Love, death, old age & other mysteries
The observations of Caroline Evari

Tok Pisin’s emergence as a literary language

Michael Dom - "People think English is the only language ‘good enough’ to demonstrate their capacity to write creatively. This is a silly notion that needs to change in order for PNG to really have a thriving creative writing culture"


NOOSA – Michael Dom, an established and most readable poet, has in recent years occasionally delved into the intricacies of translating his poetry between English, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu.

Translation of this kind is a high art because it goes beyond the literal into often complex metaphors that do not translate readily from one language to another.

That Michael has mastered this complication is a great tribute to his attention to the poetic form in these three languages.

Now he is on the verge of publishing a collection of poetry with translations in English, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu (the lingua franca of Papua) with bonus poems in Bahasa Indonesia and in tokples Sinesine, an endangered language spoken in the Sinesine-Yongomugl District of Simbu.

Tok Singsing coverThe book – a little misleadingly titled ‘Tok Pisin Poems’ - also contains three essays in which Michael expresses his thoughts about the use of Tok Pisin and local languages (tokples), particularly in writing poems but also as part of developing a unique literature for Papua New Guinea.

“In some ways this is already happening,” he says. “For example local drama groups who present public plays in Tok Pisin and the very active local music industry.”

Bit Michael says that, when it comes to literary endeavours, most people tend to think that English is the only language ‘good enough’ to demonstrate their skills and capacity to write creatively.

“This is a silly notion that needs to change in order for PNG to really have a thriving creative writing culture,” he says.

“We are a truly creative people who reach into the depths of our own ancient heritage and languages to create uniquely PNG literature.”

Others views on Tok Pisin in PNG literature

Elton Brash

“Three features of the language promise well for its future life and development:

its syncretic [melding] capacity and its resultant incremental growth;

the imaginative life it embodies and the new forms of figurative expression it is rapidly evolving;

the successful use of Pidgin by New Guineans as a creative medium”.

Tok pilai, tok piksa, na tok bokis in Kivung: Journal of the Linguistic Society of Papua and New Guinea (1971)

Richard Hamasaki

“Papua New Guinea’s writers needed to create an ‘acceptable Niuginian English, a national type of English’, just as the Americans and Australians had. This was necessary because of the sheer diversity of languages in PNG. Ultimately both the oral tradition as well as the newer contemporary literature needed to come together to create what Enos felt was ‘national unity through literature’.”

Dancing yet to the Dim Dim’s beat in Contemporary poetry in Papua New Guinea (1987)

Philip Fitzpatrick

“Papua New Guinean writers need to talk to each other and determine what their literature means and how best to interpret and present it. There is still a lot to be discovered before a definitive national literature evolves. Regional differences, for instance, may be significant.”

Comment on Toksingsing: danis bilong yumi iet in PNG Attitude (22 July 2020)

Ed Brumby

“There are no hard and fast definitions of ‘literature’ although there is general agreement that literature is the written expression of our culture, makes us think about ourselves and our society, allows us to enjoy language and beauty, and to reflect on and record our thoughts on “the human condition” – emotionally, socially, ideologically and politically. There can be no doubt that TP, in written form, can satisfy all of these criteria.”

Tok Pisin is well equipped for PNG's literature in PNG Attitude (26 May 2013)


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

William Dunlop

The late Francis Nii used to have a good chuckle when I described certain PNG pollies as a 'giamin olsem maus wara man'.

In the 1970s, my very good friend Don Lusty was the headmaster at Sina Sina school and Hugh Backhouse at Dom.

Michael Dom

Thank you Keith for your high compliment.

The Tok Pisin translations I can take credit for but not the Hiri Motu. For those I have had the good fortune of seeking out and finding the right people.

My Hiri Motu translators, Gemona Konemamata, Rev. Willie Moses and Sina Christine Moses, really enjoyed the selection of poems I sent them.

Understanding the form of the poem, doing Tok Pisin translation and then 'sensing' the potential for the language to be translated well into Hiri Motu more by sound, tenor and musicality than any speaking knowledge, that was about all I did.

Philip Fitzpatrick

And not to forget that Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu can do things that English cannot - which is why they are sometimes hard to translate. This can make PNG literature unique in its own right.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)