Thursday, March 31, 2011


A friend of a friend recently asked me to write a Salish translation of the Sherman Alexie poem near Spokane Falls. Given my limitations, the project was somewhat daunting, but I accepted the challenge as a way to increase my proficiency in the language.

I was able to make a simple translation based on my own experience and a few words from the Spokane Dictionary, but some phrases were impossible. For example, the poem mentions "unrequited love." No matter how hard I thought, I just couldn't come up with a way to express that exact concept. Maybe someone else could make a better translation, but I had to simplify the core message in order to make it work for me.

Despite the challenges, this project succeeded in expanding my knowledge of the language.

One portion of the poem states, "Coyote, I don't trust you." I wasn't totally sure how to express feelings of trust in Salish, but using the dictionary, I translated that phrase as: "spilyeʔ, tam kʷyec nt'k'ʷelsm."

My grandmother is a fluent speaker, so I called her to confirm the translation. Speaking over the phone, I pronounced the phrase in Salish and she immediately reflected my words into English and said, "Coyote, you're not in my heart." Her words surprised me because the dictionary defines nt'k'ʷels simply as trust (tam nt'k'ʷels would express the opposite), but my grandmother added a much deeper sense of emotion than I expected. We talked about this phrase in its positive and negative forms, and I got the feeling from her tone that this word signifies trust and much, much more. I also got the impression that my grandmother would never use this phrase in a casual or light-hearted manner. When she pronounced these words, the unspoken message was, "I trust you with all my heart; I trust you with my life; you are in my heart."

Salish is a beautiful language. The more I learn, the more my heart opens to the spirit of my ancestors.


By the way, Dakota and I recently took this picture of the coyote poem in downtown Spokane. It fits the story, so I am posting it again.

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