Bilingual language learning and the translation of worlds in the New Guinea Highlands and beyond

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Alan Rumsey. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.006

Bilingual language learning and the translation of worlds in the New Guinea Highlands and beyond

Alan RUMSEY, Australian National University

This article deals with two kinds of translation among Ku Waru people in the New Guinea Highlands: (1) translation between the local language and the national lingua franca within everyday interactions between young children and their caregivers; (2) intercultural translation between the story world of a local genre of sung tales and the contemporary lived world of Highland Papua New Guineaas practiced by skilled composer-performers of the genre. Although these two kinds of translation take place on very different planes, they both operate in terms of a well-developed set of procedures establishing equivalence, between words and worlds, respectively. On both planes a key role is played by parallelism, suggesting a connection between equivalence in the ordinary sense of the word and in the specific sense of it that was developed by Roman Jakobson—a connection which is significant for the understanding of translation in general.

Keywords: translation, bilingualism, parallelism, child language socialization, verbal art

In their introduction to this special issue of Hau, Hanks and Severi argue that best starting point for a new theory of translation is “neither pre-emptive universalism . . . nor typological divisions . . . but instead the study of processes and principles of translation”—or, in other words, a focus on “the constant work of translation of languages, nonlinguistic codes, contexts of communication, and different traditions, which constitutes the field of ‘cultural knowledge,’ both within a single tradition and in different societies” (p. 12, this issue). In line with that proposal, in this article I develop an ethnographically based account of everyday practices of translation among the Ku Waru people in Highland Papua New Guinea. Examining two such practices which are otherwise quite different from each other, I show that they both operate in terms of a well-developed set of procedures for establishing equivalence, between words and worlds, respectively. On both of those planes a key role is played by parallelism, suggesting a connection between equivalence in the ordinary sense of the word and in the specific sense of it that was developed by Roman Jakobson (1961) a connection which I suggest is significant for the understanding of translation in general.

As also pointed out by Hanks and Severi, translation occurs in many different forms: “It designates the exchange not only of words, but also of values, theories, and artifacts from one culture to another” (p. 8, this issue). I would add that there is also wide variation in the extent to which the “languages” between which one translates (whether of words, values, artifacts, etc.) can be seen as comprising stable systems. At or near one end of the continuum in that respect are languages in the ordinary sense of the word. These are of course far less homogeneous or stable than they are often imagined to be, but they do have a degree of robustness such that, for example, there would be general agreement among French/Russian bilinguals as to which if either of those languages is being spoken at a given time. At or near the other end of the continuum would be the discourse patterns and interpersonal alignments that get established across the course of a single conversation (as discussed in, e.g., Goodwin and Goodwin 1992; Silverstein 2004). Somewhere between these two on the scale of stable systematicity would be the various “speech genres” (Bakhtin 1986) that are found within every language, and the more or less sedimented texts or “entextualizations”1 (Bauman and Briggs 1990) that are associated with them.

In this article I will be concerned mainly with translation at the maximal level of stable systematicity referred to above, that is, translation across languages in the ordinary sense of the word, and at the intermediate level of speech genres and texts. Focusing in detail on interactions between bilingual Ku Waru children and their parents, I will examine the pattern of alternation between the two languages they speak, and the role played by translation in their language learning. I will then briefly consider one of the genres of verbal art that is practiced by adults in the same area, examine a kind of translation across “worlds” that takes place within it, and compare that to the kind of translation that takes place between the parents and children. But, first, why the main focus on bilingualism and on children?

Any attempt to understand processes of translation in cross-cultural and historical perspective must take into account the fact that much more of the world is bilingual or multilingual than monolingual (Grossjean 1982), and is likely to have been even more so for perhaps 99.9 percent of the human past (Evans 2010: 9–16). The very notion of interlanguage translation of course presupposes the existence of bilingual people to do the translating. Conversely, the process of becoming a bi- or multilingual person presupposes acts of translation by which such people develop a practical sense of equivalence in some respect between words and utterances in one language and those in another. In this article I discuss the way these processes work among the Ku Waru people of Highland Papua New Guinea, where nearly everyone speaks at least two languages, minimally including Ku Waru and Tok Pisin, the main national lingua franca. Moving toward the other end of the stability continuum, I will then discuss some examples of emergent discourse patterns in a genre of sung narrative that is practiced among Ku Waru people. Comparing these with the results regarding bilingual language acquisition, I will offer some general conclusions about the nature of the processes involved, and what can be learned from them about translation and its relation to other aspects of language and culture.

Ethnographic and sociolinguistic background

Ku Waru means “cliff” (literally “steep stone”), and is used to designate a loosely bounded dialect and ethnic region of the Western New Guinea Highlands, named after the prominent limestone cliffs abutting it along the eastern slopes of the Tambul Range, near Mount Hagen.2 The highlands are by far the most densely populated region of New Guinea, and the last to be contacted by Europeans, which didn’t happen until the 1930s. Among Ku Waru people who are living in their rural homeland, the local economy is still largely a subsistence one, based on intensive cultivation of sweet potatoes, taro, and a wide range of other crops, raising of pigs, and use of locally obtained timber, cane, thatch, and other materials for building their houses and agricultural infrastructure. But although Ku Waru people are on that basis still largely self-sufficient for their everyday subsistence needs, there is now also intensive engagement with the cash economy, based largely on their growing of coffee for the world market and vegetables for sale to town dwellers in the provincial capital of Mount Hagen and more distant markets in coastal cities such as Lae (the main seaport for the highlands) and Port Moresby (the nation’s capital and largest city).

Since Francesca Merlan and I first began fieldwork in the area in 1981, Ku Waru people have become much more mobile, many of them traveling regularly to Mount Hagen via commercially operated small buses and trucks that can get them there in about one hour, and, less frequently but for longer sojourns, to Port Moresby, which from the highlands can only be reached by plane. Correspondingly, there has been a steady increase in the rate of marriage to people from outside the region, and in the distance from which those people come. Since 2007, this increased mobility has been accompanied by greatly increased and accelerated interconnectivity due to the availability of mobile phones and network coverage across most of the Ku Waru region and the rest of Papua New Guinea and the wider world.

Associated with these changes over the past thirty to forty years, there have been considerable shifts in the language ecology of the Ku Waru region. Unlike in the town area in and around Mount Hagen to the east, all children in the Ku Waru region continue to learn the local language (Ku Waru) from the earliest stages of language acquisition, and everyone who has grown up in the region speaks it natively. But Tok Pisin has also made considerable inroads into the region. When Francesca Merlan and I first settled there in 1981, almost the only fluent Tok Pisin speakers were men under the age of about forty-five, adolescent boys, and children of age six and above.3 Now it is spoken fluently by all but the most elderly men, by middle-aged and younger women, and by almost all children of age three and above. Nonetheless, except in certain restricted settings, Ku Waru remains the main or only language used in everyday interactions among Ku Waru people of all ages.

One setting where this is not the case is in the local school. Since 1973 there has been a community school in Kailge, near the center of the Ku Waru region. Until 2009 it included only preschool and grades 1–6; grades 7 and 8 have now been added. As is the case throughout PNG, the main language of the school and the language of all the texts used there is English,4 although attempts were made between 1997 and 2012 to facilitate the learning of it through the officially sanctioned use of a model of “transition bilingual education.”5. Though this model is no longer in use in Kailge, classroom interaction still takes place in various combinations of English, Tok Pisin, and Ku Waru, or related, mutually intelligible, dialects if known by the teacher. For various reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, English-language proficiency seems to have actually declined among graduates of the school over the past twenty years. The small number of graduates who do become proficient in it and go on to pass high school and university entrance exams do not generally return to live in the Ku Waru region, but do usually remain in contact with family and friends there and serve as highly valued links to the world beyond.

The other settings in which languages other than Ku Waru are regularly used in the region are church services. The denominations in the area include Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, the PNG Bible Church, the Holy Spirit Revival Church, and the New Covenant Church. All of them make use of a complete Tok Pisin translation of the Bible that has been available since 1989, and most also make at least some use of various English translations. The services are generally conducted in a combination of Tok Pisin and Ku Waru with extensive viva voce translation and exegesis across those two languages, and of English-language scripture in each.6

Language socialization and bilingualism among Ku Waru children

Since 2013, in collaboration with Francesca Merlan, I have been engaged in a major research project on “Children’s language learning and the development of inter- subjectivity.” The project will eventually include comparative studies from diverse languages and cultures, but for now its main substantive focus is on Ku Waru. The study builds on language acquisition data that I and two Ku Waru-speaking field assistants have been recording on a smaller scale since 2004.7 Beginning in mid- 2013, our new data have consisted of audio and video recordings of four Ku Waru children of various ages—Philip, Jakelin, Sylvia, and Ken—each of whom is being recorded in interactions with their parents and other caregivers for approximately one hour at monthly intervals. The recorded interactions are being transcribed in their entirety, and the transcripts computerized for analysis along many different dimensions.

One of the most striking developments that has become evident from the new data is a recent decrease in age of the youngest Tok Pisin speakers, and in the age of the children when the parents begin speaking Tok Pisin to them. In all of the transcript data that were recorded between 2004 and 2011,8 there are almost no instances of Tok Pisin being used either by the parents or by the children, and most of the few instances of it are short, isolated utterances of one or two words only (yu go “You go!” yu kam “You come!,” etc.). In the new data that were recorded in 2013, as exemplified and tabulated below, Ku Waru is still the most frequently used language, but there are also sizable numbers of utterances in Tok Pisin from three of the four children, and they are the youngest three (Philip, Jakelin, and Sylvia).

As we learned from our conversations with Ku Waru parents, this shift was not a random or entirely unconscious one. Rather, we found that there was a new trend among the parents in favor of deliberately exposing their children to Tok Pisin from an early age. The reason they gave us for this was that they believed it would give the children a head start in school. This is no doubt related to the recent abandonment within the Kailge school of the transition bilingual model (see note 5) and increased emphasis on the use of Tok Pisin rather than Ku Waru as the operative interlanguage. Whatever the reasons for that change, the Ku Waru parents with whom we discussed the matter took it as an endorsement of the efficacy of Tok Pisin over Ku Waru as a bridge to learning of English, which all of them valued highly on their children’s behalf (perhaps all the more so as few are themselves fluent in English). That, they say, is what lay behind their increased use of Tok Pisin to their children. But all of them also thought it important that their children should continue to learn Ku Waru.

A certain tension between those two desires is evident from the three sets of transcripts in which Tok Pisin is used to any appreciable degree (i.e., those involving Philip, Jakelyn, and Sylvia). Evidence for that can be seen in Table 1, which shows patterns of language alternation vs. language consistency across conversational turns involving a parent or other caregiver as the first speaker and child as the second, responding one. For present purposes there are two things to notice about the figures shown in the table. One is that Ku Waru is the main language used between the children and their parents in all of the interactions, with Sylvia and her parents using the most Tok Pisin and Ken and his using almost none. The other relevant pattern is that, as shown by the figures in columns 3 and 5, in cases where the children initiate a switch from one language to the other, the direction of the switch is far more often from Ku Waru into Tok Pisin than vice versa. Based on this and other evidence,9 it seems that the shift to Ku Waru/Tok Pisin bilingual language acquisition is actually being driven by the children to a greater extent than their parents seem to realize or take into account when discussing their own role in the process. As will be exemplified below, the parents seem to acknowledge that role at least implicitly in another way, by sometimes explicitly enjoining the children, after Tok Pisin has been spoken for several turns, to shift back to Ku Waru.

Table 1. Incidence of Tok Pisin vs. Ku Waru in interactions involving four children.

Child and age Ku Waru ˃ Ku Waru Ku Waru ˃ Tok Pisin Tok Pisin ˃ Tok Pisin Tok Pisin ˃ Ku Waru Ku Waru/Tok Pisin mix

Philip 2;04.01 249 (94%) 11 (4%) 0 0 5 (2%)
Philip 2;05.02 236 (94%) 7 (3%) 1 (˂1%) 1 (˂1%) 7 (3%)
Philip 2;06.05 171 (94%) 9 (5%) 0 0 2 (1%)
Jakelin 2;10.29 298 (72%) 93 (23%) 13 (3%) 1 (˂1%) 7 (2%)
Jakelin 2;11.27 105 (68%) 34 (22%) 9 (6%) 1 (˂1%) 7 (4%)
Jakelin 3;00.27 136 (84%) 21 (13%) 1 (˂1%) 0 4 (2%)
Sylvia 3;02.22 225 (75%) 20 (7%) 44 (15%) 0 10 (3%)
Sylvia 3;03.12 252 (67%) 8 (2%) 110 (30%) 1 (˂1%) 4 (1%)
Sylvia 3;04.21 407 (76%) 12 (2%) 115 (21%) 0 2 (˂1%)
Sylvia 3;05.21 340 (91%) 26 (7%) 5 (1%) 0 4 (1%)
Ken 3;08.11 441 (˃99%) 1 (˂1%) 0 0 0
Ken 3;09.26 421 (˃99%) 1 (˂1%) 0 0 0
Ken 3;10.27 420 (100%) 0 0 0 0
Ken 3;11.23 564 (99%) 3 (1%) 0 0 0

Key: Children’s ages are shown in years;months.days For example 2;04.01 designates two years, four months, and one day. In the top row of the table, “Ku Waru ˃ Ku Waru” indicates a pair of conversational turns in which the child was addressed in Ku Waru and responded in Ku Waru, “Ku Waru ˃ Tok Pisin” one in which the child was addressed in Ku Waru and responded in Tok Pisin, and so on.

Let us now look at some examples of interlanguage alternation and interaction in the transcripts. In all three sets of interactions where Tok Pisin is used to any extent, it is often used in acts of more-or-less direct translation, both by the parents and by the children. An example can be seen in 1 below. The age of the child Philip at the time (shown in the format used in language acquisition studies) was 2;04.01 (two years, four months, and one day). He and his father Gabren are sitting on the floor of their house beside the fireplace in the middle of the main room. Positioned about one meter in front of them is the small digital audio recorder on which they are being recorded. With its two thimble-sized microphones protruding at ear-like angles from the top and small leg-like tripod on which it rests, it apparently looks to Philip like a little animal of some kind. While Gabren is talking to him about something else, Philip abruptly turns away from him toward the recorder, stands up, and makes shooing gestures at it as if it were a stray dog or other beastly intruder, and says ko, which is his baby talk version of the Tok Pisin word go, “Go.” Gabren is at first taken aback, but then quickly realizes what Philip is up to and joins in the game. As can be seen, the interaction then proceeds as a series of alternations between Tok Pisin and Ku Waru. In this and all subsequent examples, Ku Waru words are shown in italic typeface and Tok Pisin ones in boldface. Words which are in the baby talk versions of those languages are underlined.10


Figure 01

Throughout this stretch of interaction, rather than directly addressing each other, Philip and his father Gabren are both addressing the recorder, but each with the other as what Erving Goffman (1981) would have called a “targeted overhearer.” On that basis the entire exchange constitutes what is in effect an extended translation drill. After Philip’s first utterance to the recorder in line a, which is in Baby Tok Pisin (BTP), as mentioned above, Gabren in line b echoes Philip by repeating his BTP form ko. He follows this up with a Ku Waru word melayl, “the thing,” referring to the recorder. He then adds the Ku Waru word pa, which is the imperative form of the Ku Waru word for “go.” This is a direct translation of Philip’s BTP form ko, which he has first repeated before translating it. In the next two lines (c and d), Philip repeats his BTP form and Gabren his Ku Waru translation of it. The same thing happens again in lines e and f—with Gabren again adding melayl “thing” in line f—and again in lines g and h. In line i, Philip then finally in effect accepts Gabren’s lead by repeating the Ku Waru word pa instead of sticking with ko as in lines c, e, and g.

Further below I will be discussing the question of whether and to what extent the acts of translation in this stretch of interaction involve the translation of “worlds” as well as of words. What I want to draw attention to here is the way in which the sequence of turns between the two speakers sets up an implicit relation of equivalence between ko and pa for certain purposes—namely, in this case for shooing something out of the house (or pretending to).

The next example (2) is also taken from a conversation between Philip and his father Gabren, this time with Philip at age 2;05.02. At this point Philip is just beginning to move beyond the stage of language acquisition where most of his utterances consist of a single word, as in 1, to one in which he is learning to use two or more of them in combination. In this conversation Philip and Gabren are again sitting in their house. Gabren has been picking up objects from the ones lying around them and asking Philip what they are. He picks up a used Coca Cola bottle with water in it and the conversation proceeds as in 2.


Figure 02

Note that in the transcript, walam in line b is identified neither as Tok Pisin (with boldface) nor as Ku Waru (with italics). This is because it does not belong to the established lexicon of either language, whether in baby talk or not. Rather, it is Philip’s own creation, which Gabren responds to in such a way as to assimilate it to Baby Tok Pisin (BTP), while translating what he takes to be the first word of it into Ku Waru. In other words, he interprets the wa (or perhaps the wala) of walam as wala, the BTP form corresponding to the Adult Tok Pisin (TP) word wara, “water,” for which in his response in line c he substitutes the Ku Waru word no (the core sense of which is “water,” but which is also used more generally in reference to liquids). For the portion of Gabren’s utterance that corresponds to the rest of Philip’s walam, he uses a combination of the BTP word lo, “belonging to” (= TP bilong), and the TP word mi, “me.” In line d Philip responds to this with an utterance in which the last two words repeat Gabren’s last two, and in which Gabren’s first word no with is replaced by wa. Although I have put question marks under that word to show that it does not belong to any of the local established lexicons, Philip has in effect treated it as equivalent to the Ku Waru word no by using it in place of that word in his follow-up to what Gabren has said in line d. In line e Gabren in effect confirms this equivalence by making the opposite move to Philip’s, repeating his line exactly except for the first word, which he again replaces with the Ku Waru word no, which he then tells Philip to drink.

Notice that in example 2 as in 1 the translation process proceeds through the construction of what I have called “equivalence” across conversational turns. In 1 the equivalence pertained to utterances of single worlds, each of which comprised a whole turn at talk, and the equivalence was established through the identical pragmatic function that they were understood to be serving, namely to shoo something away (or pretend to). In 2 the equivalence is also in part a pragmatic one, namely the understood reference to a single object across all five lines: the bottle of water that Gabren was holding in his hand and directing Philip’s attention to. But in 2 there is also another kind of “equivalence” that is established across the turns, namely that which is constructed through patterns of the kind that were brilliantly theorized by Roman Jakobson (1960) under the rubric of parallelism.

Building on the work of earlier theorists, including Robert Lowth and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jakobson treated parallelism as an ordered interplay of difference and repetition, whereby partial repetition across metrical units such as lines of poetry or turns at talk sets up an implicit framework in which the nonrepeated elements stand out as linked to each other, in a relationship of the kind that Jakobson, after Lowth (1778), called “equivalence.” What Jakobson meant by that term in this context was not that the “equivalent” terms are identical to each other, but that they are highlighted in such a way as to posit or call attention to some significant relationship between them. In the processes that we call “translation” in the strict sense, the relevant relationship is generally of the form “expression x is to language A as expression y is to language B.” In 2 this process is managed by the father Gabren in a creative way which in effect treats Philip’s wa as if it had an analogous place in some language (the partially idiosyncratic one being spoken by Philip) to that of no in Ku Waru.12

Besides parallelism, another way in which cross-linguistic equivalence (in the more ordinary rather than specifically Jakobsonian sense of the word) can be established is through metalinguistic expressions that explicitly characterize particular words or expressions of one language in relation to those of another: “homme is the French word for man,” and so on. In the approximately two thousand pages of the 2013 Ku Waru child language transcript material that I have worked through so far, I haven’t come across any examples of that kind (even though there are ways of saying such a thing in Ku Waru and in Tok Pisin). The interlocutors do, however, sometimes refer in a general way to the fact that someone has been speaking Tok Pisin or Ku Waru, or should do so. An example is 3, from a conversation between Sylvia (age 3;02.22) and her mother Ani.


Figure 03

Apart from the these general characterizations of stretches of discourse as being in one language or another, the main metalinguistic expression that gets used in the transcripts is the verb nyi- “say.”14 Before exemplifying its use in Ku Waru child- directed speech, it is relevant to note that, in common with the Kaluli15 (Schieffelin 1990) and many other people around the world,16 one of the main strategies that Ku Waru caregivers use when talking to children is to model appropriate speech for them by telling them what to say—sometimes in quotations explicitly framed by the imperative verb nya “say!,” and sometimes just with the projected quotations, which the child comes to understand are being presented for him/her to repeat in his/her own voice (as in lines 2c and 2e above). Examples of the former kind may be found in 4, which comes from an interaction between Jakelin at age 2;10.29 and her mother Saina.


Figure 04

This stretch of interaction contains two instances of the imperative verb nya “say!,” at the end of lines a and e. In each of those lines the mother Saina presents an utterance for Jakelin and tells her to say it. In line b Jakelin does as she is told, repeating after Saina in her own simplified version of the utterance that Saina has modeled for her. Notably, Jakelin does the same thing in line d, repeating what Saina has said in line c, even though in this case there is no imperative verb of saying to make it explicit that Saina’s utterance is being presented as one for Jakelin to repeat. This is typical of interactions between Ku Waru parents and children, in that the modeled-speech routine between them is so common that the explicit framing of the parent’s prompt with the verb “say” is unnecessary in order for the child to recognize that he/she is being prompted to repeat it. Be that as it may, in line e of this interaction the mother Saina does include the framing “say” verb nya again. What she gets in response from Jakelyn this time, in line f, is not the Ku Waru utterance that has been modeled for her, but an utterance in Tok Pisin which is nearly equivalent to it in its sense.

The same thing happened a few minutes later in the same interaction between Jakelin and Saina with an even closer semantic match between the lines as shown in 5.


Figure 05

The main point I want to draw from examples 4 and 5 (which is also evident from 2) is that within the context of interactions between young Ku Waru children and their caregivers there is a well-established “prompting” or “speech modeling” routine whereby children are presented with utterances by the caregivers which are voiced from the child’s viewpoint (as in 2c and 2e), which the child is meant to repeat in his or her own voice. I suggest that the frequent use of this routine socializes Ku Waru children from an early age into an understanding that some utterances (i.e., the ones with which they respond to the prompts) can count as equivalent to others (the ones with which they have been prompted). In relation to my present focus on bilingual language learning and the role of translation within it, it is fascinating to note that among all three of Ku Waru children in the sample who use Tok Pisin to any appreciable extent (Philip, Jakelin, and Sylvia, as shown in Table 1), the transcripts include examples of them using Tok Pisin in responses to prompts that have been put to them in Ku Waru, as in 4 and 5 (see also 1, lines e and g). Furthermore, as in those examples, the responses generally take the form of a translation.

In the discussion so far, I have been focusing on textual examples involving the three children who make the most frequent use of Tok Pisin. These are the youngest three children of the four in the study: Philip, Jakelin, and Sylvia. There is less to say about language switching or translation with respect to the other, eldest child, Ken, because there are so few instances in it of any other language than Ku Waru. As can be seen from Table 1, there are only five of them in total, across four sessions totaling approximately four hours. But the very fact of their scarcity in some ways makes their distribution all the more interesting. Of particular interest in this respect is the placement of the only utterance by Ken within the entire four hours that comprises a multiword utterance in Tok Pisin and shows that he has a productive knowledge of its grammar (albeit in a Baby form).17 The utterance in question occurs in 6, from a conversation between Ken (at age 3;11.23) and his classificatory grandfather John Onga.


Figure 06 Figure 07

This exchange takes place after approximately fifty-six minutes in which only Ku Waru had been used in connected speech. Indeed, as noted above, there had been no connected speech in Tok Pisin in any of the other three one-hour sessions recorded with Ken over the previous three months, as shown in Table 1 (and explained in note 17), our assistants’ transcripts of which run to some six hundred pages. Since these were the first four sessions that had been recorded with Ken, and I had barely made his acquaintance at the time I first reviewed those four transcripts, I had been unaware that he could speak Tok Pisin at all. Under those conditions, the last line of 6 came as a real surprise to me. Why did Ken’s breakthrough into a connected, conversationally appropriate utterance in Tok Pisin occur just at that point in the conversation? On reflection it seems to me highly unlikely that was a matter of pure happenstance. For it comes at a point in the conversation where Ken has been put on his mettle to show that his confidence in his father’s truthfulness about the trousers is not misplaced.18 In this context it seems likely that the nature of the topic being discussed, involving a trip to town—the main setting in which Ku Waru people speak Tok Pisin—was a major conditioning factor for Ken’s switch to that language. If so, then it may exemplify a tendency for older Ku Waru children’s use of Tok Pisin to become increasingly domain-specific, as opposed to the more frequent and random switches in and out of Tok Pisin by the younger children in the sample.

From translating words to translating worlds

In the discussion so far I have been dealing with processes of translation at what may seem like a very low level of epistemological or ontological traction. I have treated the relevant languages—Ku Waru and Tok Pisin—as discrete systems between which translation is relatively unproblematic. Before shifting the discussion to another level where the processes of translation apply more evidently to “worlds,” there are two points of qualification that I would like to raise about the kinds of translation that I have been dealing with above. One is that, notwithstanding the fact that many Tok Pisin words derive ultimately from English, which may give it a look of familiarity to English speakers, its grammar and semantics are in many important respects closer to those of languages of New Guinea and and the Southwest Pacific (Keesing 1988, Evans and Greenhill 2014). So to the extent that degrees of difference between languages make for corresponding degrees of difference in ease of translation, the process of translation between Ku Waru and Tok Pisin may in some respects be a more straightforward one than translation between Ku Waru and English. The other, even more important point in this connection is that, as should be clear from the discussion above, Ku Waru speakers themselves operate in terms of a well-developed set of procedures for establishing relations of cross-linguistic equivalence between expressions and utterances. The resulting presumptive equivalences might not always be enough to satisfy philosophers, logicians, or ontologically minded anthropologists, but they generally suffice for the conduct of everyday life among Ku Waru people.

That said, the question still remains, in what sense if any do such practices entail translation between worlds? That of course depends on how you define them. For present purposes I will accept the lead that has been generously provided by Hanks and Severi (this issue), who define “worlds” in a marvelously concise and suggestive way as “oriented contexts for the apprehension of reality” (p. 8). On that basis, let us now turn to some examples from my previous work on Ku Waru verbal art, and in particular on a genre of sung narrative known as tom yaya kange.

Tom yaya kange is one of a wide range of sung narrative genres found across three contiguous provinces of Highland Papua New Guinea.19 Tom yaya kange are sung to fixed, bipartite melodies, each half-melody comprising an equal number of lines of text. The precise textual realization of any given tale varies across performances even within the work of a single performer, making creative use of parallelism and of formulaic expressions that fit the metrical requirements of the line.20 The plots of tom yaya kange are various, but cluster around a canonical one in which a young man sets out from his home to court a young woman he has heard about in a far-away place, undertakes a long and arduous journey to her home, wins her hand, but then encounters various obstacles in his attempt to bring her back to his home and marry her, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not.

While the tom yaya kange genre dates from before the first arrival of Europeans in the region in the 1930s, nowadays its standard plots and imagery are sometimes used for presenting narratives with noncanonical, distinctly contemporary plots and themes.21 For example, one of the most highly regarded tom yaya exponents, Paulus Konts, has composed and performed a tale about a trip to the coast to buy betel nut to bring back to the highlands for sale. The story casts himself in the leading role, but has him traveling not on foot, but by bus to Lae, then on a boat to the port at Finschhafen. There he buys a thousand kina’s worth of betel nuts and takes them back with him, beyond the Nebilyer Valley where he lives, to Wabag, the capital of Enga Province to the west. When he discovers that there is already an ample supply of betel nut in the Wabag markets, he continues on through the mountains to Porgera—a much more remote locale, where prices are higher, and there is more cash on hand because of the mining operations there. He sells his betel nuts there at a huge profit and returns triumphantly home to Ambukl.

Notwithstanding its distinctly contemporary subject matter, this story was cast by Konts in classic tom yaya form, using the same rhythm and melody and many of the same standard kange thematic motifs as in other performances. For example, when preparing for his trip, Konts washes himself in a river, and dresses himself splendidly in a woven belt and bark belt hung with cordyline leaves, both standard motifs in the tales of courtship. When traveling on the bus to Wabag, he carries with him a long dagla spear and a pronged timbun spear, described in parallel lines, just as in the more standard narratives of quest and courtship.

In addition to tom yaya kange motifs such as these, which Konts uses in standard form in his tale of the betel nut trade, there are others which he artfully adapts to fit with contemporary subject matter. An example is the following passage, which was spoken by the hero to the betel nut wholesalers in Finschhafen.

na buai lyibu ud a “I’ve come to get betel,” he said.
eni lyi naa lyibu e “I haven’t come to get you.”
eni a molai nyirim e “You all can stay,” he said.
nanga buai kenginsai nyirim a “Just bring me my bags of betel.”

To an audience familiar with tom yaya kange, those lines are thematically reminiscent of a saying which is commonly used by hosts when welcoming first-time visitors from afar, namely:

kung koily kiulu lelym e We’ve an oven for roasting pigs.
yabu koily kiulu naa lelym e We’ve no oven for roasting people.

In other words, “Relax, we are not cannibals who intend to eat you, but friends who intend to feed you.” Within the canonical tom yaya narrative of courtship, the point at which this remark typically occurs is when the hero has completed his long journey and arrived at the home of the young lady whom he has gone to court. Her place and its people are beyond the ken of his own, and therefore, like everyone at the edge of the known social universe, suspected of being cannibals (see Rumsey 1999).

The same remark is sometimes also made by the hero to his hosts, to put them at ease about the prospects for their daughter among his own people. For example, in one of Konts’ performances it was said by the young heroine Tangapa to her suitor Tagla just after he arrives at her place, and then, as they are about to leave for his place, he says the same thing to her, followed immediately by the lines:

na nu lyibu ui naa udiyl I haven’t come to get you.
nunga laikiyl nyikin akiyl-ya You’re doing what you’ve chosen to do.

In his betel nut story, by having the hero say “I haven’t come to get you” at an analogous point at the outer end of his journey, Konts is both creating an implicit parallel to the more standard plot involving courtship, and playing humorously upon coastal people’s stereotype of highlanders as more savage than themselves, and perhaps even inclined to cannibalism.

In conclusion regarding tom yaya kange, the artful adaptations of composer/ performers such as Paulus Konts clearly serve to translate between worlds, in Hanks and Severi’s sense of “oriented contexts for the apprehension of reality.” One is the story world of canonical tom yaya kange, which Ku Waru people think of as a blend of fantasy and of how things actually were in the past before the arrival of Europeans in the 1930s and the colonial order that they instituted (leading up to independence in 1975). The other world is the contemporary one. The translation between them works in both directions at once. For example, when the theme of exogamous courtship is used as a figure for long-range market transaction, this in effect invites the audience not only to imagine that newer activity in terms of exogamous courtship and the widening of exchange ties, but also to reimagine those older activities in terms of the newer one.22


How does the translation process that is at play in Paulus Konts’ tom yaya kange compare with the one I have discussed above in connection with bilingual language learning? At first blush they may seem so different as to raise the question: Why try to bring them together under the same rubric of “translation”? Konts’ translation is one across “worlds” but within the same language in the strict sense (since Ku Waru is the only one used), whereas the translations in the parent-child interaction are across languages, but within what may seem to be a single “world.” Again my responses to that apparent quandary are twofold. First, it remains an open question whether the latter processes do indeed take place within a single “world” in Hanks and Severi’s sense. I will return to that question below. Secondly, there is an intriguing similarity in the nature of the processes themselves. In both cases they involve the construction or attribution of equivalence, and in both cases parallelism plays a central part in that process. In the language-learning cases that I have discussed, the parallelism was found at the micro level of adjacent conversational turns. In the case of the tom yaye kange it is was found at the macro level of plot organization across extended narratives,23 whereby, for example, travel through a series of named places to the coast for betel nut is to successful commerce as travel through a series of named places to a distant mountain is to successful exogamous courtship.

Now how about the question of distinct “worlds” associated with Ku Waru and Tok Pisin in adult-child interaction? This is a question that has a long history in connection with studies of bilingualism (Grossjean 1982; Romaine 1989; Pavlenko 2011). While the very existence of bilingualism (and multilingualism) might seem to present a challenge to the idea of each of the languages being associated with distinct worlds, in the relevant literature much has been made to hang on the question of possible functional differentiation of the languages in their use by bilinguals. If “worlds” are thought of as kinds of “oriented context” (as per Hanks and Severi), then to the extent that it can be shown that bilinguals restrict the use of each of their languages to certain kinds of contexts, they may perhaps be thought of as moving between different “worlds” as they switch languages. There is no doubt a tendency for such domain-specificity to develop among older Ku Waru children, depending on the subject matter under discussion, as shown by the case of Ken Lep (example 6). It is also highly likely that the choice of language, and the switches between them, are conditioned to some extent by the nature of the relation between speaker and addressee, and the tenor of the interaction between them at any given time. There is, for example, a tendency for Tok Pisin to be used to issue brusque commands, as illustrated in examples 1 and 3 above, and in Rumsey (2014: 414–15).

All these matters call for further study based on the more extended longitudinal samples that will be recorded from the four children discussed here over the next two years. On the other hand, a notable feature of much of the language switching by the younger Ku Waru children in our sample—as exemplified above—is that it does not seem to be conditioned by any apparent contextual factors. Rather, the children seem to delight in making what appear to be random, unexpected switches from one language to the other (albeit more often from Ku Waru to Tok Pisin than vice versa), often in acts of translation, as we have seen. This has the effect of simultaneously highlighting both the difference between the languages as such and the potential equivalence of things that can be said in them.

Similar considerations apply to the translation of worlds that is practiced by tom yaya kange performers such as Paulus Konts. As I have said, the translation works in both directions at once, in effect inviting the audience both to reimagine the contemporary world in terms of the story world and vice versa. But it also entails an equally important tropic movement in the opposite direction, whereby the inclusion of what are in experiential terms incongruous touches, such as the betel-nut buyer wearing cordyline leaves and carrying battle spears with him on his bus trip to the coast, serves to highlight the differences between the story world of canonical tom yaya kange and the here-and-now world to which it is being juxtaposed—a separation which is a necessary condition for the metaphorical or “translational” use of one in relation to the other.24

There is, I think, a lesson to be drawn from the practice both of Ku Waru children and of Paulus Konts in this respect. It is that translation plays an equally important role both in allowing for communication between distinct worlds and in constituting them as distinct worlds in the first place. In that respect my findings from the Ku Waru cases treated here are consistent with Hanks and Severi’s claim that the quality of being translatable is inherent not only in human communication as such, but also to in “the generation of cultural differences” (p. 12, this issue) across which it can take place.


Many thanks to Bill Hanks and Carlo Severi for inviting me to write this paper for the “Translating Worlds” conference, and to Bill for presenting it there in my absence. For their helpful comments on various drafts, thanks to Darja Hoenigman, Don Kulick, Francesca Merlan, Lila San Roque, five anonymous referees, and participants at the 2014 Annual Conference of the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea, where it was also presented. Special thanks to all the Ku Waru-speaking children and their parents who are named in the article, to the Ku Waru bard Paulus Konts, and to our field assistants John Onga and Andrew Noma, without whose hard and steady work this study would not have been possible. For funding the research I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Australian Research Council and the Research School of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University.


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L’apprentissage du langage en situation de bilinguisme et la traduction des mondes dans les plateaux néo-guinéens et au-delà

Résumé : Cet article s’intéresse à deux types de traduction, pratiqués par les Ku Waru des plateaux de Nouvelle-Guinée : (1) la traduction entre la langue locale et la langue véhiculaire dans le contexte des interactions quotidiennes entre de jeunes enfants et ceux qui s’en occupent ; (2) la traduction interculturelle entre l’univers narratif d’un genre local de récits chantés et l’univers quotidien des plateaux de Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée, opérée par les compositeurs-interprètes actuels de ce genre. Bien que ces deux types de traduction s’effectuent sur des plans différents, ils fonctionnent tous deux selon un vaste ensemble de règles qui définissent des équivalences, entre mots et mondes respectivement. Dans les deux cas, un rôle primordial est attribué au parallélisme, ce qui suggère une connexion entre l’équivalence au sens commun du mot, et au sens spécifique qu’en proposait Roman Jakobson - une connexion importante pour notre compréhension du processus de traduction en général.

Alan RUMSEY is a Professor of Anthropology in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. His research fields are Highland Papua New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia, with a focus on speech genres and on relations among language, culture, and intersubjectivity.

Alan Rumsey
Department of Anthropology
School of Culture, History and Language
College of Asia and the Pacific
Australian National University
Canberra, ACT 0200


1. In a widely cited, seminal discussion of this topic, Bauman and Briggs (1990:73) define entextualization as “the process of rendering discourse extractable, of making a stretch of linguistic production into a unit—a text—that can be lifted out of its interactional setting.”

2. For a map and details concerning the dialect continuum to which Ku Waru belongs, and methodological justification for treating Ku Waru as a “language,” see Rumsey (2010).

3. It may be the case that more adolescent girls and young women were able to speak Tok Pisin than was evident to us at the time, for two reasons: (1) in order to be able to communicate directly with as many Ku Waru people as possible by learning Ku Waru, we encouraged people to speak it with us and instruct us in it rather than in Tok Pisin; (2) the speaking of Tok Pisin by women at that time was somewhat stigmatized as it was associated with town life, a more peripatetic lifestyle than was considered appropriate for women, and in particular with prostitution.

4. There have been considerable changes over the past thirty years in the extent to which this has been taken to preclude the use of other languages in school. When we first settled in Kailge in 1981 there was a large sign in the school showing a list of rules of conduct which the pupils were regularly called upon to recite out loud. Rule number one was “Don’t speak language” (i.e., don’t speak in the local language). The second rule was “Don’t speak Tok Pisin.” This confirmed what we had been told by an officer in the Education Department in Mount Hagen when we offered to help develop teaching materials in the local language. He said that he would like to accept our offer because he personally was very much in favor of using such materials, but that it was forbidden by Education Department policy, which called for the use of English only in schools. This changed dramatically a decade later, as described in note 5.

5. This is a model whereby literacy is first introduced in the local language in preschool (“Prep”) and first grade, followed by a gradual shift to English over the next few years (Devette-Chee 2012, 2013). It was brought in at the national level beginning in the early 1990s (ibid.) and at the Kailge School in 1997 (John Onga, personal communication). In 2013 it was phased out there. In a discussion I had with the headmaster at the time, he said that was because the model was not working: children were failing to make a successful transition to English. He also told me that the abandonment of bilingual education had been mandated at the national level by a recent policy shift away from it by the PNG Education Department. Having later been unable to find any reference to such a shift on the internet, in May 2014 I interviewed the Superintendent of Operations at the Education Department Office in Mount Hagen, William Awa. He told me that there has been confusion about what had actually happened in that respect. He said that the only official change was that English had been reintroduced as a subject of study in Prep and grade 1. The option to use local language as a medium for teaching it still remained in place. He said that there had been discussion lately of the possible introduction of an “English only” policy (to which he himself was strongly opposed), but that the issue was still under consideration and that no such policy was yet in place.

6. The current Catholic priest in the region is a Papua New Guinean from another part of the country (the Sepik) who does not speak or understand Ku Waru. He conducts the services in Tok Pisin, interspersed with occasional rounds of translation into Ku Waru by his local assistants. As far as I know from my occasional attendance of the other local churches, all the current ministers speak Ku Waru and/or related mutually intelligible dialects, and use a combination of them and Tok Pisin in their services.

7. For some of the results of that early work, see Rumsey (2013) and Rumsey, San Roque, and Schieffelin (2013).

8. This comprises approximately seventy hours of recorded interaction involving children, which has been transcribed by hand onto approximately 13,000 A4 pages and is currently being computerized as part of our new project.

9. For a fully adequate investigation of this question it would be necessary to tabulate all two-part turn sequences in which the child is the first speaker and the parent the second. While I have not done that, I have done a survey of representative portions of the transcripts and found that across all the interactions the incidence of Ku Waru > Tok Pisin shifts is far lower for child-parent sequences than for parent-child ones.

10. Some words in the transcripts below are impossible to assign exclusively to either Tok Pisin or Ku Waru. These are words that have been borrowed into Ku Waru from Tok Pisin but are used in both languages, for example tarasis “trousers,” tok pisin “Tok Pisin.” When such words occur in lines that are otherwise in Tok Pisin, I show them in boldface like other Tok Pisin words. When they occur in lines that are otherwise in Ku Waru, they are shown without either boldface or italics.

11. Here and in line e Gabren’s mi refers not to himself but to Philip, from whose transposed perspective he is voicing his utterance. For discussion of this frequently used way of addressing children in Ku Waru and elsewhere in Melanesia, see below.

12. For other uses of parallelism in child language socialization, see de Leon (2007) and Duranti and Black (2012).

13. The Tok Pisin pronoun mipela actually means “I and others not including you the addressee.” In this case the mother Ani is also presumably including within its reference Sylvia’s father James and a family friend Kuin, both of whom are present and have also told Sylvia not to speak Tok Pisin.

14. The same is true other kinds of discourse in Ku Waru. In a transcript of 1850 lines of speeches that were given at a Ku Waru ceremonial exchange event, the most frequently found verb in the whole transcript was nyi- “say” (Merlan and Rumsey 1991: 119).

15. The Kaluli live outside of the highland region, on the Papuan Plateau, approximately 150 kilometers to the west/southwest of Ku Waru. Their culture is in many ways very different from Ku Waru (see, e.g., Rumsey 2001: 215–19), but their ways of interacting with children are similar in many ways (see, e.g., Rumsey, San Roque, and Schieffelin 2013: 179–80).

16. For examples, see Demuth (1986), Moore (2012: 212–14), and references cited therein.

17. The other instances of Tok Pisin spoken by Ken are either single word utterances (e.g., Go!) or single Tok Pisin words used within utterances the rest of which are in Ku Waru (e.g., lopa me wanpela ti pelym, “There is one cat,” where the Tok Pisin word wanpela “one” was used in addition to the Ku Waru word ti, which also means “one”).

18. Elsewhere (Rumsey 2013) I show that the possibility of deceit is major theme in interaction between Ku Waru children and adults (as elsewhere in Ku Waru social life and as widely reported from other Melanesian locales). Across a sample of approximately seventeen hours of such interaction involving Ku Waru children between two and four year of age, and comparison with available transcripts of interaction between US parents and children of similar ages, I show that references to deceit in the Ku Waru transcripts are approximately twenty-nine times as frequent overall, and that such references by the Ku Waru children themselves are approximately sixty-two times as frequent.

19. For detailed coverage of six of the regional genres from multiple disciplinary viewpoints, see Rumsey and Niles (2011).

20. For details, see Rumsey (2001, 2007).

21. For other examples besides the one discussed below, see Rumsey (2001, 2006).

22. For further discussion of the ways in which the world of narrated events in various genres of highlands sung narrative is related to the here-and-now world in which the performance takes place, see Rumsey (2005).

23. This is not to say that parallelism occurs only at a macro level within tom yaya kange. On the contrary, it is a pervasive feature across the full range of levels (for details see Rumsey 2007). The point is rather that the patterns of parallelism that figure in the particular instance of intercultural translation I have discussed here are ones that operate at a macro level, within and across plots.

24. One of my referees comments as follows: “The ‘plotting across narratives’/spaces & times in the poems is very thought provoking. One question arises: is this also—like the parent-child conversations—a switching that does not depend on context? Elucidating the lack of resort to ‘context’ (that is, as an indigenous epistemological framing) holds much general theoretical promise for anthropological practices of description.” I heartily agree and thank the referee for this observation.