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EDITING editing aboriginal voices

Editing Aboriginal voices

Editing Aboriginal writing: is it different?

Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or Indigenous?

Australian Aboriginal English

Representing people's voices in print: English words

Representing people's voices in print: language words

Glossing Aboriginal languages

CATE workshop, August 2009

Useful resources for those editing Aboriginal writing

Representing people's voices in print: English words

It can be easy when working with Aboriginal texts to employ widely recognised standards that inadvertently cause problems for Aboriginal authors. While most Aboriginal people writing do so in English their English may be the non-standard variety known as Australian Aboriginal English, and it may also contain a range of words from the language the author identifies with.

People have attempted to represent Aboriginal words using both English alphabet characters and a mixture of common characters along with specialised symbols and accents. There's a Wikipedia page on the historical background to the transcription of Aboriginal languages.

In the second sentence of the mock example I gave in English words there was an Aboriginal word:

He took that babaarr and started chuckin it around everywhere, scarin everyone.

First-time use of words that are unfamiliar to the reader are often italicsed or put in quotes but many Aboriginal authors object to this practice; if there is any unusual or foreign word on the page then surely it's English.

The word babaarr in the example above is a Gumbaynggirr word for a stick or fighting club. Context is important in its presentation. This word can be easily read using the characters of the English alphabet and the publisher could feel confident that readers who had picked up the book would be engaged enough to anticipate the occasional unfamiliar word; hence, italics or quotes are not deemed necessary. Seeing the doubled-up "aa" and final "rr" the English-speaking reader can imagine a lengthened vowel sound and perhaps a rolled or trilled "r" and therefore make a pretty good fist of prounouncing this Gumbaynggirr word.

But consider words that are less "friendly" to the English-only speaker: words in those Aboriginal languages that have sounds or groups of sounds that either don't occur in English or do occur in English but in places that English speakers don't expect to see them. The "ng" sound of English "sing" occurs at the beginning of words in many Aboriginal languages; not expecting to hear it there, some English-only speakers substitute a straightforward "n" sound. But this can actually change the meaning of word: the Ngaanyatjarra noun nulu means "closed end of a burrow" but "ngurlu" is an adverb meaning "afraid, fearful, scared".

In some languages, sounds are represented by groups of characters that appear formidable or unpronouncable to the English-only reader. Consider the "kng" trigraph in the Alyawarr kinship term Kngwarrey, or the grouping of consonants in ntyangkwelknge, the Eastern Arrernte word for a women's ceremonial fire stick. Both these words contain groups of letters that represent sounds that don't occur in English or occur in parts of words unfamiliar to the English-only speaker; hence, they may cause the reader to stumble, pause or possibly ignore the language word. When this happens the language word's presence becomes redundant; there's no point in moaning that the reader needs to work harder to engage with the text as the reader is busy and has another six books on her desk or bedside table vying for her attention.

In these cases the editor needs to discuss the use of language words with the author and publisher. If the words appear in quotes then they'll have to stay. If the spelling system is one that employs unfamiliar clusters of letters that are off-putting to a reader unfamiliar with the language and its orthography then a note on pronunciation in the introduction is in order. If there are certain key words that recur throughout the text then these could be contained in a glossary, close to the pronunciation guide.

Occasionally books employ glossaries that "sound out" the word (so the language name Yuwaalaraay might be represented "you-WAH-la-roy"). Linguists tend not to like this as its too open to misinterpretation, and indeed it would be best avoided in a grammar or learner's guide. But in a general text in which several unfamiliar words occur often then it might be worth considering.

The important point is to make the reader feel prepared enough to tackle the unfamiliar word. The author might choose to take a confrontational stance: This is our language; we've had to make the effort to learn your language and now you can make the effort to learn ours. If the publisher's agreed to publish the author with this understanding then the editor should still make sure that there is enough supporting information for the reader to make a reasonable attempt to pronounce the language words.

It's all about context. If the use of language words is not in quoted material but appears in the general narrative, and is only occasional, then quote marks or italics might well be the best solution. Consider the following:

On occasion, Pitjantjatjara speakers might use the word nyata, which means "reluctant to do something".

Discuss the issue with the author and the publisher. Is the message being articulated clearly? Will the reader trust the author and so feel willing to be led through unfamiliar territory? Will the reader feel prepared enough to feel comfortable when confronted by a word that is unfamiliar? As is so often the case when discussing "rules of editing", it's all about context.

Final note, from the Chicago Manual of Style section on italics:

7.54 Familiar foreign words
Foreign words and phrases familiar to most readers and listed in Webster are not italicized if used in an English context; they should be spelled as in Webster . . . If a familiar foreign term, such as mise en scène, should occur in the same context as a less familiar one, such as mise en abyme (not listed in Webster), either both or neither should be italicized, so as to maintain internal consistency. The decision to italicize should not be based solely on whether a term appears in Webster.


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