The Altyerre Story—‘Suffering Badly by Translation’


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In culture-contact situations, it is commonplace for words to be borrowed from other unrelated vernaculars, for their pronunciations to be changed, and their meanings modified to fit new contexts. The Arandic word altyerre is a rather extreme example of this, and at the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘translation’ of the related word Alcheringa as ‘dream-times’ sparked a debate that, in some forms, continues to this day. In this article, I discuss some of the reasons why this particular word struck such a controversial chord. I give an updated semantic perspective on the word altyerre, drawing on evidence from Arandic languages and from other languages in Central Australia. Then I examine some of the consequences of both religious and secular interpretations of altyerre and show how the popularisation of this word and its translations has impacted on its meanings in current usage.