“Beowulf” kopa Chinook – a better way to do Chinook poetry?

yaka skookum man anḵati, okok beowulf. heilo-tlaksta tolo.

I’ve been reading a bunch of Norse sagas recently and also picked up a translated copy of Beowulf. It’s got me thinking that I’d like to try and put a bit of one of these works into Chinook. Why? I don’t know, for fun maybe or possibly because I’m a masochist. But maybe also because the style just fits with Chinuk Wawa so well.

If you’ve ever tried to translate poetry into Chinook, you’ll know that it’s a difficult ask. Although settlers have often been interested in trying to make poetry in Chinook happen, it’s sort of like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and it’s not something I’ve ever been that interested in.

An example of settler poetry in Chinook that I found in the Victoria Daily Colonist, Feb 20, 1892, page 2

Why is it hard to make poetry in Chinook? Well, there are so few words in Chinook, it’s hard to fit metre, there are very few rhyming words, etc etc etc.

Because of these difficulties, authors often will cheat by using English words that aren’t common in Chinook, by ignoring the proper metre, by rhyming the same word with itself, and/or by using what I’ll politely call near rhymes. The result is often not of the highest quality to be perfectly honest.

Old English and Norse poetry though is a bit different than the poetry you are likely used to. First of all, Old English and Norse poetry uses a lot of alliteration and what’s called “kennings”- that is a sort of cryptic compound word like “whale-road” to mean “ocean” or “sky-candle” to mean “sun”.

Actually I think Chinook might be better suited to this alliterative style than it is to our modern rhyming style of poetry. These “kennings” also sort of resemble certain Chinook words- especially the neologisms they use at Grand Ronde etc.

It’s still not going to be an easy task and I think I might be about to break every rule of proper alliterative verse, but here goes nothing!

Here’s the first 11 lines of Beowulf in Chinook. I’ll be spelling like transliterated Chinuk Pipa, but will be cheating a bit myself… I’ll let you know how afterwards.


Na! nsaika komtaks klaska siisim
aias skukum ukuk ankati taii din,
pi kata klaska tolo taii, pi tlap aias nim.
shild shifing iaka skukum sholshir,
iaka mamuk kakshit klaska haws
ukuk saia ilihi solshir.
iaka lost iaka mama iaka papa
pi ilip skukum iaka, ilo ilaitin.
kanawi tilikom iaka tolo
ukuk inatai soltchok pi kopa iakwa ilihi.
ayu chikmin iaka tolo. tlus taii iaka!

Literal translation of the Chinook

Listen! We hear them report that
those ancient chieftain Danes were very powerful,
and how they defeated chieftains and became famous (lit. wound up with a large name).
Scyld Scefing was a powerful soldier
he destroyed their houses
those foreign soldiers (i.e. the foreign soldiers’ houses)
He lost his mother and father
but he was most powerful, (and) not a slave.
He defeated everyone
those across the ocean and in this country.
He won much money. He was a good king!

A few thoughts on the translation

So did you see how I cheated?

Basically by using Chinuk Pipa spelling I’m making a lot of words look like they alliterate, but in reality they don’t depending on how you pronounce them.

First of all, in transliterated Chinuk Pipa “k”, “kl”, and “tl” can really stand for many sounds that you might not consider alliterative. In Grand Ronde spelling these can represent k, kw, kʰ, kʰw k’, q, qw, qʰ, qʰw, q’, ɬ, tɬ, kɬ, t’ɬ.

So, for example, in the GR spelling system kəmtəks and ɬaska don’t appear to alliterate, but in the mouths of many speakers they would be close enough. ɬaska is often said with a slight t or k before the ɬ (i.e. kɬaska), so you just have to prefer that pronunciation to make it work.

s and sh are often also interchangeable in Chinook Jargon- you may have noticed that I have both “solshir” and “sholshir” there. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it spelled with an “sh” in Chinuk Pipa, but that word is spelled “shulchast” in the Grand Ronde dictionary so I’m happy to use sh there to make it work.

In Chinuk Pipa spelling initial “h” is often also dropped, which has allowed pairings like “aias” [=(h)ayas(h)] and “ankati” [=anqati]

I’ll leave it up to you though whether you think pairing things like “tlap” [=t’ɬap] and “taii” [=tayi], “kata” [=qʰata] and “klaska” [=(k)ɬaska], and “aias” [=(h)ayas(h)] and “ankati” [=anqati] are cheating or not. I’ll just say it would be very hard to do this if you discount pairs like that!

What did you think of this translation? I’d love to see you give it a go!

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