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Qavak Songs

January 5, 2011

translated by Nancy Campbell

During the 1950s the oral historian Maliaraq Vebæk collected stories from elderly speakers of the Qavak dialect in the settlements of Cape Farewell, South Greenland. These settlements have subsequently been abandoned and the Qavak dialect has become extinct. Song is a central element of Greenlandic culture, and many of the storytellers enhanced their narratives with lyric interludes. The following songs record the voices of three legendary female characters. The original versions were performed by Juliane Mouritzen, Martin Mouritzen and Therkel Petersen.


Song of a female shaman known as ‘The Robber of Men’s Intestines’

Nailikkaataak sapangall, sapangallin
qivaaqinngivani sapangall

My cunt is hung,
hung with sea urchins,

My cunt bursts,
bursts with bladderwrack,

My cunt drips,
wet as a walrus snout.

My cunt is hungry.


Song of a wicked woman whose knowledge knew no limit

Uvijera kiillugu mikkissavan!
Kiillugu mikikkikki,
taana imaats qarsernun naqqulijukkumaarpan,

Kiillugu mikissavan, aaverling toqussuunga.
Tassa taamaaligima, toquguma
ummasunu pinaveerlinga mateernijarimaarparma.

Atamijaa ooqattaarimaarpan arn qisivanik.
Tass taamaatimik qarsilijern’jassuuti
taana naqqulijullugu, aataa taamaal
taasuminnga sakkeqalerivin toqukkumaarpan.

There’s only one way to kill your enemy:

You must bite my clit off, pull it inside out,
and use it as an arrowhead.

Yes! Bite off my clit and pull it inside out,
but I warn you, I will bleed to death.

Hurry up! Blunt but hard,
it is the best blade for killing.

When I have bled to death,
cover me, for beasts will want to eat me.

Hold the head in soft driftwood
and fletch the shaft with folds of skin.

Yes, that’s the arrow you need!
Only my weapon can kill your enemy.


Song of Ukuamaat of Kakilisat, the mother who left fox prints in the snow

Ernera, ernilijarsivara
tuugaaning assaqqoruteqanngitserng
Ernera ernilijarsivara
tuugaani nijaqorutaasaqanngitserng
nulijaaning assaarmigakku
taamalli ajunnguvarminaan.

My son, the man I made myself,
has no tattoos on his bony arms.
My son, the man I made myself,
will never wear an ivory crown.
I’ve stolen his only wife —
that’s no mean feat for an old crone!

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Nancy Campbell (website) has published a number of artist’s books, the most recent being Dinner and a Rose, a multimedia response to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley quartet of novels, commissioned by Poetry Beyond Text, which was produced in collaboration with the artist Sarah Bodman. The Night Hunter, forthcoming from Z’roah Press, was composed last winter while writer-in-residence at Upernavik Museum, Greenland: the most northern museum in the world.

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  1. Alex Cigale
    January 5, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Wow! wow… i’m speechless…

  2. January 5, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    This is amazing.

  3. Jane Rice
    January 5, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    How often do we get to hear something so new and so enchanting? I marvel at the sound and the power of what is written and spoken.

  4. January 6, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Oh, wow, wow, wow! This is fabulous – envigorating and enchanting! I can’t wait to explore Nancy’s website and find out more about her work in Greenland.

  5. January 6, 2011 at 9:38 am

    and I see from her website that Nancy has been published by the Old Stile Press in Wales, like Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Natalie D’Arbeloff. I love when these things overlap and come together in concentric circles.

  6. January 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Let me join the chorus of Wows! These are fantastic and I loved hearing the reading in Qavak.

    • January 7, 2011 at 5:39 am

      Thanks all, for this enthusiastic feedback – one more reason to like qarrtsilani, which I’ve been following for a few years since the inimitable Natalie D’Arbeloff introduced me to it. As a friend of mine pointed out, the word qarrtsiluni is an arctic poem in itself.

  7. January 12, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    So powerful to hear these read out loud in their native language. So strong. Such a different perspective than we are used to, it is shocking and wonderful.

  8. Christina Pacosz
    January 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Maybe you could write a bit about your choice of language – cunt/clit – when translating these songs. These words seem right to me because the powers arrayed against a woman in the Arctic world must be addressed from a place of implacable strength. I posted a link to these songs/poems on the women’s poetry listserv and the list has been crackling with much energy for and against using such words period in poetry. No discussion of the Qavak songs, yet, but one can hope.

    • January 14, 2011 at 6:01 pm

      Hi Christina, Thanks for your comment, and for raising this issue, which I took very seriously while translating the songs. I’m glad there’s debate on the matter and I’d be interested to hear more opinions from both sides. I’m particularly proud of qarrtsiluni for publishing the songs as I had expected publishers to shy away from the language and subject matter. Translation is about entering and respecting other, often unfamiliar, cultural spaces as much as linguistic exchange. Often the former is more of a challenge for us.

      I don’t want to fill this comments page with my response, but I have taken you up on your invitation and written about the issue on my blog, here: http://nancycampbelle.blogspot.com/2011/01/qavak-songs-controversy.html

      Thanks also for your gesture in linking these songs to the WOMPO list; I was interested to read your comments there.

  9. Alex Cigale
    January 14, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    I’ve just responded to our managing editors to the controversy. “Thanks, Dave & Beth, for giving all of us this opportunity. I have followed along as Nancy was developing these thoughts and her responss on her daily blog. Personally, I am a big fan of the monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon and had little doubt these were the right, cutting, slashing, pounding and hence powerful words. I have a long if not personal acquaintance with shamanic ritual and the notion of the equivalency of thought/word/act. The reactions from strong if not feminist women of my acquaintance have been generally in support of these choices, perceiving them as declarations of personal power. One might see a parallel in how the “N” word has become “owned” and thus a badge of courage that spits in the face of racism and devaluation. As with any other Other, the matter at heart is about SELF-DETERMINATION as an act of taking power within the greater context of power relations. Both Nancy and we ought to be applauded for having provided a forum and an occasion for this discussion. Collegially. A. C.

  10. Alex Cigale
    January 14, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Though I feel a bit of an intruder, I am incredibly privileged to be able to listen in on this conversation of the C-word between so many of the women poets I so greatly admire, on both sides of the divide (Doubiago, Lockward, Silano, Richards, Berdeshevsky, bringing in the work of Ruckeyser, Dove, Mayer.) I can’t express how enriched I feel by this trust, as regretable it is that any discussion of power is tinged with memory and possibility of exploitation. See the list Nancy mentions above at http://lists.ncc.edu/scripts/wa.exe?A1=ind1101&L=WOM-PO. BTW A number mention work on the subject forthcoming in http://drunkenboat.com that will also contain a First Peoples Plural portfolio (I am proud to be contributing to.)It is this latter, ethnopoetic context, that has yet to be addresseed.

    “female intercrural foramen,” or, as some 18c. writers refer to it, “the monosyllable,” M.E. cunte “female genitalia,” akin to O.N. kunta, from P.Gmc. *kunton, of uncertain origin. Some suggest a link with L. cuneus “wedge,” others to PIE base *geu- “hollow place,” still others to PIE *gwen-, root of queen and Gk. gyne “woman.” The form is similar to L. cunnus “female pudenda” (also, vulgarly, “a woman”), which is likewise of disputed origin, perhaps lit. “gash, slit,” from PIE *sker- “to cut,” or lit. “sheath,” from PIE *kut-no-, from base *(s)keu- “to conceal, hide.” First known reference in English is said to be c.1230 Oxford or London street name Gropecuntlane, presumably a haunt of prostitutes. Avoided in public speech since 15c.; considered obscene since 17c.

  11. January 26, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Nancy, as I’ve already said in our email exchange, I loved your translation of these songs and the sound of your voice reading the original. I can only perceive the language by the sounds it makes and the look of it and it seems to me that your choice of words to translate it is exactly appropriate. I can’t imagine that they would offend anyone in this context.
    Our shock-barometer has so radically altered: nearly every film, play,TV programme, soap series, comedy show, not to mention our everyday conversations, features the F-word in all possible permutations: “shut the fucking door!” “He is fucking gorgeous” etc.etc. Does anyone raise an eyebrow anymore? But the insult-lexicon seems to have gender issues: anatomically speaking, “dick-head” or “wanker” are not as bad insults as “cunt”, “whore” etc. Explanation?

    • alex cigale
      March 1, 2011 at 10:52 pm

      Neither power nor violence is gender-symmetrical.

  12. alex cigale
  13. Nancy Campbell
    June 6, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    Thanks for posting the link to Diski’s witty article, Alex.

    Over in the UK media this week, a piece by the translator Bernard Hoepffner in the Times Literary Supplement caught my eye: “as was said time and again by Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and the theorist and translator Antoine Berman … the target language should somehow be violated if [translators] want their readers to feel the otherness of the source language and culture as well as the otherness of the author they are translating.”

  1. January 5, 2011 at 6:42 pm
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