Budding Translation

Among the American classics in my library, Black Elk Speaks is one of the least willing to rest closed on the shelf. It is the story of a vision, the duty that accompanies the vision, and the life of those whom the vision would animate. It can be justly read as tragedy, indictment, and struggle with the past. But it can also be read as affirmation and as invocation of hope for the future, possibilities that present themselves on this revisit. There are risks in making Black Elk Speaks the subject of a Classics Revisited, more risks than in Kenji Yoshino’s choice last year of Albert Camus’s The Fall, which, as he noted, was riskier than Steven Lubet’s decision two years ago to initiate the series with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. At least in those books, law and lawyers make their way into the text. No lawyer appears in Black Elk Speaks, nor does the word “law.” And we can never say with certainty exactly whose speaking this book is. Black Elk knew no English, and John Neihardt knew no Lakota. And translation required difficult negotiation between two worlds as well as between two languages. In Black Elk’s world, the word is powerful and performance is essential, for there is no writing, and hence no literature and no concept of literature. The speaking had to travel between Lakota orality and Western textuality.4 It made the journey from Black Elk, who told the vision, through his son Ben, who repeated in English the words his father uttered, then through Neihardt’s daughter Enid, who took stenographic notes and produced a re-ordered transcript, and then through Neihardt, who wrote from the transcript and made alterations suggested by his own memory of the sounds and silences, by his poet’s gift for working words, and by Black Elk’s singular openness to him.