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Suzie Napayok-Short: A compassionate translator, interpreter and leader

Sometimes, life brings you to a place where your personal experiences and your professional competencies meet, and you become an important witness to history in the making. That is exactly what happened to Suzie Napayok-Short, a successful Inuit interpreter and translator. Circuit met with Suzie and asked her a few questions.

By Philippe Caignon, Certified Terminologist and Translator

An inspiring family

Born in Frobisher Bay to a mother belonging to the Curley Clan, a prominent Indigenous family in Northern Canada, and a white father adopted by an Inuit family, Suzie Napayok-Short grew up in Nunavut. She attended a residential school – not the most pleasant experience – where she acquired a better command of both Inuktitut and English.

Suzie Napayok-Short is proud of her family’s legacy: for example, her uncle, Tagak Curley, was instrumental in the creation of the Nunavut Territory, and he is considered by many to be one of its founders. You could say that her ancestors helped re-draw the map of Canada.

Years ago, while she was visiting her parents in Whale Cove, Suzie’s father took her to a nearby island famous for its bird colony. There she discovered egg-hunting, a traditional Inuit activity that had not changed over time. The trip inspired her to write a children’s book, Wild Eggs, from the perspective of a young girl visiting her grandparents in Nunavut for the very first time. Building on her experience, the book not only describes Inuit families who preserved their connections with remote Inuit regions, it also seeks to inspire children of all communities to respect Nature. Her book is a bestseller in the Northwest Territories and she is close to publishing her second book.

Suzie Napayok-Short now lives in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, with her husband, children and grandchildren.

The path of a translator and interpreter

Like many before her, Suzie Napayok-Short became an English-Inuktitut translator to pay the bills. Amongst her many roles, count working as a freelance translator for the City of Iqaluit and as an interpreter and translator for the Union of Northern Workers. She was also employed for almost 15 years by the Language Bureau of the Northwest Territories in Iqaluit and Yellowknife. Since the Bureau had to provide services in the 11 official languages of the Northwest Territories, Suzie translated legal and administrative documents from English into various Inuktitut dialects. Moreover, as a certified Legal Interpreter for court cases, she was sometimes called upon to do simultaneous interpreting for the Legislative Assembly and the Department of Justice of the Northwest Territories, as well as for various Inuit organizations. Since 1996, she has been the owner of Tusaajiit Translations, a successful Northern language-service company. She is also acting Chair of the Yellowknife Inuit Association, which works to help fellow Inuit adjust to city living while maintaining their own identity.

The survivors of residential schools

Suzie Napayok-Short’s career as an Inuktitut translator and interpreter led her to an important and challenging responsibility: helping residential school survivors through the legal process they have to face to be heard and to obtain justice.

To shine light on a dark part of Canadian history, the independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created with the help of the Canadian Government. During the Commission’s hearings, some 6,000 people told their stories about being removed from their family, cut off from their culture and language, and abused by the adults in charge. Of the 150,000 children who attended those schools, 6,000 never came home.

Since 2015, the work of the Commission has been transferred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, whose mission is to ensure that those stories are not forgotten and to educate Canadians, young and old, so that such events are never repeated.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

More recently, Suzie Napayok-Short was asked to interpret the testimonies of the families whose mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters or granddaughters are missing or were murdered. The inquiry started in 2016 and is still collecting stories and statements.

As she reveals, “When called upon by the Multilingual Bureau Division, I am on hand during the hearings.” She further explains: “…when a family member recalls a painful memory or an emotional story about her missing sister, speaking in English to accommodate the audience, she will often switch from English to Inuktitut because her words describing her personal pain are much more readily spoken in her first language, ‘her true language’. The interpreter has to be ready for the change in language without script or forethought.”

When family members break down during their testimonies, Suzie has to remain composed in her booth and relay as accurately as possible all the words and messages of each person, since emotional detachment is expected of a professional interpreter. But sometimes the burden is too heavy, and tears silently roll down her cheeks.

In addition to the emotional and chronological difficulties experienced by the interpreters, the differences between English and Inuktitut bring another level of difficulty to the task. Since the Inuktitut language reflects the unique and rich cultural realities driven by the Northern environment in which the Inuit live, the interpreter must switch thinking modes and react rapidly to “relay the message as it was expressed,” despite the profound differences.

In Inuktitut, for example, some concepts require extra context to be fully understood. “We use a specific word to refer to an aunt from the maternal side and another for an aunt from the paternal side.” There are also different terms for nieces and nephews from either side. Understanding these differences is essential to grasp the true depth of traditional family relations and relationships.

These complexities can also be linked to more delicate concepts. When there is talk of a woman being hit, for instance, the interpreter needs to know how she was hit as there is no Inuktitut word for hit by itself; the interpreter can only describe how the hand was positioned when the woman was hit — either a closed fist, an open fist or an open hand. The interpreter must then get the court’s permission to relay the specifics.

The need for education

Exposing the abuses and injustices of the past and making sure that they are never repeated is now part of Suzie Napayok-Short’s personal and professional life. This communal and social calling parallels her desire to educate children about respecting Nature and wildlife, and about loving their family. Suzie Napayok-Short chose interpreting and translation to make ends meet, but interpreting and translation chose Suzie to reach every one of us and to teach us all about Northern life and Northern values.

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