I have watched the excellent series First Footprints a couple of times. It is a great overview of the origins of human occupation of Australia, with fantastic visual effects and photography. It starts with the declaration that “First Footprints seeks to treat Indigenous cultures and beliefs with respect”. Respecting Indigenous Australian languages should involve at least treating them the way you would any other language and checking that words in Australian Indigenous languages were written accurately. Think of the times you have watched a film that had misspelled English subtitles in it and what it makes you think of the care the subtitler took. It only took me a little effort to check on the following mistakes by web-browsing and by talking to people with experience in the particular languages.
I was puzzled at the mismatch between what I heard Aboriginal people saying in the program and what was given in the program’s subtitles. My experience with Martu Wangka speakers allowed me to identify that what was given as Marngunyi (in ‘Marngunyi the Dreaming Serpent created this spring’) should have been Manguny(-ju), and to know that the translation is ‘Dreaming’ rather than ‘Rainbow serpent’ as it was given (jila in the video is the ‘snake’ part of the Rainbow Serpent).
These words are also readily findable in Jim Marsh’s dictionary of Martu Wangka. Ballala was given for ‘bush turkey’ but there is no need for double ‘l’ and the Martu spelling system uses voiceless symbols so it should have been written as palala. I can’t find any reference to palala for ‘bush turkey’ in dictionaries of Martu or close varieties.
The placename given as Karjara was unusual as ‘r’ before ‘j’ is uncommon (and I didn’t hear it there) and the last ‘r’ sound was a trilled ‘r’ and so should have been ‘rr’. In fact a quick web search shows the placename recorded as Kajarra.
In Bininj (Gunwok) I heard ka[‘t]bi and read Gutby (I wasn’t sure what the consonant was before the ‘b’, but Murray Garde tells me the word is kakbi ‘north’). I heard Yingarna and read Yingana (‘mother who came from the north’).
In a Cape York Wik language I heard Yu’ungka and read Young. I heard mamanji and read mamaji.
Browsing the web to see if others had similar quibbles and I found the following:
“Nawarritj has his name spelt in two different ways. The initial spelling is correct (caption on footage of him explaining the Earth Mother rock art image). The later version (Narrawitj) in the final credits is incorrect.” (http://www2b.abc.net.au/tmb/Client/Message.aspx)
A series like this clearly had years of planning and lots of expert input, but it’s a shame that linguists were not included in the effort. Would these mistakes have been made if the language was French, German or Italian? Hardly. There is still a long way to go in recognising that Aboriginal languages are languages deserving the same respect as any others.
Thanks to Peter Sutton for information about the Wik example and Murray Garde for confirming the reference in Bininj Gunwok.