I just read in Sally Thomason’s post at Language Log that Dell Hymes died in his sleep last Friday. I do not have a particular interest in his area of specialization, the languages of the Pacific Northwest, but his work in linguistic anthropology combined brilliance in both elements of that term with a remarkable sensitivity to literary and artistic qualities in oral texts, and I am extremely fond of his book “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. A brief passage from its opening essay, “Some North Pacific Coast Poems: A Problem in Anthropological Philology,” will give an idea of what he thought needed to be corrected in his chosen field:

On the one hand, some of those who concern themselves with the materials of verbal art assert or assume the irrelevance of linguistic control and analysis to their interpretive interest. Contrary to the experience and standards of scholarship in other fields, the style, content, structure, and functioning of texts seem to be declared “translated” (in the theological sense of the metaphor as well as the linguistic) bodily from their original verbal integument, and available for interpretation without it. Original texts are even declared in a scholarly review in the pages of the American Anthropologist to be of concern only to linguists — as if only linguists would mourn the loss of the original texts of Homer or the Bible! On the other hand, those who undertake linguistic description too often pursue it without effective concern for other students of the American Indian, or such fields as comparative poetics, to which American Indian studies should contribute.

The next essay, winningly titled “How to Talk Like a Bear in Takelma” (first page available here, or the whole thing if you have JSTOR access) is a gentle and meticulous takedown of a hasty statement by Edward Sapir that had more influence than it deserved; it ends “…this study shows in a small way that even genius and native speaker intuition together cannot always substitute for attention to the details of actual texts.” My condolences to his wife Virginia, and may his influence continue to spread.


  1. Hymes was a longtime friend and correspondent of Gary Snyder, who he met in college.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    Many texts written down by linguists and anthropologists, especially older ones, are very poorly translated. One reason is that those people did not spend enough time learning Native North American languages (part of the reason was that there was an urgency to at least survey the field, since many of the languages were in danger of extinction even if there were still a few speakers). Another reason for the poor translations is that the linguists were not trying to give the best possible translations in literary terms but to make further linguistic work possible by translating quite literally (with some exceptions). For instance, Sapir’s translations of Takelma texts (which Dell Hymes relied on for his essay) are so literal that they are practically unreadable in English, as they follow Takelma word order as strictly as possible. Faced with those poor translations, some poets have taken it upon themselves to improve them, but without knowing anything of the original language, so that their “translations” are not real retranslations but rewritings of the original, inadequate translations. Any mistakes or inaccuracies are therefore compounded, coloured also by the poets’ own interpretations of what they imagine the original storytellers meant. But Dell Hymes was a poet himself, as well as a linguist and anthropologist.

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