THE FATAL SHORE, Part 1: The Vengeance of Property

Andrew’s on vacation this week, so today we turn the blog over to San Antonio’s Leonard Pierce to kick off our series on the founding of Australia and one of the modern classics published on the subject. Take it away, Leonard:

It never pays dividends to speak for one’s countrymen, but if my experience is any indicator, the average American knows little about Australia, let alone its astonishing history. Our schools seem to have enough trouble teaching American history, so the chances of learning anything about a foreign country are slim – even a country whose history is as closely tied to our own as Australia. The two nations began their official existences only a decade apart, and, indeed, Australia’s selection as the dumping ground for a new kind of colonial labor was necessitated by the Revolution that had made America off-limits for the exportation of “the criminal class.” But geographically and politically, America and Australia were worlds removed from one another: the U.S. was populated, in its early goings, by zealots who found the religious climate of England insufficiently fervid for their liking, while Australia was settled by men and women who had been hurled away from the shores of the kingdom with great force.

Our educational and cultural conception of Australia, then, is a largely incoherent collection of clichés and stereotypes: a kaleidoscope of references from ‘80s comedies, a notion that its hard-drinking, independent, rough-and-tumble ways make it “England’s Texas”; and, of course, somewhere crawling on the surface of that part of our minds that wants to reduce every nation to a single characteristic, the knowledge that it was founded by criminals. The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ tremendous history of the birth of the only country that is also a continent is a perfect prescription for those of us whose initial reaction to the very name of Australia is to make snickering comments about watching your camera, but he does the opposite of shy away from the low and brutal realities of its settlement. Indeed, he goes out of his way to make it clear that “the System” – the gingerly bureaucratized term for the forced exportation of criminals to serve as bound labor for the creation of a rich new colony – is as sensitive a topic for the Australians as slavery is for Americans. His explanations of how political and psychological factors kept detailed accounts of the System out of Australian history texts for decades are only the first of the many fascinating insights that seem as revelatory now as when the book first appeared 25 years ago.

Convicts Embarking For Botany Bay

Thomas Rowlandson, "Convicts Embarking for Botany Bay." From the National Library of Australia.

The Fatal Shore begins with a compelling description of the flora and fauna of the land on which the first wave of the banished arrived in 1788. Hughes makes it seem, in near literal language, like an alien planet, and not without reason; although one of the Transportation System’s selling points was that it was nominally more humane than execution (Georgian England prescribed hanging for literally hundreds of crimes, from murder on down to uprooting plants on a nobleman’s property), it shipped the criminals so far away they might as well have been removed from the face of the Earth. Adding to the enigmatic strangeness was the fact that almost nothing was known about Australia; previous inland exploration consisted of an alarmingly brief stay by the legendary Captain James Cook, whose visit to a microscopically small area of the continent led to recommendations for its use no better informed than those of the proverbial blind man laying his hands on an elephant.

Of course, there were those to whom Australia was anything but alien and strange. To the aboriginals who already lived there, it was as comfortable and familiar as eternity, and to Hughes’ credit, he moves almost immediately to telling at least part of their story. He is determined to speak of the cruelties, ignorance and disruption inflicted on them by the European settlers, while never soft-pedaling the brutalities of their own traditions (he is especially effective at recounting the low status and grim prospects of women in aboriginal societies), but in the end, the conclusion is foregone. Irrespective of the virtues and vices of Australia’s native cultures, he writes, “it had not the slightest chance of surviving white invasion.”

But this white invasion was of a different color than that which had prevailed elsewhere. This was not the predatory exploration of the conquistadors, or the religious haven of the American colonies; the settlers of Australia lived under a complex system of class-based control. They were the subjects of a unique form of social experimentation never tried before or since, and as Hughes is all too aware, its closest analogue is the bottomless inhumanity of the gulags. Even the journey was murderous; anyone who has flown from the U.S. to Australia in climate-controlled, jet-propelled ease knows that the trip seems crushingly long, but to see the original route (England to Brazil to South Africa to Botany Bay) and imagine it being made on an 18th-century sailing ship under the worst of privation is unimaginable. After they arrived, the transportees were kept under conditions not far removed from slavery, and faced dreadful disease and starvation with no access to aid.

And yet, Hughes insists, transportation worked. The Australian colonists survived and, in some cases, thrived. Refuting modish theories of genetically inherited criminality, the children of the convicts grew into law-abiding citizens of the Crown. Even more surprisingly, those freed from bondage to the System almost universally decided to remain in Australia rather than return to England. Who they were, and why they made the decision to stay in conditions of uncertainty and danger rather than go back to the familiarity of home, is something I’d like to talk about in our next installment.

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Robert Hughes and The Fatal Shore: Introduction

The world’s most widely read history of early Australia, Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, turns a quarter-century old this year. When it was first published, Australia was in preparations for its 1988 Cook Bicentenary, and a number of historical retrospectives entered print. Despite decades of fine books put out by respected career historians, like Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark, it would be the unlikely authorship of art critic Robert Hughes, previously known for biting proclamations against some of the fashionable Postmodernist movements of the 1980s, that secured The Fatal Shore its place in libraries around the planet (it has been translated into at least five languages, and is one of the rare Australian history books to have never been out of print in the US or the UK since its first edition). Hughes took his keen eye for examining art through its political context, and cast it on the society of convicts, career military officers, and adventurous free settlers who composed the first English-speaking inhabitants of Australia. His book was rewarded with a spot on the best-seller list and was one of only nine non-fiction works to be ranked among the New York Times Editors’ Choice books for 1987.

His exhaustive research and compelling prose aside, part of this global success may have been due to Hughes’ being a long-time resident of New York City, and a respected fixture in its intellectual circles. In addition to the Times review, my edition of The Fatal Shore bears gushing jacket blurbs from Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and one of my favorite students of American history, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. It’s hard not to notice that all of them, like Hughes, had resided in or near New York for some years at the time of the book’s publication and were no doubt familiar with his art criticism (most famously, his broadsides against Brooklyn’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and his insights into the abstract expressionists of mid-century New York) before they cracked open his first foray into history. Mapping these sources of early praise makes it clear that staking a cultural claim in one of the two global center-cities of the English-language literary world (London being the other) had done Hughes a great deal of good, where worthy efforts by his countrymen who had only rarely lived outside Australia had gone unrecognized. The “tyranny of distance” that Blainey had described as limiting the influence of Australia on the rest of the world also restricted the fame of Blainey himself and his counterparts.

Davey's Proclamation

A government proclamation from Tasmania around 1830, intended to cross language barriers with an all-pictures format. It was only one small part of the cruelty visited upon the island's original inhabitants that this universally-understandable message of justice and harmony among blacks and whites reflected real policy in no way whatsoever.

Cultural geography may have made The Fatal Shore a smash hit, but it was Hughes’ unsentimental view of white Australia’s muddy origins, and his effortless glide between factual statistics, sober assessments, and shocking anecdotes, that made it a book worth reading. The author cuts off his narrative with the ending in the 1840s and ’50s of the transportation system that had seeded the Australian nation with a motley crowd of strivers and fortune-seekers. Over the course of the next two months, history buff Leonard Pierce and I will be honoring the book’s 25-year anniversary with an in-depth review and some attempts at tracing the line, left blank by Hughes for the reader to fill in, between how a hazily conceived slave-colony of thieves that was hoped to someday prove useful to its motherland, evolved into one of the freest and most prosperous sovereign nations in the world. We hope you’ll join us.

Posted in Australia, The Fatal Shore | 1 Comment

Wordgames without frontiers

As my first post mentioned, translators must often navigate treacherous linguistic spaces fraught with cross-cultural traps, where simple dictionary lookups and Google searches can shed little light. A prime example is in the title of this blog itself. When Kiwi songwriting brothers Tim and Neil Finn penned the lyrics “The lust of the pioneer/will acknowledge no frontier,” they weren’t imagining a pioneer whose spirit of adventure leads him, counter-intuitively, to spurn rather than embrace the sort of wide open frontier spaces that we associate with the American West, Canadian Prairie, or Australian Outback. They were using frontier in its British sense, a usage retained in their New Zealand dialect, where it generally just means “a border.” The American author Bill Bryson wrote of the United States’ 19th-century westward push:

Frontier, which meant (and still means) a national border in British English, took on in America the new sense of the ever-moving dividing line between wilderness and civilization.

The Finn brothers’ adventurer, then, is one whose passions drive him to travel the globe without thought of being hemmed in by any country. So we can see the potential for a massive gap in understanding. When frontier drifts from its European usage to its North American usage, the image of a line drawn on a map, or a long series of stakes planted in the ground, likewise shifts to the image of a space expanding outward. You can’t build a home or a community in a one-dimensional line. But you can easily envision one being built within a space. And that’s how North Americans understand a frontier today, as a great wilderness; it doesn’t even really imply “borderlands” as much as it once did. Up further north, a government-run “Invest In Canada” website tells readers:

Yukon is one of the last vast frontiers on Earth, with a wealth of natural resources and untapped business potential.

As dictated by the federal government’s bilingualism policy, this same text is also available in carefully written French, and if you click the “Français” link, you discover that these “vast frontiers” come out in French as “vastes étendues de terres vierges” (vast expanses of unspoiled land). Assuming that the French was written after the English rather than the other way around, this is a fine translation of the phrase. It accurately renders the idea that in the Canadian linguistic consciousness, just as the American one, a “frontier” represents a habitable space rather than a mere dividing line. This reflects the thinking of Canadian historians like Ian Angus and Charles Blattberg, who considered a frontier to be a borderland that moves over time by absorbing the areas beyond it. What the Yukon text’s translator didn’t do, and clearly shouldn’t have done, was translate “frontier” as frontière, even though this might be a British-trained translator’s first instinct.

Like so many other linguistic paradoxes across cultures, the tendancy of Europeans to think of borders and frontiers in a different way than North Americans do has its roots in diverging etymologies: word histories that drifted apart as colonists fanned out across the globe. Both of these English words come from French—the roots are bordure and frontière—and in the language of origin, frontière remains synonymous with a boundary dividing nations. You’ve probably heard of the aid organization that was founded in Paris in 1971 as Médecins Sans Frontières. Within a few years, Americans had begun referring to it as “Doctors Without Borders”, a name that seems to have first popped up in English, in lowercase form, in a 1976 Time Magazine article. The British, however, have always referred to the humanitarian group by its international acronym, MSF, even as its New York office has formally adopted the name Doctors Without Borders.

Just six years before Bernard Kouchner and his associates founded Médecins Sans Frontières, a lighter-hearted mission began within the confederation of regional broadcasters, the EBU: a sort of continent-spanning TV game-show that would match the popularity of the EBU’s annual Eurovision Song Contest while fostering a sense of brotherhood among nations. The result, Jeux sans frontières (literally, “Games Without Frontiers/Borders”) didn’t outlast Eurovision. But it ran for decades, and gave us the clip of people in penguin costumes slipping around a spinning Antarctic gameboard at the top of this post. It also inspired the British musician Peter Gabriel, who included the French refrain “jeux sans frontières” (sung by Kate Bush) in his hit song entitled—what else?—“Games Without Frontiers.”

So far, I’ve left out Australian English’s take on borders and frontiers. But that’s worth a post to itself.

Posted in borders, Euroland, language, translation | Leave a comment

“The tyranny of distance didn’t stop the cavalier…”

Here we are, then. I’m Andrew Levine, a freelance translator of French texts into English, currently based in Brooklyn, New York. This has been my career since I got out of college four years ago, and I love (almost) every day of it.

Acknowledge No Frontier is my new blog. What translators ponder in working with languages is something that’s closely tied to notions of geography, open spaces, and boundaries, even though we don’t usually spend our days poring over maps (as fun as that can be) or rifling through other people’s vacation photos. That’s because most translators have to navigate a special sort of imagined geography. Instead of checking compass headings or tracing a line on a sailing chart, we often find ourselves re-examining the pre-conceptions we hold about physical objects, historical events, and everyday habits from the perspective of people who live very far away from us. There’s a lot to this job that’s purely mechanical, of course; it’s undeniable that automated machine translation, after decades of swallowing up billions of dollars in research, is finally starting to yield commercially viable products that are doing a good job of filling some particular kinds of linguistic needs. But the reasons why flesh-and-blood translators and interpreters still dominate the $15 billion annual language-services market, however, lay in the ability human minds uniquely have to think our way around the obstacles that time, space, and culture have set before us. This is definitely not what a translation project manager is thinking about when she’s trying to outsource a medical supplies agreement or videogame manual that needs to be in a special bilingual-format file by end of business Friday, but it’s the reason she’ll place her trust in a person rather than in Google Translate or some more cunning custom-designed software.

American Grocery

Brooklyn's diversity on display. This is an American Grocery, make no mistake. Photo by Violette79 on Flickr.

Three months from today, I’m packing up all that I need for work and leaving to visit Australia for the first time. This will mean two months in Melbourne, a place that people who seem like they know what they’re talking about call one of the best cities in the world to live in. Planning which sights to see morphed into a crash course in the history of the last fertile continent where human beings put down roots and carved out cultures. Most recently, I’ve re-read Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, probably the most globally acclaimed non-fiction telling of the brutal and glorious early years of Australia’s colonization by men and women from a kingdom that in their minds lay immeasurably far away. I’ve enlisted the help of my friend Leonard Pierce in putting together a series of posts on The Fatal Shore and why it matters in understanding Australia, especially to outsider Yanks like us. An introduction to this eight-week-long book-club will be up later this week.

In the meantime, I’m preparing for a presentation at the 52nd annual conference of the American Translator’s Association this October 29th in Boston. The topic will be what happens to freelancer productivity when voice-to-text software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking is put in the hands of translators who are used to typing on keyboards. I’m in the middle of putting this seminar together, and I’d be eager to hear from translators who use (or have tried using) Dragon or other speech-recognition tools as a way to enhance their productivity. Text entry is a decidedly “mechanical” aspect of the translation profession, and not the sort of thing I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about on this blog, though there will be updates on the progress of the talk.

The title Acknowledge No Frontier comes from a song, “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” which was a hit in New Zealand in 1982 for local boys The Split Enz. (Yes, I’m visiting there too.) Enjoy the Ted Leo cover.

Posted in Australia, borders, language, translation, voice-to-text | 1 Comment