Lost in Translation

The high point of the campaign for the Voice took place on the Tuesday before the vote, at Uluru where it all began. It hasn’t received either the thought or the attention it deserves. It wasn’t Pat Farmer finishing his run across the country. It wasn’t even, as the media reported it—if they mentioned it at all—Albanese tearing up after a long and dispiriting campaign.

Up until then, it had been just another scrupulously stage-managed day. Albanese was coasting, which is to say he had spent the last week travelling from coast to coast to coast with hardly a moment’s rest. He walked up a dune to an Uluru viewing platform. Noel Pearson and Marion Scrymgour were with him. They posed for photos. They made speeches. Everyone was sweating. It was five in the evening but the temperature was still 30 degrees in the shade. There wasn’t much shade. The red sand was hot underfoot.

The media and the political advisers stood on the periphery. They seemed to outnumber the talent about five to one. Not to mention the security detail, with black bags around their waists and their hands in them, clearly on weapons. They stood at the back, near the phalanx of big white Toyotas, attempting to be both conspicuously present and part of the landscape. It was the same with the cars, some of them bush cars covered in red dirt, some of them new and shiny and as conspicuous as the crisp white shirt the prime minister was wearing.

A few advisers introduced themselves, sweating and looking for water. We gave them bottles and asked about their lives as they waited for the prime minister to come down from the mountain like some disappointed Moses longing for a golden calf to smash. Meanwhile, for the advisers and the TV cameras and the photographers and various other entourages, there was a lot of hanging about. One moment they would be talking about their upbringing in Ireland or their share house in Canberra, and the next they would leave, suddenly, mid-sentence, without a goodbye or even an acknowledgement, after a sign from someone or the ping of a text on their phones.

After a while, Albanese’s party walked back down the dune with Sammy Wilson, leader and a senior Anangu man from Uluru. Sammy is a Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara speaker, but he speaks good English too. He chose not to have an interpreter. They met Rene Kulitja, a senior Anangu woman from Mutitjulu, the community alongside Uluru. She was one of the artists who did the painting around the Uluru Statement. Through an interpreter, she spoke to the prime minister about the art. They were looking at a copy of it, in the dirt, held down by rocks. In each corner there were figures representing the four paths from which come the stories of the formation of Uluru, its place, its spirit and its people. Stories about the mala people, kuniya (the sand python), liru (the poisonous snakes) and the kurpany (transfiguring devil-dog), and how they came from alinytjara (north), ulparira (south), kakarara (east) and wilurara (west). It was a painting showing the strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s spiritual relationship to their Country, Rene told the prime minister.

Albanese was listening, but he was sweating and hot, and his shoulders and his face were tense from the travel and the sleepless nights and everything demanded of him. The artist was probably tense too: she was doing her best to explain the story to the prime minister, but she had only just met him. The interpreter was sweating too. He was working just as hard, trying to mediate two ways of seeing in order to make them understandable to each other; trying to get beyond the formality of the moment, to dissolve all those barriers that set the two leaders apart—some physical, some cultural, some immediate, and some centuries in the making.

Then events took a felicitous turn. There were about twenty minyma there, senior Anangu women, from all over the Western Desert region, though many were from Mutitjulu. They had trekked to Yulara, the resort town hard by Uluru, several travelling hundreds of kilometres on dodgy dirt tracks, for a workshop about mental health vocabularies in Pitjantjatjara. The meeting was unrelated to the prime minister’s visit. The day the workshop was beginning, however, some people from the Central Land Council came and asked them if they wanted to do some inma—ceremonial dance and song showing spiritual relationships to Country—for the prime minister. So rather than the workshop, they spent Tuesday speaking to the media and preparing.

They talked of how they weren’t being listened to and how they felt a lot of the time like they were invisible. They used the word arkai: something unrecognisable or very faint. They spoke of things like overcrowding in houses, and how hard it can be to raise children in ways that support their language and their culture. But they do and they do it well, often looking after multiple children at any one time. They spoke in language, and again, an interpreter made it possible for them to speak openly and fully about the things that affected them; that’s not often the case, especially on camera, and it makes a difference to who speaks and what is said and what is heard. Colonialism has always been about things lost in translation, but even more so it is about things assigned, lost, to non-translation.

The prime minister, his advisers and the media, all crowded around the minyma. The kuniya (sand python) inma, the waru (fire) inma—stories from specific places at Uluru and the surrounding Country. Reggie Uluru was there too, one of the oldest and most senior men at Mutitjulu, a Yankunytjatjara speaker. He was in a wheelchair, singing, creating the rhythm of the dance, rejoicing in the stories he knew so well. Albanese was given a chair beside him and looked on. He didn’t understand the words, of course, but he saw and he listened. He sat perched on a camp chair in amongst the minyma. His Akubra—formal wear for the politician on Country—sat perched on his head just as awkwardly. A politician, a chair, a hat, a Toyota: everything was trying a bit too hard to look like it belonged.

The last dance was an inma acknowledging how hard the campaign had been for everybody, including the prime minister, encouraging him and everyone to keep going with it. The interpreter told the prime minister, but its meaning was lost on many people. Some people hesitated when it ended, wondering if there was more to come. Others were impatient to be gone. Albanese wanted to speak, but the advisers wanted a better picture, with the rock behind him, over where the inma was. So he got down off his chair and sat in the red sand, with the minyma and one of the kids milling around him. The big canvas Uluru Statement was put in front of him. He started speaking; a planned speech, sincerely felt but full of familiar arguments. No doubt its meaning was lost on many people too.

After the first paragraph, he paused and took a breath. The interpreter started speaking in Pitjantjatjara. You could see the prime minister wasn’t expecting it. After all, who was he translating for? The media, the dignitaries, the news outlets back East; none of them needed it. The minyma did. They were the wild cards. Albanese looked up at the interpreter in surprise, but he was happy to go along with it and the interpreter, amongst the cameras, translated it back to the minyma in language. Yet the stopping and the starting disrupted the even tenor of the day. It introduced a pause or a stutter or a feedback loop—a self-consciousness, a moment of doubt and hesitation; an opportunity to hear ourselves from outside ourselves. Perhaps, since most of those present understood only one of the two languages in antiphonal motion, it drew the audience into listening differently, attending to the music as well as the meaning of the words.

Towards the end, Albanese quoted the Uluru Statement: ‘We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’. He said that he thought there was a real generosity of spirit in the Statement, as if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were holding out their hand to non-Indigenous Australians. The interpreter spoke, and the minyma listened, nodding. But they took him at face value, and replied to the interpreter in Pitjantjatjara, ‘we want to sing a song for him about holding hands and walking forward together, to make a better future for the children’. The interpreter relayed it back, but the prime minister either didn’t hear or didn’t respond and he pushed on regardless.

After he was finished, the minyma behind him talked amongst themselves and you could see the prime minister didn’t know what to do next. Then the interpreter said, ‘There are a few requests, firstly, they still would like to sing a song for you about holding hands, and secondly, they want you to hold that little kid’s hand next to you and Rene is saying to hold her hand too’. He smiled and took their hands. The minyma all started singing in Pitjantjatjara. The fortitude of their bodies and the clarion confidence in their voices, first in unison, then in harmony, struck everyone instantly with a force that clung to the dry desert air like the coming of rain. There was a moment of breath being held, and then you could hear everyone take a deep breath within the singing. Albo almost immediately welled up; Marion was holding back tears; the media and advisers came forward; some people got their phones out; there was a new softness to everyone’s faces. The tension fell away.

At the end, the prime minister said thank you again, and smiled, and went around shaking hands, looking at ease for the first time. Everyone was talking about it, smiling. Eventually he left, walking off to one of the shiny Toyotas, surrounded by photographers and his entourage. The women too got into dustier Toyotas and headed off to Mutitjulu or Yulara. Only journalists remained, sitting in the shade and writing stories madly for their print deadlines, trying to distil meaning from experience, extracting lessons from a moment that was ultimately untranslatable. Because it was the lack of translation, the lack of the need for translation, which had been the power and the beauty of it. The meaning was in the moment, shared by all.

The moment itself, both the tension and the release, was not what the media focused on. Where emotion was discussed, it was understood in relation to the campaign and the polls. It was not talked about as a moment of coming together, or a blessing, or a sanctuary. The singing, a momentous manifestation of Voice, in language, strong and clear, seems to be left only to the memory of those who were there.

The media coverage surrounding the Voice was always confined to disputes about the text, constitutional arguments, the make-up of the body, and generally was governed by a mode of analysis which was narrowly party-political and painfully predictable. Text is so often the destruction of voice. Pitjantjatjara is spoken, not written. When it is written, it is conversational in tone, precisely because Pitjantjatjara speakers don’t need to write it. It is people who work with Pitjantjatjara speakers who generally write it. You don’t have to speak a language to hear it. You do need interpreters. We need translation and open ears if we are ever to hear the needs the others. And that is, on a broader scale, the essence of the Voice. Australia, the Australia that voted no the following Saturday, is surely a nation lost in translation.

At the polling station the next day in Mutitjulu, those who were still around went to cast their votes. The ballot paper and the how to vote cards were in English. People took them but did not read them. Some people from Mutitjulu can read and write in Pitjantjatjara, mostly those that went to (the mostly disbanded) bilingual schools. But speaking Pitjantjatjara is primary to them. It seemed perverse that a referendum about their voice was being put forward in a language and a medium not their own. They had to read what the proposition was in English, and they had to write yes or no—in English. If they wrote uwa or wiya, their votes would not count.

But the songs of the minyma and the community it created carried another meaning, because the power it demonstrated was not about text at all. The sound, the music, the feeling of the voices carried with it its own invitation and a deeper gift. That shared moment, a togetherness in place and time that transcended the barriers of language, broke through and made present, for a moment, a different future, incandescent with possibility.

Even to talk about the referendum as a ‘debate’ was to miss the opportunities, through image, sound and feeling, that might have changed things. Alas, it never happened. The referendum pamphlet was the clearest example of this. Text, reasoning, on a pallid grey background. No images anywhere. Nothing that captured the spirit of the Voice. Nothing like the kid who became the face of the 1967 referendum. Nothing like the photos of Peter Dombrovskis that became inseparable from the campaign to save the Franklin. The art that frames the Uluru Statement is just as important as the text—more voice than the Voice the text creates. In text, silence sits walled up, unnaturally imposed. It is all so counter to the logic of the referendum itself. Listening to the singing, watching the inma, standing in front of Rene Kulitja’s painting; in that exhilarating and fragile moment, the Voice no longer seemed like an argument or an idea or a claim, but an accomplished fact. The spirit of the Uluru Statement was clear.

Yet such moments are not just things we consign to the past: roads not taken, decisions not made, regrets. They are promises, immanent with potential, whose echoes continue to reverberate. A meeting of leaders, a meeting of voices, a meeting of difference. Anthony and Rene, Reggie, Sammy and all those senior women too, their voices being understood through the interpreter, their sounds being heard in voice and music and song. For those who were there, the voices have not died away. At Uluru, and elsewhere, they will always be strong. But when will we choose to listen? When will the storm clouds break?

About the author

Aidan Hookey and Desmond Manderson

Aidan Hookey was there. He studies law at the ANU College of Law.

Desmond Manderson wasn’t there. He teaches law, art, and colonialism at the ANU College of Law

More articles by Aidan Hookey and Desmond Manderson

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I have re-read this article many times and am doing so again months after it was first published. It was the one story that carried me beyond the argument and dislocation and grief of the NO vote. I have sent and am still sending it to many people for whom it has also been a solace, something bigger, something beyond, something that captures an unspoken beauty, a meaning beyond argument.
Thank you to the authors for their collaboration, and to Aidan Hookey for his granular observations of human gesture.

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