I have a few stories from my recent conference on First Nations language and culture. Some of the sessions dealt with translation and others with pure linguistics. My paper was on writing systems and pretty much irrelevant here, but well accepted there.
In the session on translation I was impressed by one slide which showed a roomful of First Nations personnel, adult and teens, lawyers, legal aides, and translators all working together to establish vocabulary for translating legal documents and laws. It was fascinating to see the attention given to having English lawyers and people of various ages who would be users of the laws working together. They worked through interpreting the legal terms and translating them. As this was presented to us, speakers of related but distinct languages explained why close equivalents of these same terms would not be acceptable to their group. Each language group chose different terms.
In the following session a translator told how she had been required to translate the text of an art book without seeing the images which would be placed next to the text. She shared the difficulties inherent in such a task. I couldn’t help but wonder if Bible translators are not more in her circumstance than in the situation I relate above, where access to interpretation was available.
One of the experienced Francophone academics graciously responded to her, saying “You do the best you can, and in the end, you hope – you hope that you have translated what is most important.”
The best times, of course, are informal. The first day I had lunch with a fellow presenter, and we shared our papers over the meal. His was on gender in Cree. Not male – female, but animate and inanimate. The basis for this distinction has always been problematic but he had a reasonable theory, not untouched by ubiquitous Cree humour as we reviewed which body parts of male and female are animate vs inanimate. If you aren’t familiar with Cree culture may I recommend the concept of Laughing Together. I am still chuckling.
Later that evening we were heading back to the parking lot, and completely lost, we hitched a ride with a student in a sports car. He drove us right into the lot as he was heading there anyway. More laughing together as we both realized that neither of us could figure out which way was north or south. That seems a little odd but I guess the lights were too bright to guide ourselves by the stars.
Looking back, I am relieved at one thing. In Cree, there is no way to have a masculine pronoun. In this language all pronouns are ‘gender’ neutral. The kinship terms are also fairly complicated so many stories simply contain a word meaning ‘sibling.’ If you go beyond that you would have to distinguish older vs younger brothers and sisters, so the generic sibling is more commonly used.
There was a lot of discussion about hymn singing, how to translate personal poetry and many other issues that we talk about here. I was impressed that there was a trend to represent the poetry twice, once with a literal gloss and then as a translation. Altogether, it was a great opportunity for me to reconnect with another world of ideas.