The birds and the bees. Issues translating an Aboriginal song text from north-west Australia

Thursday, 27 March 2014
Dr Michael Walsh

Translation is a significant challenge for the documentation of Aboriginal songs. This paper will present a close reading for a particular Aboriginal song from north-west Australia.

The targeted song text only contains a small number of words so that a translation of just those words will not convey much to an outsider. The song is embedded in a rich cultural context which Murrinh-Patha people will acquire as increasingly richer content over a lifetime.

Central to this song text is the sugarbag or wild honey totem, thithay. This totem connects with a particular clan and particular places in the clan territory. Those particularities can be invoked by the mere mention of ngarim ‘bee sp’. But this mention also invokes a whole range of totems possessed by clan members including certain bird species. Roughly comparable is the extent to which the mere mention of certain key terms in the Western literary canon can invoke a rich array of allusions.