Lost in translation

by Alex Payne (Australia)

Making a local connection Australia


The rhythmic sound of clapsticks and the didgeridoo makes the hot air pulsate. Around me, Yolngu women painted in ochre prepare for their bunggul, a ceremonial dance. A group of men have just finished theirs and stand barefoot and bare-chested in the sand, leaning on long spears. I make my way across the dusty oval to where a group of young boys are kicking a footy. Unlike their parents, they are dressed in sports singlets; mostly Aussie Rules and NBA, but one is rocking a Tupac muscle tee. Even in Arnhem Land, 600 kilometres east of Darwin, Tupac lives. The boys speak Yolngu Matha, a language I’ve been trying to learn and the reason I am here. Nervously, I test the waters with an introduction. “Ngarra Alex, nha nhe yaku?” This causes some excitement and the boys crowd around, grinning broadly – it’s not often they hear a balanda (white person) ‘talking language’. They start firing questions at me. How do I know Yolngu? Where am I from? Do I know his father? I don’t. I explain that the only locals I do know are my language teachers, but halfway through I forget the Yolngu word for ‘know’. Is it ‘marnggi’, or ‘marrnggitj’? I go with marrnggitj but this provokes such a reaction that I stop speaking. The boys are looking at me wide-eyed. “Marrnggitj”? they ask, incredulously. I nod, although not with any confidence. They form a huddle around the football, now lying forgotten, and whisper excitedly while I wait, bemused. Finally one steps forward and gestures for me to go back. I walk a few steps away. Further, he indicates. I walk a few more. He’s finally satisfied and I watch while he leans to the boy next to him, hand carefully covering his mouth, and whispers, in the easily audible way that children do, “Alex”. “Yes”, I reply. This causes giggling. Further back, the boy indicates, and I walk back further. Again he leans to his friend; the whisper is fainter this time, but still perceptible, “Alex”. I reply again, and the laughter continues. They want me further back so I move, 15, then 20 meters away. The whispers are finally inaudible, but the body language tells me when to respond. The boys are in awe and it’s now clear that this is some kind of test for paranormal hearing, but I have no idea why. Eventually I take my leave, shooting glances over my shoulder at the boy who is still whispering my name. Once out of sight, I dig out my well-worn Yolngu dictionary and flick to M. There it is, marnggi, “know” and underneath, marrnggitj, “sorcerer”.