On Language and Translation

As any person who speaks more than one language can explain, translators often struggle to explain the meaning of a word in a different language. It is worth noting that Joe Hall, who has prepared much of this map, does not speak a Wabanaki language. It is one reason why he and Donald Soctomah look forward to discussing this map with Passamaquoddy language speakers.

There are other challenges. The Wabanakis who used these names may have spoken one language or perhaps several closely related languages. When it appears that a name came from the people of western Maine, we will refer to the people and their language by the general term “Abenaki.” There was no single tribe of this name, but it is a general term that many people use to refer to the Sacos, Pigwackets, and other groups who inhabited this region in the 1600s and 1700s.

Then there is the problem of translation itself. Almost all of the names on this map were written down by Europeans who did not speak Wabanaki languages. To further complicate matters, translators did not attempt to figure out the meanings of these names until many years later. It is quite possible that meanings were lost or confused in the process. This can sometimes lead to some people actually inventing translations that are actually wrong. For instance, some people think that “Minnehonk” means “many geese.” This may be true, but it seems more likely the person who provided the definition was making a pun in English on the “many honks” that a flock of geese might make.

Despite these problems, certain language patterns can help confirm the accuracy of some translations. We are fairly confident about the reliability of the information on this map, but when we are especially uncertain, we say so. In every case, an explanation should be considered an educated supposition.