Learning through translation

I’m so grateful to Marianne and Gloria Nicolson for their work in translating some of the Digital Natives messages to Kwak’wala. We had a fascinating email exchange about how to convey the meaning of several of the messages in English, and still make them fit within 140 characters!

Roger Farr’s “Riot 1492” = Wina 1492.  Quite straightforward.

Sonny Assu’s “On the first day of class, a boy left a bar of soap on her desk.  With sadness, she remembers his name and the brand of soap. #indianact” did not give them too much trouble.

For Christian Bok’s “Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism…” we had an exchange about how Christian’s message is based on choosing to use only one vowel, and two vowel sounds. There is no way to translate this concept, nor the words inhibiting, pidgin, nihilistic, witticism. We decided on “I sigh, I sit, I write with a pen these words. I sing with destructive knowing.” It takes on an interesting, new resonance about written and spoken language and the digital words on the billboard.

Raymond Boisjoly’s “suddenly and for all time forgetting what i already don’t know #thepresent” becomes “Now and forever I am forgetting what I don’t know now.”

Henry Tsang’s “OMG found DREAMHOME! 2D4 ocean vu gr8 nabrs- but no job no status what 2 do?” keeps the abbreviations in a hybrid like this: “OMG found beautiful house! 2D4 can see ocean gr8 nabrs- no work, no chief. What do I do?”

Postcommodity’s “all that you believe to be yours/ before you and behind you/ it will all return to this earth/ but you will not” becomes “All your possessions, in front of you and behind you, will all disappear (or be destroyed), but you will not.” Marianne said that of all the messages, this was the most Kwak’wala-like in its meaning.

Several messages can’t be translated:

Marie Annharte Baker’s “slow last murmur to beep/ flatline wait for final thump/ as if turtle heart devoured/ in youth would prevent onset/ deadly lonesome heart beat”, uses the image of a heart machine’s beep and flatline, which makes no sense in Kwak’wala.


Once the Kwak’wala messages are composed in the proper font, we will load them on to the website in the rotating display.

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Digital upstarts

I’m currently teaching a course on autobiography at SFU and pitch it as “from Frederick Douglass to facebook” – Douglass being the author of one of the best-known slave narratives from the 19th century. I’ve been talking in the class about the role of social media in the uprisings in Tunisia & Egypt over the past few weeks, a role that has been contested, to say the least. In Western media, reaction has ranged from triumphalism to distrust, with some warnings about the unreliability of social media. But old media like the Globe and Mail are also “curating” social media – crowdsourcing their own sites to give them more immediacy, and the Huffington Post also has a well-designed site on the Egypt protests. I’ve been putting a lot of links up on my twitter feed, with the bizarre and humbling result of being listed on a Cairo-based blog, the Maadi Daily Press. So the (digital) global can become the local, as also shown buy the pics of Egyptian women protesting, which I first saw thru Lorna Brown’s facebook page.

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First Nations Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

I think this Facebook inspired tweet gives my best reflection on the complicated nature of both the contested land, my own identity and the rise of social media in our contemporary world.

My tweet is “First Nations Relationship Status: It’s Complicated”

Why? Well, first, starting with the land, treaties are one of the thorniest issues when thinking about relationships with First Nations in BC. Given the glacial pace of signings, it’s going to be part of our ongoing discussions with First Nations people in BC for years to come.

It informs us locally, in thinking about the land beneath the Burrard bridge. Reading the timelines of the efforts of Skwxwú7mesh Nation, it is really clear that it’s contested land. As the subject of debate since the 1800s, that the land has continued to be contested was never so clear as when the Skwxwú7mesh decided to put up a digital billboard in 2009 on which the Digital Natives project will be displayed.

In articles of the day, citizens complained of the eyesore; the continued encroachment of advertising and the dangers of driver distraction. But Skwxwú7mesh chief Bill Williams responded that “”It is a new and different long-term stream of funds that will be coming in to help support programs and services for our community members.[1]

“The network will generate a $50 million revenue stream for our people over the term of the Agreement, which will be used for community projects, education, parks and recreation.” Williams adds that the advertising company Allvision “has always been respectful of our values and traditions in the work they have done for us.”[2]

Don’t you feel like the advertising is a funny confluence of conditions? Here we have our consumerist culture saying that the support of advertising is distasteful. Whether thickheaded or not, according to Wayne Hunter, head of Citizens for Responsible Outdoor Advertising, more than 10,000 Vancouverites signed a petition against the billboards[3]. Still, they proceeded.

My own Native ancestry is also contested territory. My mother’s family is from Newfoundland and has been there since the 16th century. In 2004, my aunt discovered that my great-grandmother was actually not “Portuguese”, but Native. We’re not sure what nation exactly, but I assume it is not Beothuk, as they are considered extinct with the death of the famous Dewasduit in 1820, the apparently sole remaining Beothuk. So most likely it meant Mi’kmaq, who were also residents in Newfoundland. There was further evidence in the resurgence of the Conne River Mi’kmaq, who had a resemblance to my family. Well, to be honest, they were white and blonde, which was similar to my own mother.   But the proof has been hard to pin down.

I was quite surprised as I had been working with native groups for about 6 years in 2004 and also careful to maintain my identity as “non-Native.” Still, it was a wonderful idea that suddenly the work I was doing was part of a larger personal narrative. But in my own mind, I still more strongly relate to being non-Native.

As a side note, in some ways, the notion of being “non” is part of my father’s makeup as well. His own historical context was as a Chinese living in Indonesia. And, as a Chinese Indonesian, discrimination as a non-Indonesian is a painful part of their history. Starting as far back as 1740, there were massacres of Chinese Indonesian’s in Batavia, which become Jakarta. And unfortunately, that violence has continued. In May 1998, the Jakarta Chinatown,  called Glodok, suffered significant and tragic losses due to rioting targeting them. Over 1500 people were killed in the unrest and thousands of people lost their homes[4]. Only in 2006, was the final facets of discrimination eliminated with Chinese Indonesians being issued regular Indonesian identity cards. Previously, all Chinese Indonesians had a different category of citizenship which made it easy to identify them.

My father had decided after I was born in 1968 not to return to Indonesia because of the anti-Chinese laws that were being encouraged by Suharto’s recent rise to power. So we stayed in Canada, as examples of the emerging diversity of Vancouver and that of Canada.

Finally, the idea of the tweet came out of Facebook. Facebook has become the new way to circumscribe our own identities. It allows us to communicate in new ways and maintain connections much greater than the so-called Dunbar’s number of 150 being the maximum number of friends we can theoretically maintain socially stable relationships.

Because of this new social entity, new ideas of relationships have emerged. One almost absurdist reduction that Facebook offers in describing your relationship is “It’s Complicated”. You have a total of eight choices to describe your relationship status on Facebook of “Single, Married, In a Relationship, Widowed, Divorced, Engaged, Separated, Open Relationship, and It’s complicated.”

According to the Urban Dictionary, the status of “It’s complicated” can refer to an “Ambiguous relationship”, one that is used to potentially show “dissatisfaction with the relationship” or a relationship that doesn’t fit into the status quo. “Holding on to something that’s about to end,” or “still hoping to work things out.” One example given was:

Gina and Chad’s engagement has been on the rocks for years but they won’t move on, they just stay together and say, “it’s complicated” whenever people ask when they’re planning to get married.

So there you have it.  My hope is that this post has provided some background for the tweet. Overall, my identity and the overall complexity of the relationship with First Nations people on both the broader treaty issues and the local issues of the Burrard bridge have given me the inspiration. Thanks to the dynamic duo of Clint Burnham and Lorna Brown for allowing me the space and special props to the rest of the team of Barbara Cole, Colin Griffiths and Deanne Achong.

Posted in First Nations, Language, Messages, Site History, Vancouver, Writing | 2 Comments

Lament for Language

Chief Marie Smith Jones, Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch: a sound that calls people from afar. Last native Eyak speaker, RIP – January 21, 2008. LISTEN

Artist statement:
An attempt to honour late Chief Marie Smith Jones, Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch, (May 14, 1918 – January 21, 2008) who was the last native Eyak speaker. The endangerment and extinction of Aboriginal languages is a stark reality and a threat to human diversity, with the death of a language is lost an entirely unique cosmology, and cultural knowledge. Aboriginal languages contain deep intrinsic knowledge of their lands and territories, what will happen when we forget/erase the languages of the lands we live on? If humanity can create such complex technologies and communications, why can’t we protect indigenous languages.

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Thinking about the Good Life

My second theme is about the “Good Life”. It’s the idea around what we consider to be our purpose in life and the ideas of how economic systems inform that. Did I lose you the moment I said “economics?” I think it’s a terribly misunderstood word, kind of like a  word that has so much meaning it means nothing. We use it all the time, “afraid the economy will slide”, “ensure the economy is strong”, “weakening economy”, “big firms will grow the economy”, and macro, micro, etc etc.

And yet what is an economy really for?

If you ask someone, they’ll often say “good jobs”. An economy is to create good jobs. Makes sense.  A robust economy will have lots of job opportunities. So what’s a good job? If I have a good job, it means I make… (drum roll please)… good money!!! Which is the necessary ingredient for the Good Life. And that for many of my friends, is the thread. Good economy means good job, which is good money, which is Good Life. Conversely, a crappy economy means crappy job, crappy money and a crappy life. Ok, but really?!?

The point is that for most people, the notion of an economy is nothing short of a definition of their success at the Good Life. Yet is it truly that? It’s more than a way to put money in their pocket. How lucky we feel when it’s a crappy economy, but we still have a good job! Somehow we’ve been spared the axe and managed to thrive. Can’t gloat, but it’s a frisson to be sure.

People feel helpless with “The Economy” as it’s something that seems to come down from on high. We have no control over it, except, so the papers tell us, to “revive consumer confidence” by buying something. It’s such a simple and seductive cycle. Yet who on their death bed gathers their possessions around them? Wheel the 56″ HD TV and Blueray player in! Drive their beamer into the bedroom for a last fond look. Well no one. It’s family and friends that are what people want to see. I won’t care that I’ve answered 10,000 more emails than the guy next door, but my family will have felt the time lost to it.

Ok, but what about what I call the Debtor’s Dilemma? Someone has a shitty job. They buy a nice car so they can feel better about themselves. But then they’ve condemned themselves to the shitty job to pay for the nice car. Do they even have time to drive the nice car? Even the larger American Debtor’s Dilemma is fascinating counterpoint to notions of economy. In America, the housing crisis has meant a lot of people are faced with the reality that they are paying off a home that is worth less than they paid for it. In many cases, the mortgage they owe is more than they could get if they sold it. What a perverse equation. No wonder it is a dilemma. Pay or flee?

The last point is that the Good Life could be defined differently, even by using that scary word “economy”.  Another good notion is that an economy is perhaps best understood as just a system of exchanging things of value with each other. The key is that perhaps we don’t think of the economy as only exchanging commodities, but that the economy could be considered a larger one that takes into account true things of value.  The cost of air, water, and land or family breakdowns. The cost of progress. The value of sustainability and the negative value of depleting resources. It’s a different scale, sometimes called “General Progress Indicators.” GPI instead of the GDP.

This is the second area I’ve been thinking about.

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Squamish Language tweet

SquamishLanguage.com is the thrilling movement to reclaim the language of the Squamish people. Keeping you posted on the latest in language revitalization. http://twitter.com/squamishlang

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Michael Turner’s blog

Michael talks about his contribution & the project in general here.

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