Unravelling translations of the “first Inuit novel”

November 8, 2016

SSHRC-funded researcher begins studying French and English translations of Inuit texts


Translation studies, the focus of MacEwan University researcher Valerie Henitiuk, looks beyond the technical decisions translators make when moving texts from one language to another, and toward the deep-rooted concepts of power—or lack of power—tied to translation.

With funding from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant, Valerie is embarking on a study that looks at French and English translations of two different Inuit texts—Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s Sanaaq and Markoosie Patsauq’s Harpoon of the Hunter—both which have been called “the first Inuit novel.”

“ Translation is inherent to the human experience—it’s about finding ways to translate our experiences in ways that other people can understand.” Valerie Henitiuk 

“Anthropologists and ethnologists have long studied Inuit stories, songs and legends, but rarely from a literary, much less translation studies point of view,” explains Valerie, who is also executive director of the Centre for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence, a professor in the Department of English and special advisor to the university, Indigenous initiatives. “Their translations have tended to be about what we can learn from particular artifacts, but translation studies is about looking at the full context—how power relations come into play, who is doing the translation and for what purpose.”

She is currently focusing on Harpoon of the Hunter, which Markoosie originally wrote in Inuktitut and then translated into English himself. His English version was first published in 1974, but appears to have been edited quite heavily in the process because it does not match the Inuktitut. The English was immediately translated into French, then German, then Danish. Last year a French version was itself translated into Hindi and Marathi.

“It’s a bit like the childhood game of telephone,” says Valerie. “With each translation, you get further and further away from the original, and that means something very different is being transmitted at each stage. I think that’s worthy of comment.”

In the process of commenting, Valerie is careful and mindful of the fact that she is not Inuk, recognizing that collaboration will be a critical part of this work over the long term.

“As a non-Indigenous person, I know that I don’t want to be in a position of speaking for other people. I’m very conscious that I’m only starting a dialogue—one that will be enriched as it moves forward,” she says. “What I would like to see is more work being done collaboratively. By working together, we can tease out many more threads and end up with translations that are fully formed, rich and robust. The circumstances of a post-TRC Canada absolutely demand this kind of approach.”

The Insight Development Grant is designed to help researchers establish a new project, so Valerie will spend the next two years working with two research assistants, who are also MacEwan University undergraduate students, focusing on the English and French translations of both texts. She is also actively collaborating with colleagues who read Inuktitut, while learning the language herself.

“This is important and ground-breaking work, especially in a time when we, as Canadians, are waking up to the fact that Indigenous people in this country have well-established cultures that are centuries old and deserve respectful engagement,” says Valerie. “Translation is inherent to the human experience—it’s about finding ways to translate our experiences in ways that other people can understand. I hope this research leads to many others becoming interested in these questions—other translation studies scholars, Inuit scholars, and people who are studying and producing Indigenous literature. I hope they join the dialogue, add their own perspectives and help take this conversation to a new level.”

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