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Fall 2004 Issue
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    You Can't Translate the Word "Wilderness"
    New Wilderness Legislation
    NOLS Wilderness Ethics Go Global
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You Can't Translate the Word "Wilderness"
By Alexandra Yannakos, NOLS Wilderness Advocacy Coordinator

What does the word “wilderness” mean in different parts of the globe? I set out to learn about the word by talking with friends from different countries. But I quickly realized that it’s impossible to translate the term precisely in other languages. The word “wilderness” is not familiar to Japanese people and has no direct translation in Spanish, French or Swahili. The idea of wilderness as expressed in the English language doesn’t have real equivalents in many other cultures.

In many languages, one has to be creative and combine words and meanings to recreate what the American wilderness movement stood for: things like the existence and protection of large natural areas, the presence of “untrammeled” plant and animal communities, and the absence of human constraints on nature.

In Western society, the word “wilderness” derived from the notion of “wildness” or something that is not controllable by humans. According to the Collins English Dictionary, the word’s etymology is from the Old English word wildeornes, which derives from wildeor, or wild beast (from wild+deor beast, or deer). This idea of wilderness is based on the notion that humanity is separate from nature. This isn’t the case everywhere, so engaging in a cross-cultural conversation on wilderness leads to interesting findings on different cultural views of nature.

As a native of Greece, mostly raised in France, I have learned through my travels about the curious connections between a society’s mode of production, its religion and its attitude toward the world. Huntergatherers, for example, live in harmony with the environment and their religions reflect that harmony. In Kenya, Masai communities often have learned to integrate and feed on wilderness without impact. They co-survive with wild animals and are considered part of the wild.

The Kenyan idea of “wildness” is centered on the presence of numerous wild animals, such as elephants, lions, buffalos, leopards and gorillas. The word msitu, or forest in Swahili, is synonymous with the word “wild” in the English language. Similarly, wanyama, or “all animals,” implies wildness in the context of a place with “all the wild animals.” In the same way an American outdoor enthusiast conceives of wilderness as a challenge in a place uninhabited by humans, a Kenyan is fascinated by the dangers presented by wild animals, a dominant feature of Kenyan culture.

The growing need in industrialized societies to preserve nature from sprawling urban environments is not evident everywhere else. For example, wilderness is an alien concept to Arctic cultures. Their lifestyles and very existence have been dependent on a sustained harvest from the land without altering nature. Indigenous people in the Arctic view themselves as part of nature. Native Americans offer similar views and language patterns. “We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growths, as ‘wild,’” wrote Luther Standing Bear in 1933. “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people.”

I also found the Japanese approach to wilderness enlightening. The word “wilderness” is not familiar to Japanese people, yet the Japanese view of nature, similar to Western culture, has had a great role in helping develop their sense of values, ethics and aesthetics. Originally, there was not even a word corresponding to “nature” in the Japanese language. The concept of nature as a separate term didn’t exist — nature and people’s lives were unified.

The Japanese view of wilderness was born in a relatively friendly environment of mountains and forests. Even today, 67 percent of Japan is mountains, forests, and fields, and the climate is affected by monsoon seasons. For ancient Japanese people, nature was a mysterious and powerful place, and people developed effective methods for living in harmony with it. They realized that everything is ephemeral in the circle of life, and they aimed for unification with all animate beings. They did not have a sense of managing nature. They were awed by nature, saw divinities in natural beings, and believed that nature would retaliate if not respected.

The Japanese view of wilderness, however, isn’t entirely different from the Western interpretation that views wild places as existing in isolation.” Mountains are the places where gods live and to which the soul of dead people climb,” says Aya Hayashi in the International Journal of Wilderness. “Some mountains were given a high status, by the Imperial Court of ancient Japan, to show their importance in people’s lives. In those days, the Japanese people tried to designate these places as ‘wilderness’ by separating them from other places.”

Looking to the future, maybe it’s possible to envision an integration of American-style preservation efforts — mainly the creation of designated “wilderness” — with indigenous relationships to the land. This is happening to some extent in Canada and Alaska, where the settlement of northern land claims by First Nations people has led to the creation of new parks and protected areas that also recognize human activity as part of the wilderness ecosystem.

In the end, it is obvious how much geography, religion, culture and modernization shape people’s relationship with nature. Remembering how different cultures say the word “wilderness” might lead to a more harmonious relationship between humans and our environment — and this is a good thing no matter what language you speak.

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