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When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 4)

July 25, 2011

(part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven)

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and the Politics of Difference in True Blood (continued…)

Knud Rasmussen, working with a better grasp of the language than Jenness, also worked harder to acknowledge the individuality of singers that sung a particular song during the moment in which he recorded them as well as the specific context of the performance. He notes exchanges of songs such as when he is asked to perform and in Across Arctic America even photographically memorializes Qingaruvdliaq, “the woman who knew all the men’s songs and prompted them when they forgot the words” (96). These authorial notations reveal the songs to be mutable, changeable, transferable, and highly innovative. Sophie McCall claims in her analysis of what she terms “partial translation” in the acclaimed film by Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjuat (which contains all dialogue in Inuktitut with subtitles in English), that the opening sequence of the soon-to-be-deposed chief Kumaglak singing his song to a stranger is “a kind of manifesto that shapes the politics and poetics of the film: to respond to and contest the history of appropriation in recording Inuit songs…The incident [the meeting with the stranger who then kills him] suggests that the song’s power lies in its performance, and the relations of address cannot be separated from the song itself. Taking the song out of one context and recontextualizing it in another profoundly affects the range of meanings that it can generate” (19). Songs are given to people in the form of gifts, as items of exchange, and as peace offerings, but as this film demonstrates they can also be used as weapons and indicators of political allegiance or change. Some songs are used by relatives and changed to fit the individual, while other songs cannot be changed even as they are handed down in family groups, such as Kumaglak’s song which never changes through three generations of its singing.

Kumaglak’s song is sung three times in the film for very specific political purposes, but in each singing, the song is never changed by either his son or his grandson (the usurpers) after his death. In Kunuk’s sequel to Atanarjuat, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the politics of partial translation are highlighted once again: very few of the songs that the Inuit sing are translated into the English subtitles, perhaps highlighting the predicament of what happens to Inuit songs when given into English—the poem becomes not just open for change (which is acceptable under certain proscriptions), it becomes open for change in ways that both de-place the specificity of location and audience and de-politicize the content of the song (which could be argued is the case for “my small adventure”). McCall argues persuasively that “[t]he presentation of…songs as isolated fragments ignores the storytelling interactions and the social contexts of the exchanges” (21). Nicole Nolette has argued equally persuasively about the politics behind the act of naming a speech act “partial translation”: “the attribution of a positive aspect to ‘incomplete’ or ‘partial’ translation by McCall clearly tips in favor of the Inuit audience. Herein lies the problematic, and yet extremely relevant, nature of naming this kind of translation ‘partial’. While very vividly pointing to incompleteness, this naming practice also emphasizes partiality as a way of favouring one side of an issue.” Nolette then proceeds to complicate McCall’s assertions with a pertinent discussion of the historically colonial relationship between orality (dialogue in Inuktitut) and literacy (subtitles in English or French). Of course, those proficient in all three languages (most young movie-watching Inuit), are the viewers this set-up is partial to!

Next post will get into that little issue about the “lesser religions” and how formulating the poetics/politics of the “my small adventures” song in this way goes hand in glove with the rather conservative act of its editing.


From → Literature, Poems

  1. Robert R Fiske permalink

    Hi Author, reading this with great interest. I saw this poem in the film Never Cry Wolf, as you referenced, and have shared it from time to time, but always wondered how well it was translated.. and always questions of misappropriation and colonial assumptions come up.. So, thanks for your focus on these issues. … That said, and regarding proper attribution, I have to complain, lightly anyhow, that in the four sections of your writing, I haven’t managed to find any mention of your own name, in order to honor and thank you more directly.

    Thank you, just the same, stranger! – Bob Fiske, Portland Maine

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 1) « arcticisms
  2. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 2) « arcticisms
  3. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 3) « arcticisms
  4. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 6) « arcticisms
  5. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 7) « arcticisms

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