Friday, 14 January 2011

Qavak Songs Controversy

There's been some controversy on the use of language in my 'Qavak Songs' published in Qarrtsiluni's 'Translation' issue last week, notably at the NCC Woman’s Poetry Listserv (WOMPO). As I wrote in response:

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for being so generous with your time and expertise!!! I just posted this on Wompo - the nickname for the Women's Poetry Listserv.

Dear Wompos - Here's what Nancy Campbell has to say about her choice of the word cunt when translating the Qavak songs published on qarrtsiluni which I posted in the call for snow poems.

I wrote to her about our discussion - crackling is how I described it - which has ensued about using this word in a poem/etc. I hope you will find her commentary useful.

Those who are upset, I apologize for any offense, but for me writing is not about censorship.

My mother - born in 1914 - was gang raped after a Ladies Sodality dance at a Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church in Detroit (now a mosque) before she met and married my father. She shared this awful story with me in the final years before her death. Her rape lived with us in our house at 7420 Piedmont, though only my father knew about it and he only knew what she told him. She was labled paranoid schizophrenic and had repeated shock treatments in other subsequent commitments. (Her first mental incarceration happened a few short months after the little girls were killed in the Birmingham Street bombing in 1963. Here is a link to more about that terrorist attack.

I know what rape can do to a woman - and her husband and her children - though I have been spared experiencing it directly myself.

The word cunt in the Qavak songs expresses a strength and the songs are about the women's ability to ward off the dangers that assail us all.

I need that strrength now more than ever!!!

Christina Pacosz


Many thanks for your thoughtful response and for sharing your own experiences with such moving honesty. I agree with you that writing should overcome censorship, and look forward to reading other WOMPOs views when they respond to your post!

Jean said...

Having posted my comment on Qarrtsiluni saying how much I loved the poems and your translations, and passed on, I was intrigued and surprised to notice a note in the Qarrtsiluni sidebar about this continuing discussion. I have big problems with the use of the word cunt as an expletive or insult and have had, ahem, vigorous discussion about this with a male blogger friend - a very gentle guy who likes robust language. I have absolutely no problem with words like clit and cunt,though, to designate clits and cunts.