A STORY AS SHARP AS A KNIFE.

A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, by Robert Bringhurst, looks like a fascinating book, and this LARB review by Matthew Spellberg describes how the Haida material came to be preserved:

In 1900, a 27-year-old American ethnographer named John Swanton, newly minted PhD from Harvard, junior employee at the Bureau of American Ethnology, and disciple of Franz Boas, arrived on Haida Gwaii to study the culture of the islands and collect artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History. Swanton met a younger Haida, fluent in English, named Henry Moody, who would act as his translator and entrée into Haida society. Moody was a prince under the old system, and he could bring Swanton into the most refined Haida households, or at least what remained of them. By the end of the 19th century, nine-tenths of the Haida had fallen victim to ecological destruction and disease, especially smallpox. By 1900 the ancient villages, some of the largest pre-agricultural settlements in history, were cemeteries of fallen house-poles and rotting cedar-plank lodges. The survivors of the holocaust lived in two clapboard missionary towns.
Swanton realized that transcribing stories was the most important task he could set himself to while on the islands. He was a hard worker and a patient, self-effacing listener — a man who lived for a year on Haida Gwaii “as if nothing in the world were more important than to record what a Native American oral poet wanted to say in precisely the way that poet wanted to say it.” For six hours a day, six days a week, Swanton took dictation. His Haida informants would tell their stories a few phrases at a time. Then, Henry Moody, at Swanton’s side, would repeat slowly what they had said, and Swanton would transcribe the poetry into a phonetic alphabet of Boas’ devising. The Haida spoke a language that had never existed before in writing, except as the vessel for evangelical tracts and Bible passages.
Swanton believed that stories ought to be recorded exactly as they were told, in the original language, preserving the storyteller’s vocabulary and syntax. He did not believe that there was a single version for each myth in a culture; he thought that a storyteller’s variations on a story were conscious artistic choices, not mere corruptions of the original. In this he differed from Boas and most of his colleagues, who preferred to make English prose reductions of the myths, trying to distill some elusive standard version of each story. Swanton’s Haida texts are thus some of the only unadulterated mythtellers’ works to survive the eclipse of classical North American Indian culture.
Bringhurst doubles down on Swanton’s convictions: his trilogy champions the exact words of Native American poets, and makes the sweeping claim that those words are — niceties of cultural relativism be damned — products of artistic genius. The result is a true widening of the canon of world literature.

Swanton is a true hero who should be better remembered, and good for Bringhurst for presenting the material with such care. (He’s apparently been “criticized for his apparent use of western categories like ‘art’ and ‘genius’ to describe non-Western cultural practices,” to which I say “Bah, humbug!” Spellberg has a more thoughtful response, and the whole review is well worth your while.)

Comments

  1. +1 to “bah!” and “humbug!”

  2. It is a fascinating book. I was slightly startled to realise that it wasn’t a coincidence that Bringhurst had the same name as the author of The Elements of Typographic Style, but it did at least explain why the poetry was so beautifully laid out [personally I’m not sure if ‘poetry’ is the right word for it, given that it’s non-metrical, but perhaps we just don’t have a word for that kind of formalised oral story-telling; I certainly wouldn’t call it ‘prose’].

  3. Jerome Rothenberg is my go-to guy for that sort of thing, and I highly recommend his anthology Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania to those who don’t know it; his use of “poetries” in this generous way makes sense to me.

  4. Thanks, Harry. I was wondering if it was the same Robert Bringhurst.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    I have not read this book, which came out a few years ago, but I remember the controversy in linguistic circles about Bringhurst’s editing. Amazon describes him as a “poet and linguist”, but he is not a linguist and does not know the Haida language, so what he has done (like other poets before him) is not a retranslation (which would have to start from the original language) but an attempt to make the linguist’s translations more “poetic”. Among linguists the acknowledged Haida specialist is John Enrico, who criticized some of Bringhurst’s choices, and B replied that his letters to Enrico asking for help and clarification were not answered.
    Outsiders reading the mostly literal renderings of people like Swanton and Boas are often disappointed by what seems to be the low literary quality of the indigenous texts, but a) those scholars had rarely acquired more than a basic command of the languages in question (and therefore missed many of the subtleties) and b) they were not trying for literary merit but for basic translations which would help future scholars go back to the texts and study them in more detail. When people of a literary bent attempt a rewriting of texts translated under such conditions, they do not necessarily realize that what there may be a lot more in the original text (overtly or by implication) that what they are reading, and that their own rewriting may be going into quite different directions from what the original did, so that their finished product cannot be trusted to faithfully reflect native esthetics.
    There are a number of books on the problems of translating/editing native literature, notably those written or edited by Brian Swann.

  6. When people of a literary bent attempt a rewriting of texts translated under such conditions, they do not necessarily realize that what there may be a lot more in the original text (overtly or by implication) that what they are reading, and that their own rewriting may be going into quite different directions from what the original did, so that their finished product cannot be trusted to faithfully reflect native esthetics.
    That is of course true, and hopefully the renewed attention drawn to the texts will inspire someone who knows the languages and understands the context to try their own hand at it. The more translations, the better. And while I’m generally on the side of accuracy, if an ignorant and misleading translation is as great a poem in its own right as, say, Pound’s versions of Chinese poetry, I cheerfully give it a pass. (I haven’t read Bringhurst’s, so I have no opinion on where they fall on that scale.)

  7. I knew Bringhurst slightly in grad school many moons ago–in Willis Barnstone’s translation course, in fact. Quite a fellow all right.

  8. If you have access to JSTOR, Jeff Leer has a summary of the debate from the turn of the millennium first edition. Enrico’s bringhurt.net site from back then is in the Wayback Machine.

  9. I second MMcM’s recommendation of Jeff Leer’s essay. It’s a beautiful, broad and crystal-clear review of the issues. The journal, IJAL, is well accessible electronically from US libraries.

  10. Just read the Leer review (International Journal of American Linguistics 66 [Oct. 2000]: 565-578), and I concur, it’s excellent. Good one-sentence summary of Bringhurst: “He does not constrain himself by attempting to distinguish between linguistic fact and linguistic fiction.” How devastating you find that depends on where you put the emphasis in thinking about this kind of (quasi-)poetic endeavor. Thanks to both MMcM and Y for the recommendation.

  11. The result is a true widening of the canon of world literature.
    This was my conclusion after reading the three books a few years ago. I knew I was in the realm of epic poetry from the first line of the first story: There was a child of good family, they say. ‘They’ are the Haida storytellers who taught those who told the stories to Swanton.
    I dislike having to disagree with marie-lucie, but Bringhurst is linguist (in the sense that he has studied languages), anthropologist (in the sense that he has studied anthropology) and poet.
    He published a dozen books of poetry before these three volumes. Facing each page of translation is the Haida transcribed from Swanton’s phonetic notes (held, I seem to recall, in the Library of the American Philosophical Society) into Roman (I refuse to write ‘Latin’) script. And he makes comparison with other indigenous North American languages.
    And he has published a transation of Parmenides.
    I can only echo those who recommend reading him. I think I’ll reread him myself.

  12. Facing each page of translation is the Haida transcribed from Swanton’s phonetic notes
    But it’s not simply transcribed, it’s altered in incorrect directions (according to Leer, who seems to know what he’s talking about). And a linguist may be someone who has studied languages in popular usage, but he is not a linguist in the technical sense applicable here. Not that that has immediate bearing on whether the book is a good one, but it’s important to keep perspective.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    iakon: Bringhurst is a linguist
    Bringhurst has studied some languages, but he has not studied linguistics. The latter is what ‘linguist’ means in the scholarly or academic context (whether or not a person has completed an advanced degree in the subject). Enrico is a linguist in the academic meaning of the term. He learned Haida by boarding for several years in the house of an elderly Haida woman who was one of the last fluent speakers and also extremely knowledgeable about traditional Haida ways. It is a pity that he did not see fit to answer Bringhurst’s queries but waited until publication to criticize his work.

  14. Yes, the book would obviously have benefited from collaboration with someone who knew more than Bringhurst.

  15. For what it’s worth, I found Bringhurst’s transcription much easier to read aloud that Enrico’s.

  16. bringhurst says:

    I stumbled upon this site while looking for something else, and I beg to be excused for barging in where I clearly don’t belong. I am however concerned that several of the comments published here show very little respect for the facts or the rules of evidence. Marie-Lucie, for example, is a person I have met once in my life, at a conference in Vancouver in 1998 where I gave the opening lecture on Native American literature. She and I spoke, as I recall, for two or three minutes. She did not ask about, much less try to assess, my knowledge of Haida or any other language. According to her own statement here on this site, she has also never read my principal book on the subject. Nevertheless, she claims to know precisely what subjects I have and have not studied, and what languages I am and am not acquainted with. How, I wonder, could she possibly have acquired such information? Where I come from, scholars are careful to distinguish what they know from what they don’t, and not to claim omniscience, or even expertise, outside the realm in which they possess it. I agree that Jeff Leer’s review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife, published in IJAL 66.4 (2001), is an interesting document, but I think anyone citing that review ought also to cite the IJAL editors’ retraction and apology, published on the opening page of issue 67.2 (2002). I also agree that John Enrico’s very lengthy attack on my book, published anonymously on the internet in 1999 (and soon thereafter taken down because it was found libelous) is an interesting document. But I think anyone citing it should, in fairness, also cite some related documents. One of these would be Victor Golla’s review of the book, in issue 18.2 the SSILA Newsletter (1999). Another would be my own half-page response, published (along with a 4-page abridgement of Enrico’s diatribe) in issue 18.3 of the same publication. (SSILA, for those who may not know, is the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas.) Incidentally, I can testify, from personal knowledge, that Enrico knows a great deal of Haida. I can also testify that he has heaped venom and disdain on every other student of the language – not only me but also John Swanton (to whom he owes his source texts), Robert Levine (author of a Haida grammar), and Carol Eastman (former professor of anthropology and dean of graduate studies at the U of Washington in Seattle). Enrico is most welcome to his opinions. But to cite those opinions as if they were uncontested does suggest, shall we say, a fairly peculiar view of reality.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    barging in where I clearly don’t belong

    No, you clearly do. And I’ll say that the impression of your work that I as a layman got out of this was very positive, critical remarks notwithstanding. Discussion among professionals is only a bonus.

  18. I beg to be excused for barging in where I clearly don’t belong

    Of course you belong; all are welcome here, especially those with knowledge I don’t have. I’m not sure why you feel you’re in a hostile environment, since both the post and most of the commentary is favorable to you and your book; I for one am glad to have the references you provide and look forward to investigating them, and I hope you’ll stick around. The more knowledgeable voice, the better!

  19. David Marjanović says:

    For what it’s worth, I found Bringhurst’s transcription much easier to read aloud that Enrico’s.

    On the page linked to above, Enrico says it omits the glottal stop. That would certainly make it easier to read aloud for people who aren’t used to languages that use the glottal stop as a consonant phoneme…?

  20. Etienne says:

    Mr. Bringhurst: inasmuch as it is your book which was being discussed, you of all people most definitely belong here. And I must express my agreement with our cyberhost’s puzzlement: I assure you that many adjectives could describe conversations here, including the present thread, but “hostile” is not one of them.

    Having had a look at some of the references involving your work given on this thread, I would like to ask you (and Marie-Lucie, should she read this) an interested outsider’s question:

    What the **** is it about Native North American linguistics and related areas? For sheer nastiness and hostility (intellectual and personal) it seems to be in a category of its own. I say this as a somewhat atypical historical linguist who has presented work (as an outsider) at a number of different scholarly fora (each involving different language families/area), including conferences on Native North American linguistics, as well as someone who has had a look at the better-known scholarly literature from these different areas.

    It is clear to me that an outsider, presenting a new idea at a conference on a Native North American language, language area or language family, *and who is right*, will probably be treated with far more hostility than an outsider presenting a new idea at a conference on any non-Native North American language family or area, *even if the idea is plainly wrong*.

    Could you or somebody explain how this deplorable situation arose?

  21. somewhat atypical historical linguist

    I don’t mean to undermine your incognito, but I wonder what it is that makes you atypical. The only thing I can think of is your anti-Chomskian views, but that doesn’t seem to me atypical for historical linguists.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Having been away from LH for the past few weeks, and looking up recent comments, I clicked on A STORY AS SHARP AS A KNIFE, a title I recognized, and was surprised to find the following comment:

    R.Bringhurst: Marie-Lucie, for example, is a person I have met once in my life, at a conference in Vancouver in 1998 where I gave the opening lecture on Native American literature. She and I spoke, as I recall, for two or three minutes. She did not ask about, much less try to assess, my knowledge of Haida or any other language. According to her own statement here on this site, she has also never read my principal book on the subject. Nevertheless, she claims to know precisely what subjects I have and have not studied, and what languages I am and am not acquainted with. How, I wonder, could she possibly have acquired such information?

    Mr Bringhurst, I remember you very well, and very positively, but my memories are somewhat different from yours, and some of the information came directly from you.

    It is true that we met in person at the conference in question, but quite some time before that (perhaps a year or two) you had written me a letter, the contents of which I have forgotten. I am sorry to say that I was then totally unfamiliar with your name, and I asked you for some particulars in order to best answer you. I thought you might be a graduate student in linguistics or anthropology, since I have sometimes been contacted by such people. Anyway, we did exchange a few letters. You explained your work in progress, and you wrote that since you were not a linguist you were entirely dependent on the work of linguists. We later met at the conference, but not just for two or three minutes. We greeted each other, then made an appointment for later and spoke then for at least an hour, may be even two, in any case for longer than I expected since I was meeting my daughter for dinner afterwards, and she waited patiently beyond the time I had told her to meet me. I remember a very interesting conversation, but not in any detail.

    In my earlier comment, apart from saying that you were not a linguist, I did not “claim” anything, let along any precise knowledge, about which languages or topics you might or might not have studied, since even if you had mentioned them earlier I had probably forgotten them by that time. That you had not studied linguistics I inferred from your own description of yourself as not a linguist. As for asking about your knowledge of Haida, I had already had your own statement about relying on the work of linguists. “Assessing” that knowledge would have been beyond my abilities since I don’t know Haida myself (apart from having a copy of Swanton’s grammar). And the “two or three minutes” of conversation you remember would hardly have been sufficient! Whatever topics we covered in our longer conversation, I am sure that I was not trying to “assess” you in any way.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    R. Bringhurst: I can testify, from personal knowledge, that Enrico knows a great deal of Haida. I can also testify that he has heaped venom and disdain on every other student of the language – not only me but also John Swanton (to whom he owes his source texts), Robert Levine (author of a Haida grammar), and Carol Eastman (former professor of anthropology and dean of graduate studies at the U of Washington in Seattle).

    Why am I not surprised? I have known of Enrico’s work for a long time, but only saw him twice in action. The first time was at a native language conference in Vancouver in the 1980’s, which brought together mostly native people from all over British Columbia concerned about endangerment, revitalization, and such topics. The mood was definitely anti-linguist: many people thought that linguists were stealing the languages, etc. At one point one white man stood up and said that linguists had misled people, etc: he was identified to me as John Enrico. I tried to go talk to him later about the potential impact of his outburst, but he had already gone. The second time was years later, at one of the SSILA conferences, where he presented a paper. Let’s say there are several components of oral presentation, such as form, content, etc, but also rapport with the audience. Rapport with other human beings does not seem to be Enrico’s forte.

  24. Etienne says:

    John Cowan: what is atypical about me is that unlike most historical linguists my original research topic (which spawned my dissertation) was at the intersection of two very different subfields: scholars in either one know little and care even less about work done in the other. Possibly as a result of this, I have subsequently done more work which involves overlap between different subfields, and as a result have observed a few different such subfields: each has its own blind spots, its own odd obsessions, its own holy founder(s), saints, scripture and heretics, its own mythology…I’m quite certain a sociologist, folklore specialist or cultural anthropologist would have a field day in describing these different tribes of linguists, and indeed a comparative study of these tribes would make an interesting study.

    A satirist with a taste for imitating the pomposity of Victorian-era anthropological literature could turn such a study into a howlingly funny read…I can see it already: “The generativist may be said to be an offspring of the devout Muslim: this is most visible in the worship of MIT, wherein an echo of the prayer in the direction of Mecca may be seen. His fascination with mock tree-like structures obviously is a result both of a folk-memory of a desert origin and of a surface similarity to Arabic calligraphy. That the generativists’ Prophet, Chomsky, has written extensively about the Middle East merely confirms what a study of his cult should have made plain to any dispassionate observer”.

    Okay, enough fun… because most linguists, including historical linguists, stick to one particular subfield, however, they tend not to see some of the atypical features of their own subarea. And to repeat myself, Native North American linguistics seems unusual in its degree of extreme and bitter divisiveness. I’d like to know why this is so.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: Native North American linguistics seems unusual in its degree of extreme and bitter divisiveness.

    Perhaps I lack perspective on the topic, but I don’t see it that way.

  26. bringhurst says:

    I did not, in fact, feel that the environment on this site was hostile, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I am in fact very grateful for the attention being paid here to my work. What troubled me was an epistemological disconnection which I thought I saw in several of the posts. It was clearest, I thought, in Marie-Lucie’s remarks. I see however from her latest posts to the site that she remembers our meeting in 1998 differently than I do. Her memory of the occasion may be more reliable than mine, and I am happy to be corrected in that regard. I am not sure she entirely understood what I meant when I said I was “dependent on the expertise of linguists” (if that is really what I said). And I continue to believe that if she wants to understand what I do and don’t know, she will have to read some of my work. (A Story as Sharp as a Knife would not, in my view, be a bad place to start.) But I think this particular quibble is wide of the point, and I have no wish whatsoever to pursue a quarrel with Marie-Lucie.

    Here, in brief, is the epistemological issue. We all have second-hand opinions about people we’ve never met, and second-hand impressions of books we’ve never read. I, for example, have opinions about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, though I have no personal experience of either one. I also have a few borrowed ideas about many books I’ve never read. But I know that my opinions of those gentlemen, and the gossip I have heard about those books, do not constitute professional expertise, nor anything close to it. We grant scholars the privilege of speaking with professional authority on the subjects to which they’ve devoted their lives. But if a scholar cannot tell where his expertise ends and the realm of gossip and hearsay begins, how can we ever trust what he says?

    I’m afraid you’ll think me quarrelsome if I choose another example closer to home, but here goes. This thread began with languagehat generously calling attention to a likewise generous review of the second edition of A Story as Sharp as a Knife. A discussion ensued, in which languagehat himself remarked, on the morning of Nov. 22: “I haven’t read Bringhurst’s [translations], so I have no opinion on where they fall on [the scales of accuracy or poetry].” Less than 36 hours later he then says, “Yes, the book would obviously have benefited from collaboration with someone who knew more than Bringhurst.” An innocent observer might conclude that in the intervening day and a half languagehat had inhaled a fairly dense 540-page book and come to a firm conclusion regarding the author’s deficiencies. Closer inspection of the discussion suggests that what he had read in that interval was actually Jeff Leer’s 12-year-old review of the book.

    There are good prima facie reasons to take the Leer review seriously. It was published in a respected journal, and Leer is a fine linguist. He has done particularly impressive work with Tlingit. So impressive that I agreed, back in 1993, to write a lengthy introduction for his edition and translation of some wonderful texts dictated by a Tlingit elder known in English as Elizabeth Nyman. (The book is called Gágiwduł.àt: Brought Forth to Reconfirm. It was published jointly by the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse and the Alaska Native Language Center in Anchorage, and it was the publishers, not Leer nor the late Mrs Nyman, who asked me to write an introduction.) Leer had also, back in the 1970s, done considerable work on colloquial Alaskan Haida. His Haida work (unlike his work with Mrs Nyman) was not especially helpful to a literary scholar and translator like me, but it was certainly enough to recommend him as a suitable professional reviewer for my book on Haida literature.

    Leer panned the book – more precisely, he panned the author – but in doing so, he relied very heavily on the views of his colleague, the acknowledged professional expert on the Haida language, John Enrico. Enrico’s monumental bias against the book had already been demonstrated, so Leer’s review turned out not to be quite the impartial appraisal we had all desired. It was so far from impartial, in fact, that the editors of IJAL published a kind of retraction two issues later.

    And there you have a dandy demonstration of the epistemological point I wanted to raise: knowledge of someone’s opinion about a thing is not knowledge of the thing itself. Not even if the someone in question has magnificent credentials. If you want to know what a book is or isn’t, or what its author (qua author) is or isn’t, only one course is open to you: read the book yourself and make your own decision.

    Thank you all.

  27. I entirely agree with everything you say, most especially the epistemological issue — I am constantly reminding myself of the limits of my knowledge and the need to be clear on what I actually know and what I think I know on someone else’s say-so, and as you see I often fail to live up to my own standards (though at 62 you’d think I would have gotten it under my belt by now). Thanks very much for returning to the thread!

  28. I can say nothing about Haida poetry, and know nothing about Robert Bringhurst’s linguistic qualifications. I would, however, like to note two things: Robert Bringhurst’s thoughtful comments and the contribution to the eensiness of this planet made by Hat and his Hattery.

    Harry, in the second comment in this thread, notes that Robert Bringhurst is also the author of The Elements of Typographic Style. I came across this book long ago; my copy is marked as the third printing of the first edition and is copyright 1992. It is a wonderful book. So wonderful that on at least three occasions I’ve given it as a gift. I suppose I knew, but had forgotten until I looked just now, that its publisher had offices in both Point Roberts, Washington (a pene-exclave, says Wiki), and in Vancouver, BC.

    A Story as Sharp as a Knife was published by Douglas & McIntyre of Vancouver. His name unfortunately escapes me, but in the mid-70s I befriended a fellow in Toronto who headed west to take a senior editorial position with the firm. We drifted apart, but somewhere I’ve still got a book he gave me.

    Somewhat OT: Kudos to Robert Bringhurst on his 2013 appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada. There can’t be many ex-pat Yankees with that feather in their hat.

  29. Yes, kudos on that and on the wonderful typography book!

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