I just saw (and immediately bought) a book that could have been published expressly for me… and, I suspect, for certain other frequenters of Languagehat, which is why I’m mentioning it here. NYU Press has published an amazing book called The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature, edited by Marc Shell and Werner Sollors, which presents each work in its original language with facing page translation. Over 700 pages long, it starts with Pastorius‘ remarkable Bee-Hive of 1696 (in English, German, and Latin, with bits of Greek, Italian, French, and Dutch thrown in for spice), a couple of early documents in Massachusett, the Walam Olum or the Red Score of the Lenape (with pictographs and transcriptions of the Lenape myths and migration stories), a poem by Lorenzo da Ponte, and (perhaps the most amazing find) the 1831 Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself—in Arabic! (The original manuscript, with its beautifully clear writing, is reproduced.) It continues through nineteenth-century works in French, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian, and (Nic, Pat, are you listening?) Welsh, and for the twentieth century adds Yiddish, Swedish, Norwegian, Navajo, Hebrew, Chinese, Hungarian, and Greek. There is a “Brief History of Bilingualism in Poetry” and a satisfyingly detailed section of notes (“Omar’s construction is ambiguous; he does not use the past construction (kana) to indicate his previous religion. A literal translation would read: ‘Before… my religion is the religion of Mohammed.'”). And there is the recurring pleasure of seeing American names in unusual linguistic contexts, such as Arabic (“Ya ahl Nu-Karulin [‘O people of North Carolina’]! Ya ahl Su-Karulin!”) or Welsh (“Pan welais destynau Eisteddfod Granville, N.Y….”). I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

I’ll close with an excerpt from György Gyékényesi‘s “Occidental Cantata”:

Bartókot láttam
amint rigódalt jegyzett
a Carolinákban
sej rigómadár ne szállj fel a fára
s New Orleans-i ütemre rándult a keze
the saints go marchin’ in
the saints go marchin’ out
míg hömpölygött a Mississippi


  1. Oooooooh. 🙂

  2. In the process of fixing dead links (thank goodness for Wikipedia), I discovered that the authenticity of the Walam Olum is in serious doubt: “Ethnographic studies in the 1980s and analysis in the 1990s of Rafinesque’s manuscripts have produced significant evidence that the document is a hoax.” Sad.

    Also, I couldn’t stand the fact that Naomi’s Baraita link now goes to a link farm, so I changed it to an archived one (thank goodness for the Wayback Machine).

  3. The beginning of the Walam Olum (the part prior to the flood narrative—thus the part that is not conflict with other Lenape beliefs about how long they had resided in the Delaware region) was the first work in my high school American Literature textbook. (I would have liked to provide a link, but it is surprisingly difficult to locate online references to high school textbook editions published before the World-Wide Web.) I remember my feeling that the English explanations assigned to each of the images seemed questionable—as if the texts had been composed not on the basis of an authentic legend, but by looking at the images and trying to guess what they meant. At least two things contributed to this impression. First, the order of the pictographs seemed skewed. In some places, it looked like there were natural groupings of pictographs, but these were sometimes broken up, so as to make the textual explanations flow better. Second, in a couple places the explanations seemed to be grasping at very minor similarities between widely separated images, and trying to tie them together in a fashion that seemed quite dubious to me.

    At the time, I thought were several possible explanations for whatever discrepancies I hazily perceived. The creation tale might have authentically coexisted with the images, but the conceit that each picture expressed a very specific episode from the story, with a standardized wording in the original Lenape, could have been a fiction. Alternatively, the explanations might have been created out of whole cloth, as way to explain an otherwise mysterious set of images; in this case, the composition of the verses might have been either in Lenape or English. However, it did not really occur to me that the pictographs themselves might have been entirely invented, although that now seems to be the most likely explanation of the whole document.

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