A note from the Indian Ocean

indian ocean map 3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

All the translations in this book are by the author, save only those in passages by books cited in the bibliography.

A few notes about the difficulty of translating the native language of the Kandeni Islands might be in order. Those tiny islands in the Indian Ocean (approximately 2 degrees South and 90 degrees East), and their primary island, Kandei, were undiscovered until 1933 (Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933), and so remote are they that their language and customs seemingly grew in isolation for centuries, if not millennia. A few relics in their language suggest they had contact with cultures in the South Andaman Sea in earlier eras, perhaps related to the extinct Jangil peoples, but in the main, their language is unique.

kandei mapBy far, the primary difficulty in their language is the fact that it has only two verbs, which might best be described as the verb to be and the verb to do, one active, one passive. Every usage is intelligible only in context. The language has nouns with cases, adjectives that mirror those cases and a few prepositions and a few vestigial conjunctions. There are no articles.

This bifurcation of verb is essential to their organization of the world. Things — whatever they are — either be or do. They exist as essences or they exist as agents. Every act is merely a morph of the simple act of doing. Running, speaking, sleeping, eating — they are all seen as variants of a single act.

For the elders who spoke to me, this is taken as obvious: Their mythology (see Chapter 3) revolves around the dichotomy of being and doing, and their gods, if you can call them that (they may also be seen as ancestors), fall into two categories, the “be-ers” and the “do-ers.” These supernatural beings (I use our terminology — they do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural) are at odds, if not at war (the stories vary from family to family).

On first approach, it may appear that the language is simple to the point of being rudimentary, but in fact, with these few elements, it has grown into a language of immense complexity, requiring of its speaker — and listener — not only great subtlety but awareness of its context. The same sentence in the morning may mean something different after the sun begins its descent.

As one might expect, that although there are only two verbs, there are many nouns. The Kandeian people have words for the things of their world, but not static words. A certain plant, for instance, will have a different noun for its seedling, for its fruiting or for its use by native animals. Linguistically, they are different things, even if our Linnean system sees them as merely phases of the same plant. This is true as it is for us, for instance, who think of a boy as different from a man, a puppy as different from a dog. For them, the manioc plant is a different plant before it grows a sufficient tuber. For us, these distinctions are vestigial, for them, they are applied to almost everything in their ecosystem.

The prepositions come in five varieties, describing being above something, under something, around something or in something and finally away from something. There is no before or after: That is expressed by saying something like “I here (to be), he here (to be), and the listener infers from context that the one happened before the other.

Adjectives and adverbs are undifferentiated; they are universal modifiers and no distinction is made between a fast runner and running fast (or in the language “active verb fast.”

A few examples might help.

A standard statement might include first a subject, like the personal pronoun, “I,” followed by the object of the sentence followed by one of the two verbs. If you were to express a simple idea, such as “I throw the ball,” the sentence would be constructed as “I ball (active verb).” Or “I ball do.” The “I” is in the nominative case, the “ball” in the objective. The “do” or “act” is understood as something you do with the ball — which in context would most likely be understood as “throw.” The speaker might mimic the act of throwing, but this is not necessary. If you needed to express something else, such as “I sat on the ball,” you would have to express this with not only the sentence, but with gesture. “I ball (do)” and a short squatting gesture. Why you might want to sit on a ball, I don’t know.

The other verb expresses both condition and essence — both the concepts that in Spanish are divided by “ser” and “estar.” To say “I am here,” the sentence would be built as “I here (to be).” “Here” is in the locative case. Other places would likewise be in the locative. “I river (to be).” There is no tense expressed. Again, tense is implied by context or by extension: “I river yesterday (to be).”

Naturally, such a language can only be meaningful in a face-to-face encounter. The many gestural inflections cannot be captured in print or over a telephone. Neither of which, I hardly need to say, the Kandeian peoples do not have.

When they were discovered by a passing tramp steamer in 1933, it is estimated there were perhaps 400 Kandeian speakers on the island. In the intervening time that number has dropped precipitously; there are now estimated to be under a hundred left, although a precise census has never been taken, in part because the Kandeians resist outside visitors, and in part because the island is so wild and overgrown, cross-country travel is extremely hazardous.

I spent two years on the island in the late 1980s, studying the language and customs. I spoke with several family leaders — a position gained not by force or vote, but by assent — and they told me their stories and the stories of their ancestors. This raises another distinct quality of their language. When discussing everyday events, they speak in an ordinary pitch and volume, as you or I might. But when relating myth, they speak in a high pitch and with little inflection. They can revert back and forth with seemingly no difficulty as they interweave the mythic with the quotidian.

This way of speaking also functions as a kind of subjunctive mood, as it is also used to express things that might not be, or might occur in the future. So, for the Kandeian, linguistically at least, the past — other than a personal past — and the future are equally mythic. In the middle, there is the lifetime remembrance of the speaker, which is taken as indicative rather than subjunctive; all else is relegated to myth, or a time that may have been or might become.

The problems of rendering such a language in English should be manifest. When I translate the words of Ruthentay, leader of his family, I must interpret his meaning into English rather than literally translate. Certainly this is the case when translating from any language to another; the problems of turning Tolstoy into readable English is well known. But with the Kandeian Islander, this is raised to an exponential degree. I cannot just give the words Ruthentay speaks, but must render them as if they had been spoken in English. This distorts them in ways that break my heart, but it cannot be otherwise.

In those cases where no English equivalent exists, as for certain food items of the Kandeian diet, I must use transliterations of the native words. I am sorry if this causes confusion but again, there seems no way around it.

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1 comment
  1. Alex and Mary Lou said:

    WTF???

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