Powers of incomprehension

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Rupert Stasch. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.004

Powers of incomprehension

Linguistic otherness, translators, and political structure in New Guinea tourism encounters

Rupert STASCH, University of Cambridge

Meetings between Korowai of Papua and foreign tourists are an example of the historically common phenomenon of transient but close interaction between people lacking any shared language. This article contributes to a comparative anthropology of such contact communities of mutual incomprehension by exploring how Korowai and tourists take translation and incomprehension as sites for defining their relation, particularly in its evaluative and political dimensions. One main pattern I examine is that linguistic interactions are focused on linguistic otherness as such, with each side taking up the other’s difference of language as a figure around which to define what they are to each other more broadly. Another main pattern is that participants in the encounters actively value linguistic incomprehension as a resource for staying separate. Finally, I also address the pattern that the limited cross-language comprehension which does occur is mostly mediated by “guides.” For Korowai, these translation specialists embody a model of authoritative speakerhood that is an important point of new commensuration between their political ethos of egalitarianism and the hierarchical social logics of markets and states.

Keywords: tourism, contact communities of linguistic incomprehension, ideologies of linguistic otherness, translators, egalitarianism

In their Introduction to this issue, Hanks and Severi draw on Kuhn (2000) to distinguish translation as an actual linguistic activity from the commensurability of concepts of the different communities whose discourse is translated. The idea that interacting people might be oriented by noncommensurate concepts does not stand or fall with the possibility that they can communicate through translation. Rather, “the challenge of constant confrontation of ‘incommensurable’ (yet translated) paradigms becomes in itself . . . a field for ethnographical inquiry” (Hanks and Severi, p. 6, this issue). Distinguishing translation and incommensurateness, Hanks and Severi are also setting them into active relation. Translation practices come into focus as a site where larger structures of noncommensurateness are probed, transformed, dissolved, renewed, masked, or otherwise mediated. This turn of reasoning can also be taken to imply that processes of commensuration are likely to be multilayered and partial rather than singular and absolute. Translation practices create points of commonality and coordination across different participants’ conceptual frameworks, even as these translation practices are integral with the persistence or rise of further levels of noncoordination and mutual obliviousness.

In the European historical field, the most prototypic image of human interaction across noncommensurate understandings is early New World and Pacific encounters. The name “New World” itself expressed this central idea of noncommensurateness of life, as noted by Pagden (1993: 3), elaborating on a passage from explorer Antonio de Ulloa. The mythic resonance of scenes of “first contact” flows from the understanding that such a scene dramatizes the otherness of embodied understandings and concepts held by the previously separate people. “Primitivist tourism,” in which metropolitan travelers visit communities that are figured as archaic in time, is one of the many different cultural forms around the globe today that is organized as a repetition of this mythic idea (Stasch 2014d).

Korowai of Papua have for two decades been a world-famous destination for this kind of tourism. In this article, I examine linguistic dimensions of encounters between tourists and Korowai. A theoretical concern with “commensurability” might seem to align primarily with issues of language as a denotational medium, such as whether or not different people are expressing the same semantic categories through their speech. But I understand Hanks and Severi’s Kuhn-influenced charter for actual “ethnographical inquiry” into the relations between translation and commensurability to be concerned with the full range of sociocultural levels to what is being done by language users, not just what is being denoted by them. Such a widening is unavoidable in study of contact communities of mutual incomprehension, which are common in history but which defy academic scholars’ axiomatic association of language with transmission of denoted meanings (see, e.g., Taylor 1992). As we will see, the most notable facts about translation in the Korowai tourism contact community are how little of it occurs, and how heavily the translation which does occur is freighted with extrasemantic meanings about the social relation between the mutually incomprehending participants.

In light of primitivist tourism participants’ great reflexive attention to human otherness in their approaches to the encounters, one ethnographic concern of this article will be to trace how translation and linguistic difference work for all parties as figures in a broader drama of inquiry into cultural difference, and into the condition of living culturally and historically as such. In particular, I will trace ways that around linguistic otherness, tourists and Korowai express specific forms of socially valuing the other, and specific visions of how their mutual social obligations might be created or limited. Alongside tracing patterns of tourist and Korowai modeling of the noncommensurateness and emergent commensuration of their social communities, I will also put forward my own provisional analytic generalizations about structures of noncommensurateness and emergent commensuration that I see as running through these ethnographic patterns. Broadly, I will describe the encounters as a process of creating coordination between the noncommensurate sociocultural formations of primitivist ideology and market-structured social relations on tourists’ part, and a political ethos of egalitarianism and exchange-constituted kinship on Korowai people’s part. Significantly, there seems to be a close link between cross-linguistic performance in this contact community, and questions of different participants’ value and authority. While the relative value of persons is probably a primordial question of all social relations, there is a particularly raw character to how social relations across gulfs of historical and cultural separation unfold as dramas of asymmetry. I look in special detail at how, for Korowai, the figure of the tourism translator—known as a “head”—has emerged as a new kind of authoritative speaking role, taking hold in the interstices between historical Korowai egalitarian logics of speech and the global institutional order of market-mediated social bonds.

Language and translation in the tourism contact community

About four thousand Korowai live dispersed across five hundred square miles of forest in the southern lowlands of Papua, the Indonesian-controlled western half of the island of New Guinea. Tourists started visiting around 1990, as an innovation on other primitivist itineraries in Papua, then called “Irian Jaya.” The imagery motivating tourists’ visits is focused on the special appeal of Korowai people’s “treehouse” architecture, as well as the broader idea that Korowai are a “Stone Age” people living in harmony with their surrounding environment and in isolation from global consumer culture. The costliness of transport to the area and the special visual appeal of treehouses have meant that a large fraction of visitors are film crews. Most nonmedia tourists are salaried professionals such as engineers, investment bankers, doctors, scientists, information technology workers, small business owners, and educators. Tourists have included citizens of almost every European country and most settler colonies. German and US nationals accounted for half of travelers in the 1990s, but in the 2000s US tourists dropped away and citizens of ex-Soviet bloc countries became prominent. There have also been film crews from several East and Southeast Asian countries. Most tour groups are accompanied by a professional Papuan or Indonesian tour guide from the coastal city of Jayapura. The groups arrive by chartered airplane or longboat at gateway villages that were initially created in the 1980s at the initiative of a Dutch missionary organization then active at the southwest edge of the Korowai area (Stasch 2013). From these new settlements, tour groups trek to the forested territories of specific local patriclans, where they see treehouses and are able to meet and photograph Korowai in traditional dress.

A main feature of relations between tourists and Korowai is that they share no common language. Tourists speak English as their lingua franca of travel, while Korowai speak their vernacular and in some cases also a local dialect of Indonesian. Most communication of spoken meanings that does take place is mediated by the professional tour guides, who are bilingual in Indonesian and English, and by certain Korowai who speak Indonesian exceptionally well, and who translate between Indonesian and their vernacular (Figure 1). Apart from this bottleneck of limited chain translation between tourists and Korowai via the guide and his Korowai partners, the overall situation is one of Korowai conversing densely with each other in their language, tourists conversing densely in their home-country language,considerable English speech between guides and tourists that is not translated into Indonesian, and considerable Indonesian speech between guides and Korowai that is not translated into English. This plays into the wider organization of tourism as close social involvement between actors with very different understandings of their relation, each side circulating among themselves elaborate bodies of exoticizing stereotypes about the other which the other knows little about.

Figure 01
Figure 1. Chain translation during production of a reality TV show, July 2011. The two Danes at center-left ask questions in English of the monolingual Korowai man being filmed. The Papuan tour guide at far left translates between English and Indonesian, while his Korowai partner at far right translates between Indonesian and Korowai.

A good illustration of the incomprehension that regularly obtains under these linguistic conditions occurred in September 2006, when Australian news personality Naomi Robson traveled to Papua with her television crew to film their intended rescue of a Korowai orphan said to be in danger of being killed as a witch. The boy’s plight had been brought to Robson’s attention by a magazine writer who had visited Korowai a few months earlier, accompanied by personnel of a competing tabloid news show. Indonesian officials expelled Robson’s group before they visited Korowai, and a media firestorm ensued in the Australian press surrounding the two programs’ mutual recriminations, the immorality of their cannibalism-focused sensationalism, and disagreement among commentators over whether the boy was actually likely to be in danger. I visited Korowai a few months after these events, and there was a predictably wide gulf between the representations that had circulated in the international media and the boy’s actual history as understood by his kin and co-villagers (who had no awareness of the media coverage). Almost all persons I spoke with said that the exclusive reason the first film crew’s guide had been approached by villagers about taking the orphan to town was so that he would go to school, become literate in Indonesian, and return as a teacher, nurse, or government official. These numerous persons matter-of-factly denied my suggestions that the boy had been rumored to be a witch, or had been in danger of being killed.1

A full account of these events would be a study of its own, but what I want to highlight are the multiple social links of incomprehension and distortion extending between the boy at one end and the Australian media public at the other. Contrary to press reports, the boy and his caregivers were speakers of Kombai rather than Korowai. But several Korowai known as tourism “heads” were important in the affair, because they were the main local partners of the Indonesian tour guide. These Korowai mediators, together with the boy’s Kombai uncle, spoke with the Indonesian tour guide; the guide spoke with the Australian magazine writer; the magazine writer spoke with Robson and her producers; and the producers broadcast stories to their Australian audiences. Much as in the children’s game in which a message is whispered from one person to the next down a line, from one end of this chain to the other, the idea of sending the boy to town for schooling turned into the idea that he was about to be cannibalized for witchcraft (see Voorhoeve 1979). Korowai tourism encounters at large are characterized by parallel levels of elaborate miscomprehension between persons who are right next to each other.

The social role of “guide,” or literally “head” (Kor. xabian), is a new category in Korowai discourse that is applied both to the Indonesian-speaking professional tour guides who visit Korowai transiently, and to new tourism specialists within the Korowai community who partner with these outsiders. To Korowai, linguistic translation is the defining activity of the “head” role. I return later to these “heads,” whose importance is paralleled by numerous other polyglot mediators in earlier histories of cross-societal encounter worldwide (see Karttunen 1994; Metcalf 2005). Yet while most actual translation passes through these specialists, all tourists and Korowai have experiences of linguistic incomprehension and ideas about linguistic otherness. Having introduced the broad language situation of tourism meetings, I now look at some specific Korowai and tourist practices of relating to the foreignness of the other’s language, which are important aspects of the overall fabric of language-focused figuration of cultural difference in the tourism encounters.

Ideas about knowing the other’s language

Korowai and tourists each enact a diverse range of ideologies and practices about linguistic otherness. Here I will set out two juxtapositions that suggest certain broad lines of contrast between the two groups’ orientations, though of course the generalizations I develop are provisional and heuristic in character.

A first juxtaposition concerns each side’s ideological assumptions about the most primordial linguistic act. Like other people in regions characterized by extreme linguistic diversity, Korowai have had ample experience of linguistic otherness even prior to their involvement with speakers of a colonial or national lingua franca (which for Korowai dates to the last few decades). Persons whose land was located near the fringes of the Korowai area were particularly likely to be multilingual, due to regular interaction with speakers of neighboring languages. From the complexities of this deep history of engagement across linguistic boundaries, I will focus here on just one detail of metalinguistic discourse, namely that the epithet by which Korowai describe someone (including oneself) as a disfluent speaker of a second language is “only sago and water” (xo-mail-lanux). Sago is the regional food staple. This idiom compactly expresses an understanding that the primordial linguistic act is to request or give food and drink, typically in a scene of a guest having entered other people’s house at some distance from his or her own home.

This Korowai ideology contrasts with the tourist view that the first things to know in a foreign language are how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” This tourist view is reflected in the rise of the Korowai term manop, “good,” as a one-word pidgin of tourism encounters. Virtually all tourists learn this word, whether they are taught it by tour guides when they ask how to greet Korowai, or learn it directly from Korowai who say it to them. This single word is thus an exception to my statement that Korowai and tourists lack any shared language. Guides, tourists, and Korowau use manop (or the phrase manop telobo, “it’s good”) hundreds of times across a visit, to complement arrivals, departures, handshakes, acts of giving or physical help, smiles, or just ongoing copresence. To Korowai and tourists alike, the utterance is a verbal equivalent of a handshake or joint laugh, indexing mutuality of pleasure in each other’s presence.

Among themselves, Korowai do not use manop as a greeting or valediction, and there are no other ritual expressions for entering or leaving one another’s interactional presence (Stasch 2009: 52). When guests enter a house, for example, everyone generally stays silent. The house owners busy themselves preparing food, and let the guests eventually speak first, about whatever topic they see fit. The newness of people’s presence to each other, and the question of why guests have come or what standing they have among their hosts, are too sensitive to comment on through autonomy-violating remarks directly signifying that newness in language. The problem of transitions in copresence is more aptly addressed through other sensory and bodily media, in keeping with wider New Guinean patterns of the ideological privileging of material gifts over words (Robbins 2007; Merlan and Rumsey 1991). There are also no conventional Korowai expressions that verbally ritualize departure or an affect of gratitude. The word manop, “good,” occurs frequently in people’s running commentaries on day-to-day social interaction, but such use has been tremendously expanded and reconventionalized in the tourism context. This has occurred as a direct reflection of tourists’ expectation that an expression of greeting and thanks is the first and most important linguistic form to learn in a foreign language. The word manop is emblematic for tourists of an idea of meeting Korowai on their own terms, since the linguistic form is marked as Korowai. Yet the usage is actually a pragmatic calque of a speech form and its supporting understandings from the tourists’ home communities. Korowai coproduce this new convention with tourists and guides, and all participants share a loosely aligned understanding of what the convention expresses and what it can be used for.

This contrast between models of the primordial linguistic act respectively held by Korowai and tourists suggests a broader contrast between an idea of language as intertwined with material economies of care, and an idea of language as preeminently an instrument for expressing interior affect. A Korowai sense that questions of comprehending a language are one and the same with questions of exchange obligations to its speakers was also reflected in an event recounted to me by an elderly monolingual woman in 2011. When I asked this woman, named Xau, whether she had any experience with tourists, she recalled a time when a helicopter flew overhead. She said that when she heard it, she jumped out of her house and ran through the underbrush into the forest. I asked her why she had been afraid, and I expected her to emphasize something fearful about the aircraft as a technological form, or feelings of bodily danger and perceptual shock. But instead Xau answered that she had feared that the helicopter would land and people in it would ask her questions in their language, which she would not be able to speak.

Xau’s fear of being addressed in a language she did not know reflects how central linguistic incomprehension is to Korowai experience of tourism. Yet her imagined scene illustrates a wider Korowai emphasis on responsibility to the other, and to the relation with that other, that is basic to how people think about language. Even with somebody who has dropped out of the sky, there is an imperative to understand them and to reply. The same scene of transactional crisis is a frequent point of worry for monolingual Korowai in relation to village space. Indonesian is being widely learned across the entire Korowai region today, but the language continues to be strongly associated with the new settlement form of “villages” in contrast with traditional “forest” space, and it is spoken by a greater proportion of men than women (Stasch 2007, 2013). Monolingual Korowai women who live in villages frequently describe themselves as avoiding other parts of the village where non-Korowai speakers live, out of fear of being unable to answer queries put to them in Indonesian. Such women also report their husbands urging them to learn Indonesian, in anticipation of an imagined scene of an Indonesian speaker walking up to the house while the man is away, and the woman needing to answer what the visitor says.

We could see these Korowai sensitivities as running parallel to tourists’ feeling of the importance of knowing a term of greeting in encountered people’s language, rather than awkwardly being in their presence but having no common speech. But the linguistic imperatives felt by Korowai seem to extend to giving other people information they are seeking, rather than only giving greetings. And the imagined scenes seem to imply a greater level of intrinsic social obligation and social crisis in the encounter with linguistic others than obtains for tourists.

A second juxtaposition I will offer is between tourist and Korowai practices of adopting the other’s linguistic forms as emblematic of the encounter and the exo-cultural relation. On tourists’ side, manop is already a case of this. Besides using manop in speech toward Korowai, tourists also take it up as iconic of their trips in general. For example, a Swedish tourist who traveled to the Korowai area as part of a large group in 2007 later circulated to his cotravelers a film about their trip titled Manop Torobo. The helicopter that scared Xau was carrying cameramen for a 2008 episode of the reality TV show Rendez-vous en terre inconnue in which a pop singer lived for a time with a Korowai family. The episode culminates in a nighttime scene of this artist playing her guitar for Korowai and extemporizing sung lyrics consisting of the word manop and the names of two of her Korowai hosts. The word manop and its all-purpose uses are almost universally discussed in tourist blogs. Tour group members also commonly start using manop jokingly with each other. All these usages involve an idea that fellow feeling across cultural divides is the very image of the trip. They also involve a focus on the linguistic otherness of a specific Korowai form, and the tourist’s ability to assimilate that form, as likewise a basic image of the trip’s logic.

Parallel processes unfold in relation to Indonesian-language forms among the small minority of tourists who speak some Indonesian and do not rely on a professional English-speaking guide. For example, a private travelogue produced by members of a German tour group is titled on its front cover Tidak bisa: Awimbon-Senggo 2002, where the Indonesian expression tidak bisa means “You can’t do it” and Awimbon and Senggo are names of the endpoints of the trip. The book’s next page features in large, colorful, nonrectilinear type the same phrase tidak bisa, along with other Indonesian expressions meaning “We’re afraid” and “We’re not ready,” over their German glosses. The travelogue quotes many instances of Korowai saying these phrases, typically in relation to the tourists’ efforts to determine how or when they can get to their next destination. The paratextual prominence of these expressions at the front of the document reflects how these communicative patterns became, for the tourists, humorously iconic of their overall relations with Korowai.

A related pattern is tourist interest in language documentation, within the larger modeling of trips as exercises in anthropological and scientific observation. Individual tourists may occasionally interact linguistically in a sustained way with individual Korowai without a tour guide’s mediation. Typically in these contexts the tourists will seek to exchange knowledge of personal names, but they may also try to elicit body-part words and other words for immediately visible objects. A Spaniard who visited in 2007 posted a series of her images of Korowai subjects to a photo-sharing website. Under one photo depicting a Korowai woman climbing a treehouse ladder against an orange-purple sunset, she placed a caption mentioning that while falling asleep each night near Korowai who talk on endlessly, “you have the feeling that all the time they are saying the same sentence.”2 But below another photo, she recalled:

I communicated with them through an ex-Korowai named Pai, who was half-civilized by Dutch missionaries twenty years ago. Now he devotes himself to organizing groups of porters from Yaniruma, a village of about forty houses in which dwell ex-Korowais most of whom moved from the jungle when they were orphaned or sick, and that was created by the Dutch missionaries and then later abandoned by them because they could not convert the Korowais. Pai speaks Indonesian and I am escorted by a Moluccan guide, Toni, with whom I converse in English. So the communication was as follows: from Korowai to Indonesia, from Indonesian to English, and then by me from English to Spanish for my partner. Now I translate some of the most common words, written as they sound phonetically in Castilian:

laki laki - senior man, big man.

bizard - big, long, huge

mandiswim, bathe, get wet

linta - leech

parau - canoe

babi - pig/boar

yalan - come on, come on, now

yantan - exclamation at something surprising

quenapa - because

macan - eat, food, hunger

ini - this, that3

Here documentary recording of token translation equivalences is iconic of a larger situation of collecting cross-cultural knowledge and experience. These vocabulary notes are also unwittingly illustrative of the communicative constraints under which tourists operate. The words the author learned are Indonesian rather than Korowai, and Pai is not a Korowai speaker but a Western Dani man who moved to the area as an airstrip worker. He does work occasionally in tourism alongside Korowai, but he is not a leader in organizing treks. The idea that anyone would be “ex-Korowai” also makes little sense in local ethnolinguistic reasoning, but reflects ideas of loss and deculturation central to tourists’ primitivist model. Tourists lack resources to grasp local social heterogeneity, and they reason about Korowai in highly stereotype-driven forms, as Korowai do about them. For example, monolingual Korowai routinely make inferences similar to this woman’s misunderstanding: they assume that Indonesian speech they uncomprehendingly hear is the native language of tourists.

However, the main Korowai pattern I want to juxtapose to the above-sketched tourist engagements with Korowai linguistic otherness is the naming of children after tour guides. A major desire of tourists in their visits is to form relations of deep mutual emotional involvement with Korowai, but in reality tourists usually remain very generic figures even to Korowai persons whom they encounter face-to-face.

Ironically, it is instead the tourists’ paid guides who come into focus for Korowai as differentiated individuals and as friends or kin. Many different Papuan or Indonesian tour guides have brought tourists to the Korowai area, but two dozen of the most experienced guides account for about three-quarters of groups. In contrast with most tourists, these guides visit repeatedly, they speak Indonesian, they engage extensively in practices of payment and exchange, and they negotiate directly with Korowai over the logistics and politics of the tourists’ presence. Many guides also act toward Korowai in ways that Korowai find quite culturally recognizable, or are even pulled into intra-Korowai social conventions and political processes. Reflecting this salience of guides in Korowai eyes, there are now about a hundred Korowai children who have been named after them. As one woman narrated her choice of a name for her son, for example, “There’s the tourist head Kalfin, and he himself is Kalfin. I saw the tourist head Kalfin from afar, and later I named my son Kalfin.” This pattern follows a broader fashion of attraction to Indonesian-language names today. But no other category of outsider has such prominence as namesakes. Korowai are motivated in these naming practices by a sense that guides are good, valuable, or beautiful persons whom people desire to have bonds with. Often parents name their children after guides specifically out of admiration for the guides’ possession of money and consumer goods. Children are themselves figures of intense value and desire, and the guides’ names aptly match how other people feel about the children, or what they want for the children in life.

There is a vast range of other phenomena of language contact in which Korowai learn speech forms associated with tourists and adopt them into their own repertoires. For example, in the 1990s Korowai borrowed the word tulis into their language from Indonesian turis, “tourist,” as an overall ethnic designation for the foreign visitors. Likewise, even monolingual Korowai speakers know the borrowed word asli, which in standard Indonesian means “authentic, original, indigenous, primitive,” but to Korowai means “naked, wearing traditional dress rather than imported clothing,” since this is what tourists and guides most directly are talking about when they actually use the term around Korowai. But continuing the characterization I outlined with reference to ideas about the primordial linguistic act, I would like to take the example of guide names specifically as highlighting a contrast between what might be termed tourists’ and Korowai people’s respectively spectatorial versus transactional ideologies of linguistic difference. Once again, there is some overlap between tourist and Korowai actions: each catches hold of token linguistic forms associated with the other, and makes use of those forms in their own lives in a quotational mode. But naming one’s own children after radical foreigners is a striking act of taking something alien and making it very intimate. It puts visitors and visited in the same sociopolitical field, even if the outsiders continue to be marked as strange. By comparison, the para-ethnographic recording of foreign vocabulary, or humorous iconization of specific pragmatic expressions of politeness or frustration as linguistic emblems of the intercultural relation, seem to involve ongoing assertion of a fundamental difference of relational status.

If this is an accurate inference from the small sample of ethnographic materials I have presented, the generalization harmonizes with parallels and contrasts in the more global models of the other’s difference that orient tourist and Korowai approaches to each other. I cannot discuss in depth here the primitivist framework motivating tourists’ travel, involving as it does a Manichaean opposition between a human condition of archaic purity and another of modern corruption (see Stasch 2011, 2014a, 2014d). It is probably fair to say, though, that while tourists oriented by this framework value Korowai and draw on their meetings with them to reflect critically on their own lives’ domination by market-mediated social relations, the model involves strong commitment to the ultimate political and transactional separateness of the encountering people.

Korowai have similarly exoticized tourists as radical others, often grounded in stereotypic likening of tourists (along with all other new strangers) to a category of malignant monsters humans become after they die, called laleo (“demons”) and resembling a walking corpse. For Korowai historically, death was the most pronounced context of close mental involvement with extreme otherness of being. It made obvious sense to apply understandings of the otherness of the dead to the new problem of the strangers who began intruding in the 1980s. Korowai think of the dead in strongly ethnoterritorial and ethnographic terms, as they now do of tourists as well. But as I have detailed elsewhere (Stasch 2007, 2009: 69–71, 215–23), even in the elements of deformity, fear, and repulsion that are prominent in Korowai thought about the demonic dead and the new foreigners, there is a strong sense that the relation of radical otherness is also a relation of unavoidable mutual involvement and obligation—much as Xau imagined herself owing something socially and communicatively to visitors who might descend in a helicopter.

“We didn’t tell him manop means ‘fuck you’ in French”

While we have seen some ways that Korowai and tourists positively value knowing token elements of the other’s language, another aspect of the “bottleneck” ecology is that participants often actively value and exploit each other’s lack of cross-linguistic comprehension. In passive ways, linguistic incomprehension facilitates the smoothness of tourism as an overall structure of “working misunderstanding” (Dorward 1974; also, e.g., Gershon and Raj 2000 and Leite forthcoming, among many others). It is common for Korowai to labor away in a photogenic scene before a tour group’s cameras, while talking animatedly about plans for buying store-bought commodities, rumors of government-sponsored village housing projects, money the tour group will hopefully give, and other topics at odds with tourists’ idea of Korowai as living in isolation from global consumer culture. Linguistic incomprehension also facilitates processes of Korowai or guides staging appearances to match tourists’ expectations. In a 2010 film called Path to the Stone Age, the French cameraman and his Danish wife are at one point interested in whether Korowai they visit have previously met white people. Their Dani tour guide asks a Korowai interviewee in Indonesian, Bapak lihat orang putih? Orang putih? Sudah lihat, kah? and this utterance is aptly translated in English subtitles as “Have you ever seen white men?” The Korowai partner of this Dani guide is expected to translate the question into Korowai. While the translator’s Korowai utterance is subtitled as “He’s asking you if you ever saw white men,” what he actually says is a series of directives: “Say ‘No, none.’ Say ‘None at all.’ Say ‘I have not seen white-skinned people, this is the first time’” (Mafem, dim. Afe mafem-e dim. Nu xal-xeyo anop nu bimbaleda, xəniləxa ifip dim). The interviewee indeed responds by narrating a history of not having met whites, then hearing about them, and now finally meeting them for the first time.

So too, while a dominant emotional strand of tourism encounters is mutual goodwill and enthusiasm, participants on all sides also frequently joke about each other or comment negatively on each other’s characteristics, under the assumption that the other does not understand what is being said. They also stand up in various ways for their interactional separateness from the others. In August 2011, I was with members of a German tour group who were watching Korowai men construct a large fish trap, when one tourist asked what the family relation was between two of the men. The question was translated by the tour guide and his Korowai partner, and one of the men working on the trap gave a brief answer, but then after a long pause added, “Why is she asking?” For Korowai, such “why?” constructions have a conventional rhetorical force of expressing the speaker’s objection to the action in question. To this man, the exhibitionary performance in its visual and bodily aspects was a comfortable enough convention to occupy, while the spoken inquiry about his social relations was a slight breach of that comfortable distance.

On an earlier occasion, in 2007, I was similarly following the activities of a Francophone Swiss group, when its members at one point exchanged repetitive utterances of the phatic term manop with a specific Korowai man, and then one of the foreigners said to me in English, in an offhanded aside, “We didn’t tell him manop means ‘fuck you’ in French.” The exchange of manop had followed a material negotiation, which is a context when tourists might experience more antagonistic feelings toward Korowai than in other contexts of their visits, during which feelings of affection generally predominate. But the Swiss man’s joke to me depends on a broader idea of ongoing indeterminacy behind even the minimal one-word “shared” language of manop that appears to bridge the tourism divide. The joke invokes tourists’ own exclusive relation of belonging in relation to their home language, as amounting to a bedrock of their private possession of their own intended meanings and ongoing social difference.

Drawing on Hanks’ work on Maya shamanism, Hanks and Severi note that “asymmetry of knowledge between participants, and the constraints on translation between the esoteric language of shamanism and ordinary Maya, are actually resources for shaman-patient interaction, not impediments. This in turn suggests that meaningful and consequential interaction can proceed in the absence of mutual translatability, or perhaps even intelligibility” (p. 7, this issue). Tourism encounters in the Korowai area are also a case in which noncommensurateness of interacting persons’ ideas of who they are and what they are mutually doing is crucial to how well they coordinate socially. For example, a major orientation of Korowai to tourism is that they hope through it to become in effect more like tourists, in the sense of gaining access to money, consumer goods, the town-centered educational and occupational system, and so forth; while the tourists who visit them desire Korowai exactly for being unlike the tourists and their home socieconomic conditions. Linguistic incomprehension is part of what makes it possible for Korowai and tourists to serve each other’s goals in such highly coordinated ways, while not realizing how contradictory their respective goals actually are.

Many tourists are subtly reflexive about what they do not understand about visited people’s lives, and they express strong regret about the linguistic barriers between themselves and Korowai. But overall, there is a synergy between linguistic incomprehension and the primitivist model. As has been often claimed about tourism and related historical complexes in European modernity (e.g., Urry 1990; Bennett 1988), foreigners who visit Korowai are focused on a spectatorial organization of vision as a path of knowledge, and on Korowai people’s bodies, facial expressions, physical skills, and material articles as the locus of who they are. This is evident in the intensified attention that tourists give to Korowai in traditional dress when they first encounter them after having seen many other Korowai in imported clothes, and in how tourists read lack of clothing as the direct embodiment of Korowai people’s state of purity outside the global market order (Stasch 2014b). A related pattern is the expansion of material culture, especially the visible aspects of Korowai making their livelihood from their surrounding environment, as a focus of tourists’ sense of the utopian character of the visited people’s world. Lack of linguistic channels of communication is consonant with the reproduction of a vision-based experience of Korowai as walking avatars of a universal primitive type. In this sense, in some tourists’ experience the idea of the primitive may be not just an archaic condition outside of markets, but a condition of bodily being and social fellowship that is beneath the difficulties of language.

Translators as “heads”: Tourism mediation and a new political order

To this point, my discussion has dealt with ways that tourists and Korowai express stances about their mutual linguistic otherness at a metalinguistic and tokenistic level, while in reality not communicating very much and staying largely separate as discursive communities. I now turn to the “bottleneck” itself, the social position of the specialist tour guides who mediate the discourse that actually is translated. I will discuss Korowai perspectives on the translator role, but these perspectives highlight a more generally relevant point that translators’ knowledge across cultural and linguistic lines draws to the fore questions of authority and asymmetry in people’s value. To the extent that tourists deemphasize language as an aspect of their encounters with Korowai, while nonetheless experiencing the encounters as events of chronotope-crossing true encounter with a human condition of primitive purity radically different from their own being, the market logic of guiding is a main instrument by which tourists are able to elide language but still coordinate socially with their chosen others. The specialist role of “guide” helps make problems of language disappear through the guide’s abilities as a bilingual intermediary who can relate alternately both to his clients and to Korowai to bring into existence an order of social relating between both encountering groups. Tourists are able to experience this order of social relating relatively independently of the actual linguistic processes that have gone into its constitution.

As I noted earlier, to Korowai the new category of tourist “head” is centrally defined by the activity of translation. “Head,” “guide,” and “translator” are all one concept. For example, Korowai sort out who among themselves belongs to the new occupational subgroup of tourist “heads” mainly using the criteria of whether the individual under discussion speaks Indonesian and ever works as a translator for tour groups. Many individuals have moved in and out of this tourism specialization at different times, but about a dozen Korowai men are best known as tourism “heads.” Most of them are residents of one of the main gateway villages by which tourists first arrive in the area. For example, the most experienced Korowai head, Fenelun Malonggai, lives in the airstrip village that was throughout the 1990s the main point of entry for tourists (Figure 2). Fenelun’s tourism work started shortly after the end of his time as the primary linguistic consultant of two mission-affiliated foreigners who lived in his village in the 1980s (see van Enk and de Vries 1997).

Figure 02
Figure 2. Korowai “head” Fenelun Malonggai (right) with Indonesian “head” Herman Sihotang, 2007.

What I think is most worth analytic attention around the “head” phenomenon is the mingling of heads’ status as translators with their status as a speaker role embodying a new understanding of political community. To develop this point, I need to fill in two background patterns. The first is a basic Korowai understanding that speech is a primordial site of questions of subordination in social relations, and the second is a broader semantic innovation that has unfolded around the Korowai word “head” in its uses even beyond tourism.

I suggested above that Korowai tend to understand entry into linguistic coinvolvement as tantamount to entry into transactional relations of exchange, care, and obligation. A stronger statement of this point is that Korowai see speech as foundationally associated with political subordination. Korowai are intensely egalitarian in their political ethos. For example, they historically lacked any named roles of political leadership, and in the present as in the past they are quick to rebuke any person who tries to tell others what to do. Their egalitarian ethos is also reflected physically in past and ongoing practices of living spread out thinly across the landscape, which they explicitly link to a desire to make their livelihoods and raise their families according to their own wills (xul-melun, lit. “thoughts”) rather than being impinged on by desires and demands of others. Yet absence of stable roles of political authority is not the same as absence of social subordination as such. On the contrary, Korowai have a clear idea of the possibility of subordination in social life. They often marvel approvingly at it when it occurs, as a realization of values of relatedness and coordination. They express the idea of subordination by saying that one person “listens” to another person, or literally “hears the speech/voice” of that person (aup dai-). The same idea is expressed also by the slightly more politically direct phrase “fulfill the speech/voice” (aup kumo-). For example, a woman explained to me that when certain persons organize a formal performance troupe to travel to a feast, they do not do so “according to their own thoughts,” but rather “they fulfill the talk from the jaws of the feast owners” (gil anop bongol aup kükümomate). The question of whether someone “listens” to another is often particularly posed of a son-in-law with respect to his mother-in-law, or a wife in relation to her husband, but it comes up in countless other kinds of relational situations as well. In this model of “listening” as a basic political form, there is still generally much emphasis on autonomy. It is an egalitarian choice of one person to agree with what another person says and act upon it (Stasch 2008). Significantly, the model also extends to expressing the question of adherence to sociocultural order at large as residing in whether one “fulfills speech” of others. People routinely explain their whole life practice, for example, by saying, “I am fulfilling the talk of my parents,” or “fulfilling the talk” of a world-creating demiurge. Adherence to norms of how to reside on the land, how to hold feasts, how to organize kinship relations, and the like, is recognized as ultimately a form of “talk” or “discourse” (aup).

Coincidentally, the main metalinguistic expression by which Korowai speak of knowing a language is the same collocation aup dai-, “hear speech,” as in the expression laleo-aup dai-, “know Indonesian [lit. ‘hear Indonesian’].” In this construction, dai-, “hear,” is used in the sense of “comprehend” rather than “agree with and act upon.” Yet this identity of a main expression for political subordination and the main expression for speaking a language again aptly reflects a broad Korowai understanding that to know a language is one and the same with entering into a dialectics of listening to the expressed subjectivity of others and answering to their calls of whether one might align one’s subjectivity with theirs.

These egalitarian dynamics have also been at play in the new Korowai uses of the word for “head.” Hanks and Severi note that one issue arising when we “look at translation as a historical practice” is that translation creates languages and linguistic communities, such as when “the target language is altered in the process of translation” (p. 7, this issue). Older Korowai speakers consistently report that until recent times, the Korowai word for “head” was used only to refer to anatomical heads of bodies, or to parts of inanimate physical objects analogized to a head. Today, though, “head” (xabian) is also used to refer to stable social roles of authority. This usage grew initially from Korowai exposure to outsiders’ routine use of the Indonesian word kepala, “head,” to refer to leadership roles. In the 1980s, the first cohorts of men in certain parts of the Korowai landscape began learning Indonesian and traveling to faraway administrative centers, where they met government-appointed “village heads” (kepala desa) or salaried “heads of administrative offices” (kepala kantor). By the 1990s, a few centralized settlements in the Korowai area began to have “village heads” of their own, in local iterations of official Indonesian government structures. In the early 2000s, there occurred a further meteoric rise in use of the Korowai word xabian, “head,” to mean in effect “boss.” This new usage of “head” as a term for all manner of roles of political authority took hold across the entire Korowai region. The change happened not only because more Korowai became familiar with the Indonesian word kepala and its uses, but also because vertical relations of wealth and power came to stand out to Korowai as the signature social form of the distant urban-centered society they were growing increasingly connected to.

Urban society is generically portrayed by Korowai as a space of “head” relations, in which persons of authority live from food and wealth that is “just there” rather than being produced by their own labor, and live by dispensing wealth to others who do their bidding (Stasch 2014c). The new “heads” whom Korowai regularly talk about include faraway district administrators and provincial government officials, business owners, and salaried government or church employees such as civil servants, schoolteachers, health nurses, police, soldiers, and church ministers. A main Korowai image of their own possible future advancement is that if they send their sons to school in towns, these boys will become “heads” themselves, bringing salaries and knowledge back to kin who supported their schooling (see also Stasch forthcoming). This is the idea that was being pursued by Kombai and Korowai participants in the earlier-described affair of the Australian television personality and the Kombai orphan.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were also when Korowai routinized use of the word xabian, “head,” to refer to exogenous tour guides and the Korowai translators who partner with them. International tourists have been a more concrete interactional presence than government officials or traders for many Korowai, because the tourists come directly to Korowai lands. Yet there is also a broad conflation of tourists’ and guides’ home lives with the overall image of urban space as a social order of “head” relations and amazing consumer wealth. In Korowai interpretations of what makes someone a tourism “head,” the feature of exercising authority through speech is closely merged with the core feature of being a translator. Innovative application of “head” to guides was motivated by the new category’s fascinating spotlighting of structures of social subordination, which also stood out to Korowai as a fundamental characteristic of tourism relations.

The way that lexicalization of “guide” as “head” was informed by the authority dimension of the “head” idea is underlined, for example, by a pattern in how most Korowai initially understood the sociology of tour groups. When tourism started in the 1990s, most Korowai had little sense of the groups’ internal differentiation. Once the idea of a group being composed of “tourists” and a guide or “head” came into focus, this understanding was widely seized upon. Consistently at different times and places, though, persons who are newly developing knowledge of tourism have inferred that it is tourism clients who are the political subordinates of guides, rather than the reverse. Korowai see the tourists as coming to the Korowai area in the first place because the guides tell them to do so, and as doing what the guides tell them to do while there.

Korowai themselves are also addressees of guides’ authoritative speech. The exogenous and Korowai “heads” alike tell Korowai to build shelters, organize exhibitionary performances of emblematic cultural activities, observe rules of spatial segregation, carry baggage, and so on. From many Korowai persons’ points of view, tourism’s moral bargain consists in doing whatever “heads” tell them to do, in exchange for expected payments and gifts. Concerning the pattern of naming children after Indonesian and Papuan tour guides, I already noted that these exogenous guides are a focus of Korowai admiration and desire, based on association with material wealth. In a similar way, Korowai “heads” tend to be regarded very positively. Far from resenting these heads’ disproportionate access to material benefits from tourism (as is a frequent Korowai egalitarian response to wealth inequality), most persons appreciate the heads’ privileged positions as a transactional asset to themselves (see also Stasch 2014e). In general, Korowai have a highly developed sense of their lack of any foothold in tourists’ social systems, and their inability to arrange tourist visits. Heads stand out as persons whom other Korowai can actually communicate with, yet who have the ability to bring about desired tourist visits to specific places on the landscape.

Writing about another New Guinea location, Handman (2014) has examined in detail how Guhu-Samane speakers have taken creation of vernacular translations of Bible passages as iconic and indexical of larger processes of spiritual and historical transformation. She also shows that “language in the era of Christianity, which is often characterized as the era after wars ended, has nevertheless become the power to create division, animosity, and fighting” (ibid.: 26). This is because Christian social organization and wide Guhu-Samane involvement in translation and interpretation of sacred texts dramatically expanded “licensed speakerhood,” by comparison to the centralized restriction of authoritative speaking positions in the past institution of the men’s house. In a parallel way, the guide and translator is for Korowai an exemplary figure within a wider reorganization of political order. Amidst this wider reorganization, the act of verbally ordering people around has a strikingly ambiguous status. It is bizarrely novel in Korowai political culture, but also very recognizable. While the new use of “head” is a linguistic calque of Indonesian kepala and a cultural calque of market and state hierarchy, it is also an elaboration of ideas of “listening” already latent in Korowai political thought. Korowai adhere to an egalitarian political ethos that means rejecting hierarchical structures of leadership, somewhat in the image of a “society against the state” as modeled by Clastres ([1974] 1977). Yet we have seen that this involves sensitivity to political subordination rather than simply absence of it. Living by an egalitarian ethos can entail clearsightedness about how irreducible such subordination is as an aspect of social relating. It can even entail attraction to subordination, as impressively productive of desirable social outcomes, if it can somehow exist without triggering a feeling that values of autonomy and equality have been violated.

A small example of how Korowai have molded their uptake of the anti-Korowai social category of “head” in forms aligned with their own political values is the frequent tendency for it to be construed as overtly relational, and even reciprocal. About a newly arrived group of tourists, a speaker will ask, “Who is their head?” A specific exogenous tour guide is the “head” of a specific Korowai partner, and that Korowai partner is the “head” of the exogenous guide. And in a revealing interpretation of my own activities in tourism-colored terms, many people in conversation with me routinely refer to my closest Korowai friend as “your head,” meaning “your tour guide,” in consideration of his work as my research assistant and social mediator, while also speaking of me as his “head.” In English and other languages, categories like “boss” or “supervisor” are also intrinsically relational, as can be foregrounded through genitive constructions parallel to the Korowai ones. But in the Korowai case, these common genitive usages (“their head,” “his head,” “your head”) echo ubiquitous use of possessively prefixed kinship terms as the single most frequent type of person-referring noun phrase in discourse. I have argued elsewhere that Korowai often represent persons or roles as metonymies of relationships, more strongly than seeing a relationship as the sum of two or more independent persons (Stasch 2009: 73–104). The idea of stable vertical social relations like patron-client ties is broadly new to Korowai, and yet the relational aspect of this tie is immediately familiar.

There may also be a political metaphor in using “head” for anatomical referents, even before there is an anatomical metaphor in using it for political referents. For example, there is at least a single weak exception to my generalization that “head” was historically not used to designate social roles prior to the era of contact with the Indonesian language. The expression xabian milo-, “go first at the head,” has long existed as a set phrase for describing someone as walking at the front of a column of other people, such as in a procession traveling to a feast, analogizing the column of walkers to an anatomical body. Even in this connection, though, the word and role “head” seems never to have been separated out on its own from the concrete activity and verb “walk first in a column” (milo-). But there is a slight sense of political hierarchy to just the temporally bounded action of being at the front of a procession, even in a conceptual system concerned with containing and dampening such hierarchy.

So, too, the elaboration of a speaking role of telling others what to do has made sense to Korowai because of their characteristically New Guinean orientation to material objects and exchange as the truth of relations. As long as tourism can lead to satisfying exchange outcomes, doing what tour guides say is a satisfactory relation of subordination, even from the point of view of egalitarian political values. The “head” category is a linguistic innovation that crystallizes a complex interaction between endogenous Korowai political principles and the whole social history of new interactions with an exogenous state- and market-grounded social formation. The social system surrounding guide-translators is a new institutional organization of talk’s relation to wealth and the ability to make events happen that nonetheless elaborates on selective areas of “equivocal compatibility” (Pina-Cabral 2010) between Korowai people’s heritage order and the order of state- and market- organized populations they are interacting with through tourism.

Conclusion: Powers of incomprehension

The ethnographic topic of Korowai understandings of the role of tourism “heads” makes particularly overt a sense of connection between cross-linguistic speaking and the power dimension of social relations, since in these understandings, to translate is to be a boss. Yet in sampling a few other levels of Korowai and tourist engagement with otherness of language in the midst of their encounters, I have sought to describe these areas of practice also in ways that bring into focus how the question of a speaking voice, as it arises in relation to boundaries of incomprehension and otherness of code, bears foundational links to questions of the distribution of value, obligation, and authority in the full social relation between the people encountering each other across that linguistic divide. We have glimpsed a diversity of ways that linguistic otherness is a figure around which participants try to set terms of what each owes the other, what is good or bad about each party and their relation, and whose frames of meaning will structure or interpret the course of interaction. It is particularly striking how much of this work of signification is carried by foreignness and incomprehension as such, on top of the limited denotational content that is shuttled across the linguistic boundaries.

Speech and mutually foreign linguistic codes play a major role in mediating the practical intersection between two much larger noncommensurate sociocultural formations, which I have rudimentarily characterized here as a formation of primitivist ideology and market-grounded life on tourists’ side, and a political ethos of egalitarianism and exchange-constituted kinship on the side of Korowai. Language’s role in the forging of new articulations and partial commensurabilities between these formations unfolds at the level of social complexes surrounding an act of cross-language action: being an authoritative voice by dint of positionality and skill as a translation specialist, celebrating the other’s worth or likening oneself to the other’s foreign identity through the catching of a foreign speech form, keeping distance by overtly exploiting the other’s incomprehension, and so on. Otherness of language has indexical and iconic values within these complexes that are main sources of language’s efficacy in mediating the larger commensuration process. Denotation is crucially present, but quite miniscule in proportion to the full traffic of “meaning” actually in play.

There is much existing scholarly work on language-crossing processes in which forms of linguistic otherness—sometimes, fully incomprehensible otherness—are made into figures of the larger relation between categories of people. To mention just one kind of example, authors such as Graham (2002, 2011, 2013) and Richland (2008) have richly charted the indexical and iconic significance of alternate codes in contexts of long-term settler colonization, and in contexts of the shifting circulation of “indigenous”-marked voices in the mass media and formal state institutions. I have sought here to extend that inquiry toward contact communities of the most incipient or transient kind, in which incomprehension is a proportionally even more dominant feature of all that goes on between people in speech. The note of wonder on which I would like to close is just how fluently these incipient communities seem to be able to come together around forms of linguistic otherness. They rapidly converge in making those forms, even in their incomprehensibleness, into markers in would-be construals of the political and evaluative structure of the unstable new relation.


I am extremely grateful to Carlo Severi, Bill Hanks, Alan Rumsey, and Nick Evans for invitations that led to the writing of this essay, and I am similarly grateful to all audience members at my presentations in Australian National University’s Coombs Building in September 2011 and the Fyssen Foundation offices in March 2014. I am also in great debt to the HAU editorial team and peer reviewers for their work and patient suggestions.


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Les pouvoirs de l’incompréhension: Altérité linguistique, traducteurs et structure politique lors des rencontres liées au tourisme en Nouvelle Guinée.

Résumé : Les rencontres survenant entre les Korowai de Papouasie et les touristes étrangers constituent un exemple du phénomène récurrent dans l’histoire de l’interaction fugace mais intime entre des individus ne possédant aucune langue commune. Cet article contribue à une anthropologie comparative de ces formes d’associations par contact, caractérisées par une incompréhension mutuelle ; il s’intéresse à la manière dont les Korowai et les touristes investissent la traduction et l’incompréhension comme des sites permettant de définir leur relation, notamment dans ses dimensions évaluatives et politiques. J’examine en particulier la trame qui organise l’interaction linguistique autour de l’altérité linguistique en ellemême, chacun des partis se référant à la différence de langue de l’autre comme un élément permettant de définir ce que chacun est pour l’autre plus largement. Un autre motif abordé est la manière dont les participants de cette rencontre valorisent l’incompréhension linguistique comme ressource pour confirmer leur séparation. Enfin, j’aborde dans l’article la manière dont une compréhension inter-langagière limitée s’établit grâce aux « guides » servant de médiateur. Pour les Korowai, ces spécialistes de la traduction incarnent un modèle de locuteur fiable, constituant un élément important dans la nouvelle commensuration qu’ils établissent entre leur ethos politique égalitariste, et les logiques sociales hiérarchiques des marchés et des états.

Rupert STASCH is a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Society of others: Kinship and mourning in a West Papuan place (2009). Since 1995, he has carried out twenty-one months of fieldwork with Korowai speakers of Papua, Indonesia. He is currently writing a book about interactions between Korowai and international tourists.

Rupert Stasch
University of Cambridge
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Division of Social Anthropology
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF


1. Only the boy’s uncle (and main caregiver) said there had been talk that the boy was a witch and might someday be in danger of being killed, though this man was not able to tell me concrete persons speaking in these terms. The uncle also said another main reason for sending the boy to town was wanting him to go to school. The uncle seemed to mix the witchcraft threat into the picture out of a perception that this would make the request more urgent to the guide, and out of personal anxiety about the boy’s future colored by the trauma of another much older relative’s recent killing for adultery and witchcraft. Well after Robson had been sent home, her Indonesian tour guide in fact brought the boy to the coastal city of Jayapura, and he now lives in Sumatra.

2. The sunset photo and caption were formerly viewable at http://fc-foto.es/17830377. At the time of this article’s publication, the caption can be found here http://www.alphaspain.es/forums/forum.php?paramurl=dG9waWMzODQzOC5odG1s.

3. This caption was formerly posted at http://www.fotocommunity.es/pc/pc/cat/16110/ display/17830436. At the time of this article’s publication, the caption can be viewed at http://www.sonystas.com/foro/fotografia-social/korowais-el-viaje-de-mi-vida-parte-ii/ and at http://www.alphaspain.es/forums/forum.php?paramurl=dG9waWMzODQzOC5odG1s. I thank Raquel Pacheco for translation assistance.