Blog Post

Translation as Co-Creative Work: Seven Sisters Songline Project and the Kungkarangkalpa Inma performance in Canberra

by | 19 Sep, 2022 | Blog, Collaboratory Podcast, Events

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In the interview we did with Dr Diana James as part of recording for Collaboratory, she spoke about her experience of co-creative translation as part of the Seven Sisters Songline Project and Kungkarangkalpa Inma performance at the Centenary of Canberra Indigenous Festival in 2013. This involved translating language and cultural practice so that the power, passion and meaning of a traditional Indigenous Inma performance were not compromised by the translation process. You can hear the Collaboratory Conversation episode with Diana here.

Traditional literary translating, like foreign language fiction books or ancient texts, are translated by a single author, who makes every decision about what words to use to convey the original’s meaning as they, the translator, understands it. A co-creative translation is one wherein the translator and the source (creator) work together to decide what words and representations best convey the original meaning as the source understands it. 

Co-creative translation is especially important when translating living culture. Unlike an ancient text, living cultures can and should be consulted about how their works should be translated and indeed, if they should be translated at all. In this sense, translation is supplementary, rather than equivalent – and takes place to help a new language and culture understand the original material. 

When approached co-creatively, translation can bridge cultural divides, allowing for meaningful communication between two or more groups, and can bring rich and diverse stories to new audiences. A co-creative translation involves more than directly translating the literal meaning of words. There is a whole host of associations, metaphor, and idiom that also need to be translated to the secondary language’s equivalents. For example, it is not enough to translate the phrase “crocodile tears” to a culture with no knowledge of crocodiles, and no association with their tears being considered false or untruthful. A cultural equivalence between the language and cultural groups must be found to truly honour the translation while also making it understandable to the secondary group.  

I think of collaborative work and cross cultural translation as being a performative space because both sides are trying to perform meaning. If you’re engaged in a conversation, even if it’s only you and one other person, you’re crossing languages and culture barriers all the time between them. You’re watching people’s body language, how they stand, what tone of voice they’re using, whether they are whispering really loud or whether they are declarative, what voice they’ve chosen to use to, to impart certain information. You are performing part of the meaning and also you’re reacting and picking up cues from the other person. You can see if somebody is not really understood then you might need to go into another way of trying to cross that understanding.  It’s a very active moving space.”

Dr Diana James

As Diana articulates, there is more to communicating than just words. Tone, body language, and volume all contribute to meaningful communication and storytelling. These physical ways of communicating are also often culturally nuanced and specific. This is especially true in oral traditions and embodied storytelling practices such as music and dance. The pacing, narrative structure, styles of song, dance, and the appropriate and expected degree of audience participation all factor into this. 

The 2013 Kungkarangkalpa Inma performance at the Centenary of Canberra Indigenous Festival performance presented a unique opportunity to bring the Seven Sisters Songline and parts of its stories to new audiences. Co-creative translation was involved in every aspect of the performance; of how to present the narrative in staged performance by creating a sense of being on country, and providing a better understanding of the embodied oral tradition of the song and dance.  

The story was told on stage in Pitjantjatjara followed by English translations at key points in the narrative. The experiential component of the translation was portrayed through the unique multimedia integration into the traditional performance. Large screens created a sense of landscape and provided written translations of the Seven Sisters Songline.  

Kungkarangkalpa: Seven Sisters Songline performed and filmed Lake Burley Griffin, National Museum of Australia on Saturday, March 2nd 2013

“That first production of the Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) Inma was produced on a Western stage with Wesley Enoch the Indigenous theater producer. He did a great job of working with myself and Inawintyji Williamson and a small group who were there for the Indigenous elders consulting group. I was sitting in the middle again as the translator and Wesley and his very, very experienced technically brilliant team  produced the background, could reproduce these sounds of wind or fire or birds and backlit images of country. We could actually create a sensate or a multicenter oral space that the audience was then included in because the red earth was on the ground and people were seated on the ground. 

You could translate some of the experience of being out Bush looking at the Inma. It couldn’t be the same, but you could bring in some of those cues that cue people in the audience to interact differently with the performance. The performance is happening in a totally different language with performance style, dance, style, acting style that nobody’s particular familiar with… so you have to provide cues.”

Dr Diana James

Kungkarangkalpa: Seven Sisters Songline performed and filmed Lake Burley Griffin, National Museum of Australia on Saturday, March 2nd 2013

Truly co-creative translations can help bridge the differences between culture and bring rich and important stories to new audiences. They can assist in forming a greater sense of empathy, understanding, and appreciation between cultures, providing more than translation of words in a literal sense. The Seven Sisters Songline Kungkarangkalpa Performance in Canberra is just one example of this.  

But don’t just take our word for it. Watch the performance for yourself below.  

What are examples of co-creative translation in your own practice and life experience?  

What has helped you to navigate processes of translation in co-creative processes?  

How did the linguistic and artistic translation in the 2013 performance help you better understand the Seven Sisters story?  

Let us know in the comments below.  

Seven Sisters Songline Kungkarangkalpa Performance, Canberra, 2013

Learn more about the Seven Sisters Songline Kungkarangkalpa Performance online at:

The Australian National University Songlines website

National Museum of Australia Songlines website.

Diana James & Inawinytji Williamson have published about their collaborative experience of working with translation and performance of the Seven Sisters songline – you can find it at the reference below (paywall) 

Diana James & Inawinytji Williamson (2021) Kungkarangkalpa Inma Alatjila Kuwari Palyani: Dancing the Seven Sisters Songline Today!, Musicology Australia, DOI: 10.1080/08145857.2020.1945250

By Maya Haviland and Nicky O’Dowd

Quotes from Dr Diana James are taken from her Collaboratory interview, some of which appear in the Collaboratory Conversation Series: Diana James, Intellectual Property & Agreements.