Migrant Knowledge

Metaphors and the Historiography of Encounter

Luise Fast

As someone whose primary research endeavor it is to understand how mobile people communicated across the linguistic lines that existed in nineteenth-century Alaska, I have noticed the prevalence of two sets of metaphors in the historiography of encounter. Both draw their analogies from the realm of the senses, both illustrate similar properties, and both serve as powerful instruments in our understanding of what happened when people from different cultures met. But they do so in different ways, and each one comes with a set of methodological problems on which we as historians should reflect in our quest to write the history of encounter.

Visual Language

Historiographical discussions about interpreters in colonial settings often like to point out that these figures lived in the shadows of great (or not so great, but still prominent) figures.1 What they mean is that in transcultural settings, the result of the interaction more often than not is credited to the apparent principal of the interaction rather than to the interpreter who facilitated it through his or her linguistic and cultural mediation.2 The idea of the shadow, however, tends to conceptually limit the role of the interpreter to that of a neutral go-between whose impact on the interaction was deemed insignificant, or to someone whose significance is found only within their relation to the better-known protagonists.

For historians, the shadows are a promising hunting ground for stories not yet told, perspectives not yet considered. We love shadows. They validate our sense of inquiry and fuel our desire to shed light on our subject, to make visible something that has been ignored. We expect to find novelty in the shadows, the unexpected, a twist that challenges our view of the past. At the same time, shadows make our lives more difficult. Important things are hard to recognize, and sources are few and far between, making it easy for us to lose our way. Shadows force us to reconsider our usual methods.

Invisibility and visibility, the presence of shadows and shedding light on what they’re obscuring—we use such visual language when we want to convey the idea that there are things that we know (or think we know) about the past and things that we do not know much if anything about. Crucial parts of the vocabulary of our field, such as “perspective” or “viewpoint,” belong to this category of visual metaphors and reinforce the idea that there are ways to see the past. Such metaphors are powerful because they can express how obvious things appear, or how widely known something is, but they can also turn our attention to things hidden or obscured. Mary Louise Pratt’s monograph on travel writing and transculturation is a great example of the visual metaphor at work: It shows how texts can construct an image of the world that is defined by those looking at it—in this case with “imperial eyes.3

Auditory Language

Just as visual metaphors can help us to establish what is hidden by contrasting it with what seems clear and obvious, auditory metaphors are equally powerful in pointing out what seems loud and easily traceable in the archives in contrast to those aspects that are quieter, even silent, muffled by louder, clearer, more sonorous sounds. The power of this type of metaphor is probably most evident in our use of the term “voice.” As we try to tell more balanced, less Eurocentric histories, we have become aware of the imbalance of voices in the archives. Many have noted that the prevailing narrative of cultural encounter, of capitalism and modernity, has first and foremost been told as distinctly European. Narratives coming out of other regions of the world have long been ignored because their articulation seemed insignificant, or they have been deliberately silenced because they did not fit the narrative of Western modernity.4

Whereas our endeavor to shed light on our objects of inquiry in order to create understanding and investigate meaning seems perfectly acceptable, efforts described with an auditory metaphor come with more scrutiny. Giving voice to those unheard or, more pointedly, giving someone their voice (back) is a much more problematic undertaking, and for good reason. It can be a clumsy attempt at rectifying past injustices by merely giving those a chance to speak who have been silenced in the past.5 It can take the form of paternalism, where someone superior is graciously using their power to grant someone else the right to be heard. Giving voice, as well intentioned as it may be, can also be a disguise for appropriating voice.6 Postcolonial and subaltern historians have eloquently expressed their discontent with the attempts of Western historians to give voice, most notably among them perhaps Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”7

Metaphors Matter

The protagonists of my own research, the interpreters, literally made a living by giving voice, that is, by speaking for someone else, in the process creating meaning and overlap between two parties that did not have a common frame of reference or a shared language. Their voice was their main instrument, yet it rarely made its way all the way into the archives. The most significant traces of interpreters’ voices can be found in personal journals and published travel accounts written by those they served. Yet the overall historical record remains eerily silent about these intermediaries and their linguistic interventions, especially if they happened to belong to a Native group.

It strikes me as significant that the somewhat abstract plane of the auditory metaphor intersects with the empirical basis of my research. The silence in the archives surrounding my protagonists’ stories appears all the more conspicuous considering that it was their voices that made communication in the recorded encounters possible in the first place. The evidence of their acts of speaking is slim and often filtered through several stages of editing. But it exists, as if denouncing the common neglect of interpreters’ voices in the written record. Interpreters were important conduits for exploration, cultural transfer, and knowledge production, but also exploitation and colonial rule. It is impossible to imagine the history of encounter without them. Their stilling in the archive does not mean they are not present.

“The humanities,” Greg Dening, a historian of the South Pacific, writes,

is the great unsilencing art. . . . In the humanities, we are forever trying to imagine what the silences mean—those silences that come from the skewing processes of preservation in archives and memory, those silences of the powerless—whether they are powerless for reasons of class, gender or race; those silences of the inexpressible—grief and happiness, love and hatred, catastrophe and exultations; those silences of everyday ordinariness; those silences that in the end belong to the inaccessible person or individual.8

If my research on interpreters in the nineteenth century represents an attempt at unsilencing, I have to reexamine the baggage of paternalism that comes with the terminology and methodology tied to it. We understand voice as something deeply authentic that cannot be replicated without losing its core legitimacy. In that sense, voice cannot be given—at least not by historians. For us, the purified voice is a fantasy, as Jonathan Pugh observes.9 There is no way for me to recover or restore the voices of the interpreters who shaped the shared landscape of interactions in the nineteenth-century North Pacific. Each time we find their traces in the archives, the voices we find contain more than a century’s worth of preconceived ideas about White people, Native Americans, or Creoles, and their respective places in a worldview that was structured by racism and imperialism.

Mixing Metaphors

As historians, it is our responsibility to consider and include alternative perspectives to the stories we have been told about the encounter. Tlingit scholar Maria Shaa Tláa Williams writes in her preface to an anthology of Native Alaskan writings:

It is imperative to present as many viewpoints as possible, especially about the historical discourse of the indigenous and European encounters. Most textbooks only provide one viewpoint, often muting the Native voice.10

Note how she utilizes both a visual metaphor (“viewpoint”) and an auditory one (“muted”) in a single sentence. Among the “Ten Commandments of Writing” that the eminent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper famously distributed among his students at Oxford, number eight states, “thou shalt not mix thy metaphors.” Although there are plenty of good reasons for this commandment, I believe there are times when we must break it, as Williams does. Metaphors matter because they structure the way we think about our subject. Maybe we should create, adapt, and, if need be, mix them in order to find a more balanced approach appropriate to the complexity of the subject.

The auditory metaphor has its problems, especially when it comes to the notion of voice. It does, however, accomplish something important: It prevents us from taking refuge in our own good intentions and forces us to constantly reflect on our methodology, conceptualizations, and narratives. Maybe there is a place for it after all, particularly when it comes to the history of individuals who used their very voice to shape the relationship between colonizing and Native societies. I cannot, as a function of who I am, recover any voices from the past. These voices have always been there and cannot be bestowed by me. The fact that there was no audience for them doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. What we as historians can do, however, is listen to the silences, examine them in the archives, explore their dispositions and conditions, acknowledge their significance, and allow them to shape our understanding of the many possible perspectives and meanings of events, acts, and utterances that ostensibly happened in the shadows.

Luise Fast is pursuing a PhD degree at Bielefeld University in Germany, where she studies transcultural communication practices in nineteenth-century Alaska.
  1. Ruth A. Roland, Interpreters as Diplomats: A Diplomatic History of the Role of Interpreters in World Politics (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1999); Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008). Volker Matthies, Im Schatten der Entdecker: Indigene Begleiter europäischer Forschungsreisender (Berlin: Links, 2018). ↩︎
  2. Sanjay Subrahmanyan, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Some Afterthoughts,” in The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820, ed. Simon Schaffer et al. (Sagamore Beach, MA: Watson, 2009), 430–31. ↩︎
  3. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 2003). Many postcolonial scholars have long used this metaphor, for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” Boundary 2 12/13 (1984): 333–58. An interesting recent example is Hamid Dabshi, Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). ↩︎
  4. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: University of Princeton Press, 2000). ↩︎
  5. It is very similar to the use of “agency”; see Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113–24 ↩︎
  6. Hans Braun and Wolfgang Kloss, eds., Giving Voice: Canadian and German Perspectives (Idstein: Schulz-Kirchner, 2001). ↩︎
  7. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 271–313. ↩︎
  8. Greg Dening, “Writing, Rewriting the Beach: An Essay,” Rethinking History 2, no. 2 (1998): 145. ↩︎
  9. Jonathan Pugh, “Speaking without Voice: Participatory Planning, Acknowledgment, and Latent Subjectivity in Barbados,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103, no. 5 (2013): 1266–1581. ↩︎
  10. Maria Shaa Tláa Williams, “Alaska and Its People: An Introduction,” in The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. Maria Shaa Tláa Williams (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), xiv. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Luise Fast, "Metaphors and the Historiography of Encounter," Migrant Knowledge, November 19, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/11/19/metaphors-and-the-historiography-of-encounter/.