Thoreau Society Panel at Modern Language Association (MLA), Sunday, January 9, 2022

“A life within a life”: Thoreau, Ecopoetics and a Dictionary of the Indian Languages 

Michael Jonik, University of Sussex

At the end of his Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau adds a brief “Appendix” containing plant and animal names (including Latin nomenclature and common English names), advice for those who would “outfit” an excursion upriver in Maine, and a “List of Indian Words.” The latter list relates primarily to place names or to geographical or topographical features of the Penobscot valley, and signals Thoreau’s diverse yet intense interests in cartography and toponymy, geology and hydrodynamics, botany and zoology, anthropology and Colonial history, and, indeed, philology and poetics. Thoreau had compiled this multilingual list of words from the Abenaki language from a variety of sources, including Sébastien Rasles’s A Dictionary of the Abnaki Language, in North America (which translated Abenaki into French), Willamson’s History of Maine, and words he learned directly from his Penobscot guides (especially Joe Polis) during his three excursions recounted in “Ktaadn,” “Chesuncook,” and “The Allegash and the East Branch.” As such, it as if continues his dialogues with his guides, and further evidences his increasing openness to Native American understandings of the world. He celebrates this new “intimacy” with the natural world that Native American words offer him in his journal on March 5, 1858: “A dictionary of the Indian Languages reveals another and wholly new life to us… It reveals to me a life within a life” (March 5, 1858).  

Building on such moments, this presentation will offer an initial exploration of the implications of Thoreau’s inclusion of indigenous languages in his writings, especially his use of Abenaki words The Maine Woods, as well as instances from his journals and selections from his “Indian Notebooks.” My contention is that the increasingly sensitive inclusion of Abenaki words across Thoreau’s three excursions recounted in The Maine Woods at the same time indicates a broader shift away from a Romantic tropology of Native Americans as primitive and vanquished in his thinking. Instead, Thoreau uses words as a means to engage a living indigenous population and to discern a more vibrant and intimate relational ontology of plant and animal life previously foreclosed to him – what he calls in “Walking” a “more perfect Indian wisdom”. At the same time, Thoreau’s interleaving of indigenous languages into his writing does not happen separately from that of the Latin taxa or French words that often appear in his texts, but rather together create a dynamic, multilingual palimpsest of his ecopoetical experiences.  

To explore this here, I will dialogue with work on Thoreau and Native Americans by Bellin or Sayre;  work on his philosophies of life by Cameron or Arsić; work on indigenous languages in early America by Sarah Rivett; and, analogous work on Lydia Maria Child’s inclusion of Abenaki words and customs in Scott Pratt’s Native Pragmatism.

Composing Suō Luó: Thoreau in the Chinese Writing Classroom

Patrick Morgan, University of Louisiana Monroe

In China, Thoreau was born in 1949, when alongside the Revolution, the first Chinese translation of Walden was published.  Yet even before this tumultuous beginning, Chinese thinkers encountered his words.  They encountered a Thoreau so thoroughly legible that he was nearly invisible.  As the philosopher Lin Yutang writes, “Thoreau is the most Chinese of all American authors in his entire view of life, and being a Chinese, I feel much akin to him in spirit. […] I could translate passages of Thoreau into my own language and pass them off as original writing by a Chinese poet, without raising any suspicion” (The Importance of Living 128).  This sense of Thoreau’s hyper legibility—his total translatability—was on full display when I taught a Thoreau-themed writing course in China.  Reading Walden in multiple Chinese translations, my students had access to a Thoreau I had never encountered before.  This presentation recovers the hidden frame of Thoreau’s cultural translation—including his illegibility and untranslatability—by focusing on Suō Luó, the Thoreau my students taught me to read.  In this context, translation becomes a pedagogy pointing out the machinery of “total translatability.”  For in his seeming reducibility to ancient Chinese thinkers, whether Confucius or Tao Yuanming, Thoreau necessarily gathers a concomitant opacity, as Thoreau and his words perform distinct cultural work within their own multilingual interpretative communities.  What emerges in the multilingual classroom is a Thoreau largely absent in western scholarship—a writer named Suō Luó who is only grasped, in fleeting traces, in the very moment of translation.

 

“Nature’s Ineffable Presence: Sound and the Translations of Thoreau”

Christopher K. Tong, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

While environmental philosophers such as J. Baird Callicott and Donald Swearer have long recognized the philosophical and religious traditions of Asia as sources of inspiration in the West, the story of Asian influences on pioneering thinkers such as Thoreau is less well known. This paper contributes to this story by tracing the circulation of textual references in Thoreau’s writings across linguistic, cultural, and national boundaries. While Thoreau’s impact on the emergence of modern environmental consciousness in East Asia is well documented, Thoreau’s citation of Asian traditions such as Confucianism, Hinduism, and Sufism has been relatively understudied. Scholars have generally overlooked these sources for a variety of reasons ranging from the lack of language training to the perception of these sources as being marginal or outside their fields of expertise. Nonetheless, the story of Thoreau’s Asian influences is not entirely new, traceable to scholarly debates since as early as the 1930s. As such, this paper focuses on how the circuit of translation illustrates the legibility and challenges of communication across linguistic, cultural, and national boundaries in the study of Thoreau. More specifically, I assess how Asian sources, which Thoreau cited in English and occasionally translated from French texts, were rendered from Thoreau’s English back into Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese in translated editions. Comparing multiple translated editions of Thoreau’s writings, I analyze how keywords in translation shed further light on the reception of Thoreau’s thought about human society, the environment, and wildlife.

 

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