828. This translation is of Peter Pitchlynn’s journal of the criminal and civil codes enacted by the united Choctaw tribes right before removal to Oklahoma. Besides translation work, Dr. Haag publishes papers in theoretical linguistics and essays on Indian literature.

Originally appeared in NOR 14.

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