skip to main content

A Yolngu matha translation for 4S Sydney

Michaela Spencer

11 September, 2017

As we begin preparations for 4S Sydney in 2018, Yolngu matha is one of the Australian Aboriginal languages that the 4S conference abstract has been translated into.

Yolngu matha is a term that covers a number of mutually intelligible Aboriginal languages that are used by Yolngu, the Indigenous people from East Arnhem Land in Northern Australia. It was only in the mid-twentieth century, through the enthusiasm of missionaries and teachers, that Yolngu languages became written languages with standard orthographies.

As I sat down with my colleague and collaborator Yirriṉiṉba ‘Yinin’ Dhurrkay to begin a translation of the 4S conference abstract, she was clear that this translation should most definitely not take the form of a written text, but she was happy to develop an audio, and then later a video recording, of the conference abstract translation.

Before we started work, Yinin saw fit to tell me a little story about a translation job that she had turned down just the day before.

She had been approached to translate some English text into Yolngu matha for a national television event to be broadcast from Arnhem Land as part of the Garma Festival. Speaking to the show’s producer, she had queried whether this translation was really necessary. ‘Do Yolngu watch this show?’ she asked. ‘Will Yolngu need this translation?’ Answering her own rhetorical question, she thought that they probably would not, and promptly turned down the job.

Listening to this little story as we sat down to begin our translation activity, I realised that I was clearly on notice!

Taking seriously the work of this translation would mean not just seeking to produce a symbolic gesture towards linguistic pluralism within STS. But rather producing a translated abstract which was situated within 4S as an academic institution, and also able to lodge itself within Yolngu institutions where it might open horizons, showing that 4S can be a place where Yolngu epistemic sensibilities will be listened to and respected.

One aspect of this work was sitting together and talking about the abstract as it stood, and how its language could be translated into Yolngu matha. We discussed the disciplinary language, and looked for ways to change the description of key concepts without altering meaning. However, another aspect, which actually took far more time, involved setting up the visuals for the video presentation.

We joked that we were setting up for a fashion shoot, as we experimented with ways to arrange the visual presentation and backdrop of the video. We moved things back and forth, with Yinin insisting that a picture of the bäpi (snake) painted in very contemporary style be brought into the background. And she also picked up a cushion displaying a stylised image of a meeting place, and hugged it close. At first, I was worried about this iconography, perhaps anticipating a shrewd STS audience who may find something flippant in these signifiers of Indigeneity, but only later came to realise why they were important.

In putting her face to this endeavour, Yinin was actually doing something rather strange from an everyday Yolngu point of view. Other Yolngu might look at her and wonder what she is doing, and why she is giving out these messages that are clearly from Balanda (the Yolngu word for white or non-indigenous people, derived from the Makassan word ‘Hollander’). Her sense that 4S could be a place where Yolngu epistemic practices might engage in what I would name as cosmopolitics (term whose origins might be traced to Isabelle Stengers (2003), and later Bruno Latour (2011); but which remains in flux as new generations of anthropologists and STS scholars experiment with its possibilities – including at 4S Sydney) , was clearly crucial. Arranging the visuals of the video presentation would help to explain the situation, strengthen her implicit argument that this is a good thing to do and allay concerns about her broadcasting this message.

These kinds of images were not restricted or specific to certain clan groups or kinship relations. They signified a form of open and public knowledge Yinin was authorised to speak about in front of a general audience. They heralded an enactment of a particular polity that Yolngu might come to participate within when attending the conference – an open and welcoming polity produced as Yolngu and balanda work together.

  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.