Thursday, October 4, 2012

Buffalo Bill's Liaison Interpreters

The latest issue of The Linguist has a colourful, well-researched article about Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a spectacular live show that toured Europe between 1880 and 1906 and made its creator, William F. Cody, "the entertainment industry's first international celebrity." Before my time, but my father saw it when it came to England, probably when it performed in Birmingham in 1903.
"Buffalo Bill's Wild West delighted audiences in England, Scotland, Wales and 15 countries in continental Europe, igniting 'Wild West Fever' almost everywhere it went, by offering what purported to be an authentic experience of the American frontier, complete with real cowboys and 'Indians'."
In order to reach audiences in all these countries with its advertising and programmes, the show needed translators. There are copies of the materials they produced at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming,
"...yet we have no records of the translator's name, nor indeed do we know the names of the numerous translators and interpreters who enabled Cody and company to overcome the language barriers that they faced on the continent...

"The author of most of the English language source material... was John M. Burke, the General Manager, who travelled in advance of the troupe. Although one newspaper account suggests that he was an accomplished linguist... the quality of the translations is so high that it would be a remarkable feat if they were all the work of the same non-professional translator."
We also know that the Wild West employed interpreters,
"because Charles Eldridge Griffin, who managed the exhibition's side-show from 1902 to 1906, left a memoir in which he alludes to the difficulties that they had with their interpreters in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 'Some towns would be about equally divided between four or five nationalities, and, although they all understood German, the official language, each would insist on being addressed in his native language.'"
So there's nothing new about language nationalism.

Meanwhile if we know little about the translators engaged in the show's public relations, the same is not true of its internal communications. There too there were interpreters. They were needed to ensure effective communication with the show's large troupe of nearly 100 Native American performers, called disparagingly 'Show Indians' by white officials . The language common to most of them was Lakota (not to be confused with Dakota, though it's mutually intelligible with it). It's a Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes. The Lakota were "the nation from which most Wild West 'Indians' came and on whom [Buffalo Bill] Cody's fortunes largely relied." In their case, we do know their names, because they are listed in the employee records at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. In a few instances we know more. For example,
"In 1902, Luther Standing Bear decided to join... Cody's Wild West show as it traveled across the Atlantic and toured England... Initially hired as an interpreter for the Lakota, Standing Bear soon found himself 'playing Indian' in Cody's show as well."
He performed before King Edward VII.

There was apparently no training for the Lakota interpreters. They were, in a double sense, Native Interpreters; and by the nature of their work between two languages and two cultures, they were Liaison Interpreters.

References and Further Reading
Chris Dixon. On the trail of Buffalo Bill. The Linguist, vol. 51, no. 5, October-November 2012, pp. 10-11. You can reach it through the website of the Chartered Institute of Linguists here. At the time of writing, this issue isn't posted up yet but it will be shortly.
Dixon, who reportedly speaks ten languages, is writing a book on the Lakota-English interpreters 1851-1891, so we can look forward to learning much more about them.

There's a Wikipedia articles for Lakota here.

Ryan E. Burt. 'Sioux Yells' in the Dawes era: Lakota 'Indian Play,' the Wild West, and the literatures of Luther Standing Bear. American Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 3, 2010, pp. 617-637. There's an abstract here.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West banner, c.1899. Source: The Authentic History Center, 

No comments:

Post a Comment