Sustaining Oral Tradition: A Preface to Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle

20 October 2014

Stuart Cooke’s translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle: I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this kind of work. Australians are only too familiar with the significance and value of Indigenous arts as part of the national heritage and of the contemporary repertoire. We are familiar, but they still take us by surprise. In the late 1970s, those who had the habit of mourning cultural loss in the central desert, suddenly witnessed the flourishing – like desert flowers after rain – of an art movement that critic Robert Hughes dubbed ‘the last great art movement of the 20th century’. But when we compare it to the oral traditions of the continent, we have to marvel at the ease with which that visual art was translated from ochres into acrylics, then translated into art-commodities and transported to eagerly awaiting patrons around the world.

Compared to that art movement, the song and poetry traditions seem to be sadly languishing. Who has the expertise to accomplish the tasks of linguistic translation? Thoroughly bilingual poets are extremely rare. Poets and storytellers in traditional Australian languages have yet to be fêted on the literary festival circuits. Yet despite the disappearance of many languages, we should be wary of announcing the demise of these literary traditions too early. They have that power held by sustained longevity that could emerge again, like those desert flowers, and we can never be sure what form they will take.

This is why I stress the importance of this kind of work. It is conscious of the weight and importance of all those oral traditions in the continent; the ‘real’ Australian literature. It avoids the easy translations of the visual arts, where paintings can be interpreted in New York as ‘some kind of primitive abstraction.’ It takes seriously, by necessity, the task of the translator, at which point we must theorise a bit about what is going on, and for this I can draw on my own experience in Broome, Western Australia.

A few years ago, Paddy Roe, respected elder, teacher and storyteller in the West Kimberley, sang some songs that were composed by a Ngumbal woman some years before, and then helped me render them in English. Roe spoke a few traditional languages from around Broome, plus Broome English. I never got the impression, when he was talking about languages, that they were clearly delineated from one another. Rather they were ‘bordering’ on one another all the time.1 There was no-one doing that nation-building work of separating languages off from one another, standardising and unifying them. In theorising translation, Naoki Sakai rather cleverly shows that the unity of language is in fact a modelling, and an effort of the imagination. No one ever experiences a language in all its unity, but what we do experience all the time are acts of translation. So, as he says, ‘translation is anterior to the organic unity of language and […] this unity is posited through the specific representation of translation’.

We conventionally represent translation as bridging two languages, as a ‘communication model of equivalence and exchange,’ but that is not what it is, it is a ‘form of political labour to create continuity at the elusive point of discontinuity in the social’. Roe was working on creating continuity within the political grouping of the people called Goolarabooloo. This is not a ‘tribe’, since it is composed of different land-holding groups speaking different languages. It is a kind of political confederacy unified by ‘lines’ of significant ceremonies and responsibility for sites going down the coast from One Arm Point to south of Broome. So, what happened when I sat with Roe and we began to translate into English? The political labour was now across another social discontinuity: an Aboriginal cultural corpus can now link to a putative Australian nation, and the songs could now impinge upon what we think is the representation of the national literature. There are a lot of steps on that journey! So far, it is largely only Indigenous writers working in English genres who have mounted that national stage.

The complex process of translation spelled out by Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle – from a spirit being to Dyuŋgayan to Roe and Butcher Joe, to Ray Keogh to Stuart Cooke; from Nyigina to Broome English to Australian English; from oral production supplemented with gestures and sand drawings via tape recorders and notebooks to alphabetic script printed on paper – reinforces the idea that translation is emphatically never about reducing the number of mediations, nor indeed facilitating the transfer of meaning.

Without Ray Keogh’s work this translation would not have been possible. The Bulu line might have halted, and not been repatriated to the community as it has now been in this book form. I got to know Keogh well when we worked in Broome in the 80s when he was doing the ethnomusicological recording that became his thesis. He loved to sing himself, and had a big resonant voice that often exploded into laughter. When working with the old men he would laugh, too, as he tried to get his tongue around those palatal sounds: ny and dy. And as he was transcribing expertly and meticulously he would sing the songs with them too, continuing the life of this Bulu. Who could have guessed that it would then travel to the University of Sydney, where Keogh would sing the songs to ethnomusicology students in his classes, for some short years before he was taken from us?

Consider this surprising idea from Andreas Lommel, remembering fieldwork in the Kimberley in 1938:

They, of course, taught the corroboree to others still roaming in the bush. I even met some Worora men months later in Broome who taught the corroboree for a fee to others who did not understand their language—this did not matter.

The poet made his songs in the language of his tribe, but, for rhythm and sentimental reasons he changed the language so that some of his songs could not be translated.2

The idea that clear understanding might ‘not matter’ and that obscurity might even be introduced, leaves us with what Cooke is calling the ‘haze’, the necessary obscurity in translation, and in poetry itself, which is a precondition for its vitality and sustainability. I am anxiously optimistic about the rich possibilities that this work offers. Anxious about the loss of the corpus of oral traditions and those still waiting for translators, but optimistic about their hidden powers searching for new forms and for the right occasions to erupt into the open again.

  1. Naoki Sakai, ‘How do we count a language? Translation and discontinuity,’ Translation Studies 2.1 (2009): 83.
  2. Andreas Lommel and David Mowaljarlai. ‘Shamanism in North-West Australia,’ Oceania 64.4 (June 1994): 281.
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