Found in Translation: The journey of a multilingual dictionary


2019 is the international year of Indigenous languages. In recognition, Art Guide asked Anna Kenny to recall the journey she took to translate a more than 100-year-old dictionary written in German and three Aboriginal languages. Now in English, this multilingual dictionary is a powerful tool for preserving and propagating the use of several Indigenous languages in Central Australia.

Found in Translation: The journey of a multilingual dictionary
by Anna Kenny

Looking back, I realise what an epic journey it was to translate and publish a century-old linguistic manuscript: Carl Strehlow’s multilingual dictionary in three Aboriginal Australian languages and German. I sometimes still wonder what made me embark on such a venture. Just the exercise of transcribing a manuscript containing around 7,600 Aranda, 6,800 Loritja (Luritja) and 1,200 Dieri to German entries, handwritten in old German script and shorthand, was daunting enough. Let alone translating them into English. What was I thinking?

I believe the answer to this question lies in the fact that I knew it was an important document. Strehlow’s manuscript is the largest and most comprehensive wordlist compiled in Australia during the early contact period and thus unique in Australian cultural heritage and history.

Carl Strehlow (1871-1922) was an anthropologist, linguist and Lutheran Missionary. In 1894, two years after he left Germany and travelled to the other side of the world, he took up a position as the head of the remote Hermannsburg (Ntaria) mission, situated in Aranda land more than 100 kilometres west of Alice Springs, where he was to remain for nearly three decades.

The dictionary itself also undertook a noteworthy journey. Strehlow worked on this manuscript, recording words and phrases in Aranda, Loritja (Luritja) and Dieri between 1900 and 1909. In 1910 he took it to Germany to be published, but its German editor, Baron von Leonhardi, died only days before he could deliver it. Consequently, the unpublished dictionary returned to Central Australia with Strehlow in 1912. Ten years later, the desperately ill Strehlow took the manuscript on his final excruciating overland journey from Hermannsburg to Horseshoe Bend (a distance of approximately 250 km) and it was with him when he died there.

Following Strehlow’s death, his wife Frieda took the dictionary to South Australia and gave it to their youngest son Theodor (TGH Strehlow) in the early 1930s. The dictionary became his lifelong companion. TGH Strehlow also became an anthropologist and he took the dictionary with him when he returned in 1932 to Central Australia, following in the tracks of his father. When TGH Strehlow died in 1978 the manuscript was found on his desk at the University of Adelaide.

Page of Carl Strehlow’s multilingual dictionary manuscript. Pages 2- 3 from Kenny, Carl Strehlow’s Comparative Heritage Dictionary. An Aranda, German, Loritja and Dieri to English Dictionary, 2018, Australian National University Press.

In the late 1980s Carl Strehlow’s dictionary manuscript was among the items embroiled in controversial negotiations with the Northern Territory government about the ownership and custodianship of Aboriginal objects. Following a protracted dispute, TGH Strehlow’s collection and research materials, including his father’s unpublished dictionary, were finally deposited at the Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs.

And that is where I first saw this manuscript in or about 2004. It was one of four manuscripts that I discovered at the Strehlow Research Centre while I was working on a native title claim and conducting PhD research. I had been employed by the Central Land Council to compile anthropological evidence for native title involving the Western Aranda and neighbouring groups in the MacDonnell Ranges area of Central Australia. Some of the earliest evidence for native title in this region is found in Carl Strehlow’s monumental ethnographic work entitled Die Aranda-und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien. As an intellectual extension of that research, I later independently examined Strehlow’s body of work in detail as a doctoral student. In 2013 a slightly revised version of my PhD thesis was published in book form under the title The Aranda’s Pepa.

When I initially came across these manuscripts, I could not believe what I was looking at. Could these really be Strehlow’s original manuscripts from the early 1900s? After all, they had never been seen in public since their compilation, and it was widely believed that Carl Strehlow had deposited them in Germany where they had been destroyed in World War II. It turned out that they were the originals, which had survived in Australia. (Carl Strehlow had, in fact, only sent copies to Germany, and it was these copies that had been destroyed during the Allied bombing of Frankfurt.)

Entry showing Aranda and Loritja in Latin script (left and far right), German in Kurrentschrift (following Aranda) and Stolze shorthand (immediately following German Kurrentschrift) that Stehlow’s son Ted sometimes transcribed into German script. Page 51 from Kenny, Carl Strehlow’s Comparative Heritage Dictionary. An Aranda, German, Loritja and Dieri to English Dictionary, 2018, Australian National University Press.

After the native title claims I worked on were successfully upheld by the Federal Court of Australia, I finally found the time to tackle the manuscript of Strehlow’s multilingual dictionary. I wanted to make it available to Central Australian Aboriginal communities since it remained inaccessible due to it having been written in obsolete 19th century German scripts and shorthand. In this original form it was largely indecipherable, even for those familiar with modern German literary conventions.

When I asked Aranda people if they were interested in having this linguistic treasure-trove made available through publication, their responses were enthusiastic, particularly in view of their concerns about language loss. Between 2013 and 2016, I spent months with Aranda and Luritja speakers at Ntaria, Kwale Kwale and other small outstations in Aranda country. After I had transcribed the manuscript (which took ages!) I worked with fluent Aranda and Luritja speakers on the translation into English. We discussed the meanings and closest English equivalents of more than 7600 Indigenous words. The vocabulary in the dictionary relates to mythology in which flora and fauna play an important role, and to kinship, social life in general, and material culture.

The mythological texts and vocabulary collected by Carl Strehlow encapsulate the core of an Aboriginal belief system that today is referred to in English as The Dreaming or The Law.

Eventually published in 2018 as Carl Strehlow’s Comparative Heritage Dictionary. An Aranda, German, Loritja and Dieri to English Dictionary by the Australian National University Press, this multilingual dictionary is of significance as a heritage, item, a contribution to Indigenous studies, and perhaps most importantly – as a practical example of the maintenance and conservation of Aboriginal languages. Even though Aranda and Luritja continue to be spoken in homes and taught in schools in Central Australia, they are quite vulnerable due to English language pressures and other non-Aboriginal social influences.

The dictionary itself can be used as a linguistic and cultural resource for relevant Aboriginal peoples, as well as for others teaching and developing Indigenous dictionary projects. Moreover, since comprehensive Western Aranda and some Luritja dictionaries are yet to be produced, this publication can potentially be of great assistance in their development.

The process of working through Carl Strehlow’s material was a long, hard journey, but one that was very enriching for me. I suspect that I am not alone in this feeling. Among the Aranda who worked on the dictionary, for example, it was evident that they genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to learn some unfamiliar words provided to Strehlow by their long-deceased elders. More broadly, the enthusiastic reception of the dictionary by many Aranda people at Ntaria suggests that this work has the potential to become a powerful tool in the representation and reclamation of local Aboriginal cultural heritage and identity.

You can download Carl Strehlow’s Comparative Heritage Dictionary: An Aranda, German, Loritja and Dieri to English Dictionary with Introductory Essays, free of charge.

Anna Kenny