Akwiratékha’ Martin is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawà:ke who taught at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center from 2002-2016. He is now teaching Kanien’kéha at Kahnawà:ke Survival for grades 7-11. Along with teaching, he has also been a language consultant for the series Mohawk Girls, as well as a translator and voice dubber for several Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) television shows, such as By The Rapids and Finding Our Talk. He collaborated with Ubisoft on the game Assassin’s Creed 3 as Kanien’kéha Language Consultant.
Circuit: What is Kanien’kéha?
Akwiratékha’ Martin: Kanien’kéha1 is an Iroquoian language, a language family that spreads from Québec to North Carolina in the United States, and includes Wendat, Cayuga and Cherokee, among others. Like many Native languages, Kanien’kéha is polysynthetic and agglutinative, so it takes many small morphemes, small pieces of words, that, once put together, make one sentence or a complete thought. Each word is made of at least three elements, usually “person,” “verb” and “time.” It is a verb-based language, which means that almost every word can function as a verb. For example, í:ke’s which translates as “I am present” (I + present + am) is the shortest a verb can be; iakoia’takarénie’s (“an autobus”) is also a verb, “she/it>them + body + gathers.”
C.: What is the state of the language today and where is it spoken?
A.M.: The language is not in a very good state. Except for Inuktitut, Ojibway and Cree, all Native languages are in a bad state. There are generally not many speakers left, but Kanien’kéha has the most speakers among the Iroquoian languages. In Kahnawà:ke there are about 200 first-language speakers, and 200 to 300 second-language speakers. It is spoken in seven communities in Southern Québec, New York State and Southern Ontario.
C.: Is Kanien’kéha your mother tongue?
A.M.: My parents did not speak Kanien’kéha, but I learned it as a child because my grandparents spoke it. I went to elementary school in Kanien’kéha immersion, until about grade 5. After that there was almost nothing, and I went to the city for high school. It was as an adult that I started to learn more about the language.
C: Where does your interest in translation come from?
A.M.: It began when I was teaching the language in adult education. At some point, I was asked to fill in for a translator who was too busy. They said, “it’s a simple translation, it's just conversation for television.” So I started translating and I thought it was fun. There were more opportunities to learn about the language as a translator than as a teacher. I learned a lot because I worked on it by myself and then I worked with an elder who checked my translations.
C.: Did you subsequently receive any formal training in translation?
A.M.: No, I learned from experience. To the best of my knowledge, there is no training in translation of Native languages. Translation training in Québec is generally from French to English or from English to French. It would be beneficial to have specific programs for Native languages. I know that in the 1990s, there was an initiative to translate the Bible in Kanien’kéha. The elders taking part in the project received some training from the Canadian Bible Society. But as for translation in general, as far as I know, there is nothing.
C.: What resources are available to you when you need to translate in Kanien’kéha?
A.M.: The main resources are our elders. Actually, they are our only resource, since there is no dictionary for my dialect (Kahnawa’kéha). We can find material in other dialects, but we have to be very cautious if we use it; we always have to make sure that there is no specific word in our own dialect.
C.: What kind of translations can be found in Kanien’kéha?
A.M.: There are children’s books and school curricula, for example, but most of the work is done for television, especially for the APTN. Native filmmakers usually need to have a Native version for their shows to be broadcast. It is usually from English to a Native language. Translations from Kanien’kéha to English or French are not widely published.
C.: Just out of curiosity, how do you translate “I am a translator” in Kanien’kéha?
A.M.: It depends on where you are from. Where I come from, we say “tekewennanetáhkwas,” which means “I multiply the word.” It is like saying that you make a copy of the word. In Kanehsatà:ke, they say “tekewennaténie’s,” which means “I change the word.” We argue a lot about that!
C.: Can everything be translated into Kanien’kéha?
A.M.: Yes! Of course, some concepts are a bit more difficult to translate: you need to consult with a group of people to do it; you cannot do it by yourself. Recently, I had to translate “sustainable development.” It was difficult, because Kanien’kéha is not like English or French, which are noun-based languages. Kanien’kéha is all action, so we have to deconstruct the noun and make it fit in a verb-word world, we have to craft it differently. We decided on “Tsi ní:ioht tsi eniontáthawe’ ne onhontsà:ke tánon’ ne tóhsa iaiéhsa’ahste’ nahò:ten onhóntsakon í:wa” or “tewahtkà:was”, literally “how to carry yourself, or support yourself, on the Earth without using up what the Earth gives you.” Those discussions are not easy; the elders do not always have a word for newly created expressions. There is a lot of talk about the need for a translation committee. There used to be one that created new words for a curriculum in an immersion school: they had a team that would translate math terms, all kinds of terms to be used in the school, but there is no such initiative at the moment.
C.: Should everything be translated into Kanien’kéha?
A.M.: I think so, yes. Not just because of the socio-political context of Canada or Québec. Everything has to be translated for the whole world to be accessible. Native languages should not be different in that respect.
1. The word “Kanien’kéha” refers to the language inaccurately named “Mohawk,” an exonym probably borrowed from Anishinaabemowin. Ó:nen’k tsi akwé:kon tenkawennanetáhkwenke’ can be translated as “everything has to be translated.”
René Lemieux is an Assistant Professor at Université de Sherbrooke. He holds a PhD in semiology (Université du Québec à Montréal); his dissertation focused on the translation of philosopher Jacques Derrida in America. He is also a part-time law student at University of Ottawa and is working on a dissertation on the translational relationships between Indigenous oral tradition and the Canadian colonial law. He teaches translation in social sciences and the humanities and Aboriginal research and methodologies. He is trying to learn Kanien’kéha; Akwiratékha’ was once his teacher.