Kill the Guy with the Bell

by Translation Guy on May 1, 2009
0 comments

How do you say that in Lenape? Lenape? You know, the language people spoke around New York for thousands of years before the Euros trashed it.

When 1-800-Translate was at the dining-room table stage of the business plan, we were working for a group of monument designers who had a commission to do a piece at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. We worked with Conwill DePace and Majozo who did these awesomely intricate sculptures with plenty of multilingual text, in this case, “Let Freedom Ring” in forty languages.

Of those forty languages, it turns out there was one language with two names, so we had a hole for another one, and not one on that long list originated in the Western Hemisphere. I suggested Mayan, with those horror-show glyphs (my favorites), but the stone cutters wouldn’t touch those intricate characters with a ten-foot pneumatic chisel, so that was out. But as any graduate of Lenape Junior High School can tell you, Penn’s Landing is the spot where Billy Penn signed a treaty of eternal amity with the great Lenape Chief Tamanend. (Eternal at least until a generation later when the Pennsylvanians stomped all over it with the Walking Purchase.)

The client loved the idea, and looked to an old Moravian-Lenape dictionary to come up with the translation. In the translation provided, the linguist wrote, “If you can’t get the two accent marks in, don’t worry. There isn’t anyone around to correct you.”

And that gave me the sweats. I just had to check, especially since it was literally going to be carved in stone.

We discovered that Lenape wasn’t quite the dead language it was supposed to be. Almost, but not quite.

First thing, we found out was that the translation was probably in the wrong dialect, more New York than Southeast PA. We tracked down ninety-five-year old Mrs. Bessie Snake, the last native speaker of Lenape. When she heard our original translation she laughed out loud. What we thought had been “Let Freedom Ring” was actually something along the lines of “Kill the Guy with the Bell.” Fortunately, she was able to set us straight: “Nihëlawsëwàkan peìkech!” (literally, “Let freedom come to pass”).

Definitely one of my all time favorite translation projects ever. I was proud to be able to make that tribute on behalf of a people already — and inaccurately — written off by the history books.

Cultures that don’t write history are usually denied the privilege of making it (or making it up.)

At the time I figured, it must be the only graven Lenape to exist in the world.

But a few years later I discovered in a park not far from Lenape Junior High, about a half-mile from where Tamanend lies buried, another Lenape inscription. Although I can’t vouch for the QA on that one.

0 Comments

  1. Jodie says:

    I thought that you might find it interesting that early Indian “tribes” are perhaps better understood as language groups, rather than as “nations.”

    • Ken says:

      That is a great point. I’ve just always loved the dignity inherent in the use of nation in that context, and there is a legal basis for use of the term to describe American native groups, what with the Supreme Court on Dependent Nations way back when. Languages and nations often go together, as in languages have armies and dialects don’t. So its easy to see how those old-time judges used that term to pigeon-hole the native American social groups they sought to control and subdue.

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