Taissumani? Maannaruluk!

. I'm looking forward to the next installment in Kenn Harper's essay on Explorers and Inuit - The Nature of Testimony. I've long been fascinated with reports of broken treaties with aboriginal peoples and wonder if his musings on cross-cultural testimony might shed some light on that history as well. There was a time when professional interpreters avoid translating away from their mother tongue. The theory was that, while people become fluent hearers of a second language and can render unique thoughts from it into their first, they seldom acquire sufficient idiomatic subtlety in the second to do the reverse. Related to this is the phenomenon of Commonwealth Literature. Hundreds of writers from nearly as many backgrounds have grown up speaking English as well as their mother tongue. While still understanding the subtler thoughts of their ancestors, each of these authors manages to find adequate metaphoric access into English for concepts that have never occurred to unilingual English speakers before. The result makes Commonwealth Literature a universal gene pool of concepts from several continents, all rendered into the planet's emerging lingua franca. However, among aboriginal languages in the Americas, Inuktitut included, authors have yet to add much to this repository. Instead, middle-aged speakers of aboriginal languages all over the world are heart broken at the loss of their most precious, expressive, tender, hilarious and healing turns of mind and phrase, all of which had been reliably passed on orally until recently. Few of those who still understand the deepest insights of Inuktitut are rendering those concepts into English. Our media certainly aren't. Even assuming their good will, few urban Inuit speak about their great-grand parents in terms that allow youngsters to grasp the subtleties of Inummariktitut. Reminds me of meeting Father Van de Welde in Hall Beach years ago and hearing him say, "L'Inuktitut, c'est un bijou pour le Canada!" Even on a practical level, far from the realms of sacred wisdom and lore, mistaken interpretation and translation play havoc in our day-to-day. Nunavut's new senator, Dennis Patterson, got caught in such a situation during a rape trial years ago as a young legal aid lawyer in Iqaluit. The unilingual English-speaking judge, jury, prosecutor and Dennis himself at the time, struggled in a courtroom where only the victim, the accused and the interpreter were Inuit. "So he didn't have to force you into the bedroom, is that not right?" asked Dennis. "No" replied the victim. The interpreter dutifully rendered this as "So, is it incorrect to say he shouldn't have forced you into the bedroom?" The victim's monosyllabic, but complex reply meant, "No, that is not correct; it is correct to say that he should not have forced me into the bedroom." The anglos in that courtroom, including judge and jury, understood her to say "No, he did force me into the bedroom!" Two entirely different narratives based on that single utterance. By the most fortunate coincidence, the outcome was the same that day. Which brings us back to Kenn Harper's thought provoking essay and my longstanding ruminations about First Nations treaties. If many early contact reports of Inuit behaviour were euro-centric, absurd or plain wrong, what about the many claims by First Nations that their treaties did not mean what colonial administrators made of them? . Anyone want to revisit the etymology of the common 1950s North American expression 'indian giver'? .

1 comment:

  1. My interest in Commonwealth Literature dates back to a wonderful cross-disciplinary panel on linguistics in the early 1970s that included John Matthews, Allan Gleason, et al.