Language has a quirky way of throwing up bizarre cultural references when you’re not looking. Especially when we decide to juxtapose equivalents in two different languages. Let us take the hairstyle made famous by the Red Indians of North American. The reference is, of course, to the Mohican or Mohawk hairstyle. The very fact that there are two terms for this particular haircut is, in itself, fascinating. What is interesting is the fact that this terminology is rather confused and confusing. What Westerners and Europeans refer to as Mohican is in fact an artificial amalgam of both the Mahican and Mohegan tribes and languages, not helped by James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans which confuses the two tribes. Commonality between the two languages can be found in their shared roots as both Mahican and Mohegan belong to the Algonquian language family.

To make matters more confusing is the other term, that is Mohawk, which refers to yet another language and tribe coming from a completely different language family – Iroquoian. Therefore, in English alone we have two terms for one hairstyle that in some way reference three different native American tribes and languages belonging to two different lanaguge families.

The Polish term for the Mohican or Mohawk hairstyle is Irokez, which of course is a reference to the Iroquais Indians, a cover term which includes the Mohawks (but not the Mohegans nor the Mahicans). What is fascinating is the level of generalisation and specification used in English and in Polish. English refers to particular tribes, whereas Polish uses the cover term yet both refer to the same thing.

Interestingly, Polish culture has had an important influence on the hairstyle and the Polish Mohawk/Polish Mohican is a type of inverted Mohawk (made famous by Keith Flint of The Prodigy).

A simple haircut…


5 thoughts on “Haircuts

  1. and here the matters become more difficult. as the name for the haircut rooted in the culture may provide difficulties in translation as the name from target culture does not cover the whole idea. translating cultural elements provide many obstacles as the exact equivalences don’t exist and some items may be abstract for TL culture. here the desicion making varies a lot to the translation.

  2. This is where translation and neologism merge, mix and separate. We are dealing with a situation where a word has been borrowed into another language but now it simply does not mean the same as it once did. The connotations are different, the context has drastically changed. The common thread running through these concepts is the visually #look# of the hairstyle as well as the idea of rebellion. The Red Indians/Ameri-Indians/Native Americans were also seen as rebellious types by the white intruders.

  3. Cultural meanings are intricately woven into the texture of the language. The creative writer’s ability to capture and project them is of primary importance for, this should be reflected in the translated work. Caught between the need to capture the local color and the need to be understood by an audience outside the cultural and lingual situation, a translator has to be aware of two cultures. One of the main goals of literary translation is to initiate the target-language reader into the sensibilities of the source-language culture. The process of transmitting cultural elements through literary translation is a complicated and vital task. Culture is a complex collection of experiences which condition daily life; it includes history, social structure, religion, traditional customs and everyday usage. This is difficult to comprehend completely. Especially in relation to a target language, one important question is whether the translation will have any readership at all, as the specific reality being portrayed is not quite familiar to the reader. Cultural transfer requires a multi-pronged approach. It is concerned with the author’s relationship to his subject matter and with the author’s relationship to his reader. These should be reflected in a good translation. The translator has to transmit this special cultural quality from one language to another. Most translations are intended to serve, however imperfectly, as a substitute for the original, making it available to people who cannot read the language in which it is written. This imposes a heavy responsibility on the translator.

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