Wednesday Writers To Read: Translating Lewis and Clark’s Journals

A contrail sliced the sky above Pompey’s Pillar, sandstone guestbook of the West, named by William Clark for Sacajawea’s infant son.  Early on the second morning of my move from Minnesota to Spokane, back in 2001, I called Dad on the walkie talkie and asked if we could stop.  Dad didn’t have a problem with stopping, though I heard his hesitation before he answered.  He didn’t want to spend too much time there, because we had a long ways yet to drive, but when he and Mom stopped there a few months before, they thought it was neat.  I’d like it, he said.

Stories told and untold took me from Pompey’s Pillar to the text of Lewis and Clark’s journals.  This was land I’m familiar with, having grown up in Minnesota, having spent time in North Dakota and Montana, having lived in the Pacific Northwest for two years.  As a nonfiction writer, one who gravitates towards travel writing, nature writing, and place writing, it’s somewhat shameful that I haven’t read the journals until now.  The detail, the thought processes, the unexpected humor—it’s great stuff. The theme of empire and exploration, especially the aspects of translation and interpretation were particularly interesting to me, in several ways.

The first aspect of translation and interpretation most obvious was the editorial translation, the movement of what Lewis, Clark, Ordway, Gass and Whitehouse saw into words—descriptions they had no experience with, so they were forced to rely on comparing what they saw to what they knew.  Animals, flowers, food, and terrain were all translated from their original state into a form that not only the men could better understand, but in a way that would make Jefferson and his government understand what they were seeing.  When Ordway writes of Clark killing a pronghorn, he describes it in the only way he can:  “a curious annamil resembling a Goat  Willard brought it on board…Such an anamil was never yet known in the U.S. States” (53).  This is common to all travel writing—especially the early works.  We don’t know how to describe this strange thing that we’re seeing, so we try to find the closest approximation.  When the journals were transferred into publishable form, they went through a number of editorial phases, some of which Gary E. Moulton, the editor of the volume, believes were valid and some he believes were incomplete.  Even through the reading of this text, the editors have used footnotes and brackets to further explain what the men wrote about, linking the places and placenames to current-day places.  The final editorial translation and interpretation happens between the text and the reader, who must translate the misspelled words and unfamiliar terms into a parlance unique to the reader’s understanding.

Still continuing the linguistic exploration, I was engrossed in the literal interpretation and translation between the Corps and the various Indian tribes.  The translators and interpreters who took the conversations through “English to French, to Hidatsa, to Shoshone, to Salish, and then back again” (xxvii)—what a long process that must have been and I wonder what was lost in the translation, like a very long game of Telephone.  Beyond conversations, Clark himself was very interested in language:  “I took a Vocabulary of the Scioux Language—and the Answer to a fiew quaries Such a[s] refured to ther Situation, Trade, number War, &c.” (50).  The degree to which the sign language was useful, across the various tribes and language groups, was fascinating to me.  As the Corps explored (albeit in a small way) the Welsh link to these tribes, I have to think that such a desired connection must have been rooted in wanting a shared link, that possibilities for “civilization” existed.  But the language and translation/interpretation aspect of this endeavor had to have been an enormous undertaking for one not a linguist, as Lewis “took down the Names of everry thing in their Language, in order that it may be found out whether they are or whether they Sprang or origenated first from the Welch or not” (241).  Such a connection would break down a “Us vs. Them” binary and more smoothly integrate the tribes into the United States, thereby expanding the capacity for trade (and the exploitation of land and resources that naturally makes a few people very rich).  It’s interesting that the Corps’ interactions with the tribes by the Columbia resulted in negative feelings, since they thought the tribes asked too much for their goods (which led to most of the entries describing the people in negative terms, like dirty)—but if the Corps had been on the other side of the trading table, they would have considered themselves shrewd traders (as they did with other tribes).  They simply did not like the tables being turned, as it made them question their own place.  Driving a hard bargain was only acceptable if you were in the Corps—otherwise, it was highway robbery.

Witnessing the authors translating the terrain itself was particularly interesting, watching how many times they compared the landscape to other places more known to their audience—and how many times they contradicted themselves in their descriptions.  A lot of this had also to do with a cultural translation.  When Clark writes that “those Praries on the river has verry much the appearence of farms from the river” (22), it’s the only way he can really make sense of what he is seeing.  He doesn’t know what a prairie is and in his experience, a tilled country is what is most valuable to his culture.  If he can see the prairie as something that could be farmed, that is what Jefferson will want to hear.  The United States spent a lot of money on the Louisiana Purchase—and they want to know if—and how—the investment will pay off.   Later, Clark writes, “about two miles from its mouth in an open butifull Plain, at this time this nation is out hunting the biffalow they raise no corn or Been” (51). Ordway describes mouth of the Little Missouri in North Dakota as “the Soil back from the River is tollarable Good but barron plains without timber on water &c”—as if land needs timber to be worth anything.  As he comes from a northern-European tradition that has never been without trees, it’s understandable how the lack of trees plays into his consciousness.  Further into North Dakota, closer to Yellowstone, Gass remarks, “as a singular circumstance, that there is no dew in this Country, and very little rain.  Can it be owing to the want of timber?” (120).  It’s interesting to me that Gass considers the lack of trees as responsible for the lack of rain, instead of the other way around.  When the Corps are discussing the horses of the Plains, he compares them to the horses he knows in Virginia (333)—which is the only way that what he sees will translate to his readers.

The consideration of the value of the terrain, its translation into what can be done with it, is strangely contradictory.  On May 26, 1805, Clark observes that “this Countrey may with propriety I think be termed the Deserts of America, as I do not Conceive any part can ever be Settled, as it is deficient in water, Timber, & too Steep to be tilled” (137).  However, he does not take into consideration the people who have already settled that terrain, who have thrived there for centuries before the Corps “discovered” them, these people who know that farming in this region is pointless, so they have found other ways to survive and thrive.  Several times, the men mention the effects of fire—but even as they acknowledge the function fire serves on the Plains, it doesn’t seem to penetrate how vital life is here, already.  But the most interesting contradiction comes in Gass’s next entry, which is the following day:  he refers to the place as “the Sterile desert,” yet a few lines later, he lists the abundance he has found there:  “the grass is generally short on these immense natural pastures, which in the proper seasons are decorated with blossoms and flowers of various colours. […][G]roves of cotton wood and willow along the waters [, as well as] buffaloe, elk, deer, and other animals which in vast numbers feed upon the plains or pursue their prey” (137-8).  Whether he does not consider those elements as valuable or even present, is not clear.  My supposition is that he sees them, but since he has been raised to see value (or lack of value) in such things, he does not even comprehend that what he sees contradicts his ideas of “sterile.”

Interpretation of the landscape extends to naming as well and I found it curious how often the Corps named features for themselves and how many times they used the existing Indian names.  When in South Dakota, Clark writes that “The Tribes of the Scouix Called the Teton, is Camped about 2 miles up on the N W Side and we Shall Call the River after that nation, Teton” (57), yet the next day, Clark writes, “I call this Island bad humered Island as we were in a bad humer” (59).  Fort Mandan.  I also found it curious that Ordway was the one who most often referred to the Indians as “Savages,” though Lewis and Clark do so as well, though mostly in times of great annoyance (which are usually misunderstandings of agreements, which mean one thing to the Corps’ culture and another thing to the tribes’ culture).

Further cultural translations will not go so well.  The Corps have a certain view of women’s place in a culture and it does not match up with various tribes’ views of women’s place in a culture.  The men are coming from a European tradition where a woman’s chastity was essential to determine who fathered her children—because lines of inheritance depended on it.  The purpose of marriage (Christian-European) was largely to legitimize sex and produce children.  Gass complains that the women are “article[s] of traffic and indulgencies are sold at a very moderate price” (108)—but most women, in most cultures, were consider property of their fathers until they were old enough to marry and the parents arranged the most advantageous marriage possible, bargaining with the bride’s virginity.  I don’t see much difference here.  While the Corps were shocked at how badly the Indians treated their women, the traditions the Corps came from (and likely the men themselves) did not hold their women to as high a standards as they liked to think they did.  In the European tradition with which the United States was developed, women still did women’s work, were expected to remain sexually faithful, and had no power of any sort.  Lewis’s description of the way the Clatsops, the Chinnooks, and Killamucks treat their women, with respect to their opinions (311) is very contradictory—and interesting because of it.  (They have similar Puritanical views of what the women wear and as a result of this cultural clash, they make no move to understand the way these cultures work.)

Taking this view of women and land in a different direction, at Three Forks, Lewis remarks that “Sah-cah-gar-we-ah or Indian woman was one of the female prisoners taken at that time; tho’ I cannot discover that she shews any immotion of sorrow in recollecting this event, or of joy in being again restored to her native country; if she has enough to eat and a few trinkets to wear I beleive she would be perfectly content anywhere” (194).  He doesn’t know (and how could he?) the way that the Plains tribes shifted and formed themselves, but he also translates her lack of emotion through his own cultural lens, which the men could say of any woman of their acquaintance—that if they’re well fed and have some pretty jewelry, they’ll be happy.  But he also doesn’t understand why the land of her birth is not as important as he thinks it should be, as if he’s projecting what he would feel, were he in her shoes, given these circumstances.  But he comes from a tradition that equates land with identity (where names were often derived from a person’s land and home), so he cannot break that ingrained concept.

The discussion of the Shoshone’s poverty was equally translated, simply because the Corps’ definition of poverty meant something different than the Shoshones.  Whitehouse observes that “these Indian are verry poor and vallue a little worth a great deal, as they never had Scarsely any kind of a kinife or Tommahawk or any weapons of war or to use” (224) and Lewis also comments on their “wretched stait of poverty” (224).  However, further in Lewis’s entry is a contradiction that the Corps have no capacity to recognize:  he discusses how “each individual is his own sovereign master” and that the authority of the Chief comes from exemplary conduct, rather than a hereditary right (which as I discussed previously with regard to land and inheritance, seems to be beyond their ability to comprehend), and that the old persons are treated with great respect.  He reacts harshly to the practice of fathers bartering away their infant daughters in marriage, that this had happened to Sacagawea, completely missing that this is a part of his culture as well.  Later, while at Fort Clatsop, Lewis writes that “Their laws like those of all uncivilized Indians consist of a set of customs which have grown out of their local situations.  not being able to speak their language we have not been able to inform ourselves of the existence of any peculiar customs among them” (321).  And yet they still judge, filtering what they see through their beliefs of “correct behavior.”  There’s a part of me that would like to sit down with these men and talk with them—in this particular instance, to learn their definition of civilization and civilized behavior.  Here, I think it’s a matter of finding a speck in someone else’s eye without seeing the log in your own.  Clark writes:  “this man possesses more integrity, firmness, inteligence and perspicuety of mind than any indian I have ever met with in this quarter, and I think with a little management he may be made a usefull agent in furthering the views of our government” (99).  And so the translation of the people he meets into the culture he hopes to spread is never far from his mind.  Direct translations of the people are impossible—in both directions.


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