Found Poems in Translation

Discovered and transcribed by Breon Mitchell

The following translations are lines, phrases, and consecutive sentences reproduced in exact order from the vocabularies of 19th-century colonial and missionary dictionaries and grammar books.

From: Dictionary of the Tebele & Shuna Languages (1897) and Notes for a Sindebele dictionary and grammar, with illustrative sentences. Second edition, by W[illiam] A[llan] Elliot. Bristol: Sindebele Publishing Company, [ca. 1910]. Sindebele [Ndebele] is spoken in South Africa and Zimbabwe. This is one of the two earliest dictionaries of the language.

How deep is the water?
          It comes to the knees.
          It comes to the waist.
          The current is strong.
          The river is dangerous.
          The water is dreadfully cold.

          Has the moon changed?
          No it has not yet changed.
          It is still there.
          When will it change?
          When will it die?

          Do you sleep at night?
          No, I do not sleep.
          I no longer know sleep.
          Do you see well?
          No, I no longer see.
          Do you eat well?
          No, I do not eat,
          I turn from my food.

          He died last autumn.
          He died when we reaped the year before last.
          He died when the corn was so high.
          He died when we were digging.
          He died when we were sowing.
          He died when we were weeding the corn.
          He died when the corn was beginning to flower.

From: A Grammar and Dictionary of the Lushai Language (Dulien Dialect), by J. Herbert Lorrain & Fred W. Savidge. Shillong, [India]: Printed at the Assam Secretariat Printing Office, 1898. “Useful Sentences,” pp. 36-53. Lorrain and Savidge were pioneer missionaries to the Lushais at the Arthington Aborigines Mission. This was the first dictionary of the language.

Do we cross that stream down there?
          Is there a bridge?
          Is the water deep?
          You cannot carry me,
                    call a stronger man.
          Walk carefully, the bridge is rotten.

          Walk behind me.
          Open the door.
          Shut the door.
          Take this away.
          Why are you crying?

          Don’t turn to the right.
          Turn to the left.
          When will you go?
          What does he say?
          What is the matter?
          Is this a grave?

          Listen! What was that noise?
          Don’t shoot that bird up there.
          The sun is hot.
          It is going to rain.
          Open your umbrella.
          Why are you laughing?

          Speak louder,
                    I cannot hear you.
          Tell me it from the beginning.
          Tell me only the truth.
          If you lie, I shall be very angry.
          Tell me whatever you know.
          Speak freely. Do not fear.

          I shall send you down to the plains.
          I shall not hang you for this.
          You did it in ignorance.
          I will pardon you.
          Are you sorry?

          Polish my boots.
          Put oil in all of the lamps.
          Light the fire.
          Clear up these papers.
          Don’t touch these books.

          Is my gun loaded?
          Give me the gunpowder.
          Water the flowers.
          Pull up the weeds.
          Sow these seeds.
          When will this plant flower?

From: The Aborigines of Tasmania, by H. Ling Roth. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1890. A rare early source of Tasmanian vocabularies. The original inhabitants of Tasmania had almost all been killed by Europeans by the middle of the nineteenth century. Venereal disease introduced by European traders played a major role in their demise. 

The moon is risen.
          The moon is not seen.
          The moon is behind the cloud.
          You stand behind the tree.
          The swans swim in the water.
          The water is very warm.

          Come along,
                    I want to speak to you.
          Aha! you are sulky
                    all of a sudden.
          Hold your tongue,
                    be patient.

          Come here.
          Walk naked.
          Go ashore.
          Make a light,
                    I want to see you.
          Whisper, speak low,
                    let nobody hear.

From: A Dictionary of the New-Zealand Language, by William Williams. Paihia: Press of the Christian Missionary Society, 1844. The first printed dictionary of the Maori language.

Secretly; without food.
          In the dark.

          Stand up.
          Go on, speak.
          Let your eyes look.
          If you call I shall rise.

          This is the child whose hand
                    was burnt by the fire.
          This is the dog by which
                    the sheep was eaten.
          This hath been poured out,
                    which you see, and which you hear.

          I will come back again.
          Ye shall see me;
                    because I live
                        ye shall live also.
          A mouth and wisdom
                    will be given by me to you
                        which they will not be able to deny
                            or resist.
          You will soon die.

Breon Mitchell is a scholar and translator of several works by various authors, including The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, and The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll. He is a professor emeritus of Germanic studies and comparative literature at Indiana University.

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