I’m glad there’s debate on the matter and I’d be interested to hear more opinions from both sides. I’m particularly proud of qarrtsiluni for publishing the songs, as I had expected publishers to shy away from the language and subject matter. Translation is about entering and respecting other, often unfamiliar, cultural spaces as much as linguistic exchange. Often the former is more of a challenge for us.
Of course, translation also has to work in the host culture, and I am sorry that these songs have offended any readers. Since some people doubt the wisdom of my linguistic choices, and others have asked for more information, here's a brief explanation the rationale behind them.
The three characters speaking in these songs are powerful shamanic figures. As one reader aptly put it, they possess ‘implacable strength’. The language is confident, not defensive. The songs are powerful incantations, which are used within the larger narratives from which these translations are drawn to emphasise the shaman's superiority to, and control of, the universe around her. The sexual and gender politics of the traditional Arctic societies in which these songs originated is very different to that in which I grew up in the UK at the end of the twentieth century. These women are speaking within a culture that does not shy from graphic physical reference, either with regard to the human or the animal body; nevertheless, as shamanic shape-shifters they can leave their bodies behind and exist on a purely spiritual level. What seems a contradiction is a strength.
My objective was that of most translators – to remain faithful to the original (you can read a little more about the demotic of the latter here). During the translation process, as so often when relating Greenlandic words in English, I realised the paucity of my own language.
The English words I chose to translate nalikkaataak and uvijera - 'cunt' and 'clit' - seemed to me, both in sound and sense, the most fitting for the task. I avoided any exotic words or terms deriving from metaphors, which I felt would introduce impurity into the diction. These songs are not intended to be sweet or easy on the ear. One reason these shamanic figures fascinate me is their irrepressible queering of so many gender stereotypes. I sought language that would contain a contemporary resonance of the shock that their actions provoked.
I am all too aware of the complex issues surrounding terminology for the female genitals. I do not believe any words are free of cultural baggage (including, alas, even those such as 'yoni' or 'pussy' which are preferred by some readers of WOMPO because they are currently deemed inoffensive). I do not deny that the words in these songs have been used, and are still used today, to shame and oppress women; I have been on the receiving end of such abuse. However I stand by my usage in this context. Language is not static, unless we refuse to play a part in its transformation.