When we think of the translation landscape in Canada, the first thing that comes into many people’s mind is the unique English-French bilingual environment. The vast majority of the translation requirements in Canada are from English into French. However, there is a small but steady amount of translation required into Canada’s Indigenous languages.
Managing Indigenous languages projects are very different from managing French ones. In some languages, there are very few speakers left; often translators don’t have consistent access to a computer or internet. Additionally, cultural differences between mainstream business and Indigenous traditions can create confusion or potential conflicts.
Elvire Mekoudjou is a project manager at wintranslation, a Canadian translation company that has an Indigenous language practice covering 40 of Canada’s 60 Indigenous languages. She shares her insights and lessons learned from managing Indigenous projects such as the Federal Indian day school class action lawsuits, and Canada’s Food Guide.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Elvire Mekoudjou, and I am from Cameroon in Central Africa. After I graduated with an M.A. in translation, I worked as an English-French translator for more than five years before being recruited as a project manager in a start-up company. I later became a project manager at Wintranslation, where I have been working since 2018.
What are the top Indigenous languages in Canada based on the number of speakers?
According to the 2016 Census done by Statistics Canada, the main Indigenous languages in Canada would be:
- Cree with 96,575 speakers
- Inuit languages with 39,770 speakers
- Ojibwe with 28,130 speakers
- OjiCree with 15,585 speakers
- Dene with 13,005 speakers
For a COVID-19 related document, what are the languages that should be translated in order to reach a maximum number of people in Canada’s Indigenous population?
Before answering this question, it is important to mention that when making recommendations to a client seeking to reach a national audience, we take into consideration the number of speakers per language, and also the representativity per province. This is why, in order to reach the largest audience possible, we will recommend the most-spoken dialects of the languages mentioned earlier, but also perhaps a language like Mik’maq, as this will allow our client to reach the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick Indigenous communities who might not have been included in the most-spoken languages.
Based on your experience dealing with government departments that translate into Indigenous languages often, what are the most frequently translated languages?
It really depends, but usually, a federal organization with a national mandate would ask for languages like Inuktitut (many dialects), Cree, Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, Dene, OjiCree, Michif and even Stoney. They will try to reach the maximum number of Indigenous communities, not just to cover the most spoken languages. However, when it comes to provincial governments, they will target the languages spoken in their specific province. For instance, an Ontario government organization will translate into Cree (one of the two Ontario Cree dialects), Ojibway, Inuktitut, OjiCree, and Mohawk, whereas a Quebec Government will request the translation to be done in Cree (Quebec Cree), Inuktitut (Nunavik), Innu, Atikamekw, Mohawk and Naskapi.
What are the misconceptions about Indigenous languages you encounter most often?
The most common misstep is when clients want a specific language that will be understood by all Indigenous communities. We have to explain to the client that there are many Indigenous languages in Canada, and that there is not a “national” Indigenous language.
Another faux pas is when clients try to make a comparison between the English/French structure and an Indigenous language structure. Here again, we have to explain to the client that most concepts are new to Indigenous languages, so our Indigenous language expert has to use his/her creativity to find the perfect way to express a completely foreign reality in a way that won’t be misleading for the target community. This is why a single word in English or French can be translated by a sentence in an Indigenous language, or the other way around. For example, to translate the term “digital device,” our Inuktitut language expert had to look up the meaning of the different words and use general descriptions to convey the meaning of this foreign concept in his language. For digital, he used “ᖃᕆᑕᐅᔭᓕᕆᔾᔪᑦᑎ” which means involving or relating to the use of computer technology and for device, “ᓱᓇᒃᑯᑖᖅ,” which simply means a tool.
What are the most memorable things you learned about Indigenous language or culture in the course of your work?
Oh, this is a great question! I must say working with Indigenous languages has been the most challenging yet fulfilling experience I have ever had. With every single project we manage, we learn something new about the Indigenous culture. Indigenous resources seize every opportunity to share some interesting aspects of their culture or language with us, and this is absolutely amazing!
I am often in awe when I see some similarities with my African culture. The world is definitely a global village! A great example is religious beliefs. Just like most African tribes, Canada’s Innu people, for instance, believe in the power of ancestors. Ancestors have the power to intercede for us with God. This is why it is important to honor them and convey our prayers through them. However, we should bear in mind that Indigenous people have different cultures, and this aspect of the Innu culture might not exist among other Indigenous cultures.
Are all Canadian Indigenous languages based on syllabic scripts?
No, all Indigenous languages are not based on syllabics. Syllabics are used for some Inuit languages, Cree languages and Algonquian languages. Languages like Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, and Innu use Roman letters. I was also given to understand that for some languages like Dene, the Cree syllabics were adapted to write them at some point since they were basically all oral languages, but today it is written differently. I would also like to mention that nowadays, the tendency is also to write syllabic-based languages in Roman orthography, but just like dialects, the choice of the writing system would depend on many factors.