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Translation as a way to save Indigenous languages

Most Indigenous languages in Canada are in various stages of endangerment, while many others are no longer spoken, so one might wonder why translation is even needed when Indigenous people increasingly speak English or French. But it is the very fact of having arrived at this situation that makes the need for translation, both into and out of the majority languages, all the more urgent.

By Marguerite Mackenzie and Julie Brittain, Memorial University, Newfoundland and Labrador

A small number of Indigenous languages in Canada, among them Cree, Innu and Naskapi in Québec, and Innu in Labrador, remain relatively vital: they are still being learned by children. Translation (from French or English) into these languages is useful – and often necessary – particularly in legal, medical and resource-development contexts. Conversely, translation from Indigenous languages has become an important means of sharing Indigenous culture and knowledge.

Regardless of the direction of translation, a significant factor about the above-mentioned languages, which belong to the Algonquian family, is that they differ markedly in terms of word and sentence structure from either English or French. In these Indigenous languages, words can be very long, and verbs in particular can contain a great deal of information. Verbs include reference to the subject, as shown in (1-3) below and, where relevant, also to direct and indirect objects (1b,c). Adjectival or adverbial information may be included (2a,b), as well as reference to the means by which an action comes about (3a,b).


Northern East Cree (Québec)


‘the wet snow sticks to snowshoes while a person is travelling’


‘s/he eats fish’


‘s/he gives it to her/him, it (anim)’


miyu- ~ miyw- = ‘well/good’


‘it smells good’


‘s/he speaks well of her/him’


Pikunâpitim.(-pit- = ‘perform an action by pulling’)
‘s/he tears a hole in it’


Pikunânim. (-n- = ‘perform an action using one's hands’)
‘s/he makes a hole in it with her/his hands’

Such differences pose particular challenges for the translation process as equivalencies are often not available.

Language communities

In all Indigenous language communities, older speakers are dying and younger speakers are at best bilingual in a majority language, but increasingly monolingual in English or French. Moreover, many young people who still speak an Indigenous language have a more limited vocabulary and may even have a more restricted range of syntactic structures than older speakers. While the process that results in this restriction is not well understood, it is thought to be due in part to a shift toward a sentence structure that is more English or French; for example, âhkushtikuanâu : some younger speakers will say âhkushû ushtikuân 'her/his head hurts' instead of incorporating the noun into the verb as âhkushtikuanâu 's/he has a headache'. Use of a two- word construction in place of the more complex single word would probably be judged by more fluent older speakers as, if not exactly ungrammatical, lacking in the grammatical sophistication expected of an adult. This is because in Cree, body parts form a class of noun that is generally incorporated into the verb to form a complex word.

In the communities where the authors work, the degree of education of speakers is highly variable, as schooling, mandatory only since the 1950s and ‘60s, was mainly in residential schools, where children were forcibly cut off from their families and language. The impact has been detailed most recently in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, especially created with the mandate to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools, which includes 97 calls to action for the Canadian government and public. Today, community schools struggle with a high rate of absenteeism and a low rate of high school completion. Highly educated speakers, fluent in one Indigenous language and English or French, are consequently in high demand for work involving those languages, including translation work. Few have formal training in translation, as it is not generally available.

Lack of resources

Compounding the issue of there being too few bilingual people to meet the demand for translators, the tools of the trade, so to speak, are as yet lacking or, at best, are still works in progress. In the case of all Canadian Indigenous languages, reference materials – dictionaries and grammars –, if they exist, are incomplete, and, to the authors’ knowledge, no thesaurus for any Indigenous language has been created. Existing dictionaries are bilingual and, at most, have one or two sentences per entry to illustrate appropriate usage, whereas a comprehensive dictionary will have multiple examples illustrating the semantic range of a given entry. An example the authors came across recently highlights the need for such resources: a Cree speaker (incorrectly) used chikimû to refer to an occasion when he had been ‘stuck’ on a plane, unable to get off for some time. However, the Cree word (see 4 below) does not have the same semantic range as one of the English words that can be used to translate it:


‘s/he, it (anim) is attached, stuck’

It can’t be used in the way the speaker meant it, since it refers specifically to the act of attaching things physically, as in ‘sticking’ one thing to another with glue.

These are difficult issues, and translators need resources to check the semantic range of the words s/he  is seeking. Canada’s Indigenous languages have gone into decline so rapidly that there has not been enough time or funding to keep up with the demand for resources.

Paving the way for translation

Specialized translation into Indigenous languages comes with many challenges. Since every field has its own technical vocabulary, specialized glossaries are needed. This involves the creation of many new words/phrases in Indigenous languages ­ extensive work which requires the collaboration of translators, specialists from the field, and often linguists. In Cree, Naskapi or Innu, for example, technical terms often translate best as phrases, as shown in (5).


Sedative 'A drug taken for its calming or sleep-inducing effect'
natukun tshetshi nipeshkatshet put kie tshetshi tshinamipit etenimut

Other common candidates for translation into Indigenous languages include religious works (e.g., the Bible), government publications (e.g., books, pamphlets, posters), and curriculum materials for schools which offer mother tongue education. In Canada, most materials are translations from English or French. These fields may not have a highly technical vocabulary, but they often contain jargon that needs to be translated first into plain language, and then into the Indigenous language.

Translation from an Indigenous language into English or French frequently involves an oral performance, which must first be properly transcribed. It usually falls to the translator to do this work, a task requiring its own rigorous methodology, which we detail in Brittain and MacKenzie 2011. The Naskapi of Kawawachikamach, a community 15 kilometres  north-east of Shefferville, Québec, are very keen to see their literature made available in English alongside their own language, and they have provided ongoing funding for a team of older and younger speakers, along with linguists who have studied the language, to carry out transcription, translation and publication of sound recordings from the 1960s. The linguists type in the Roman alphabet and then convert to the syllabic writing system of the community, the older speakers clarify less-known vocabulary and grammatical structures, the younger speakers provide translations in English for discussion, and the literal translations are then re-written in literary English, matching the tone of the original speech. To date, six Naskapi/English story books have been published (Peastitute 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016a,b, 2017).

Political considerations

The issue of access to Indigenous cultural knowledge by outsiders through translation into majority languages is highly politicized in some communities, and some Indigenous groups have taken a stand against translation being done at all. For example, Carrie Dyck, an Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Memorial University, describes this issue for Cayuga, an Iroquoian language, with respect to longhouse religious teachings, which cannot be accessed by anyone who has not undertaken an apprenticeship to qualify as an orator on behalf of the community. Not all community members agree with the restriction, as many younger people can now understand the teachings only through translation.

Toward the future

Even though Canada’s Indigenous languages are declining at an alarming rate and many have already ceased being spoken, an increasing number of communities are engaged in language recovery, a process in which translation has a crucial role to play. In many communities, younger people are learning their languages as a second language and translation into the Indigenous language creates the materials needed to support this work and promote literacy in the language. The large amount of material needed to promote fluent reading is often far beyond the scope and budget of a community or organization. It has become common for existing children's literature, for instance, to be translated into Cree and Mi'kmaq, with the permission of the author (e.g., books by Robert Munsch). The best use must be made of the limited resources that exist, chief among these being fluent speakers, but there also needs to be better access to funding.

Marguerite Mackenzie and Julie Brittain are both professors at Memorial University, Newfoundland and Labrador’s University.


Brittain, Julie and Marguerite MacKenzie (2011). “Translating Algonquian Oral Texts.” In Swann 2011, pp. 242-274.

Dyck, Carrie. (2011). “Should Translation Work Take Place? Ethical questions concerning the translation of First Nation languages. In Swann 2011, pp. 17-42.

Peastitute, John. (2017) Caught in a Blizzard and other stories told by Naskapi Elder John Peastitute. (Naskapi/English). Translated by Alma Chemaganish & Silas Nabinicaboo, with literary translation by Julie Brittain, edited and annotated by Marguerite MacKenzie. Kawawachikamach, QC: Naskapi Development Corporation. [See also Misti-Michisuw: The Giant Eagle and other stories (2016b), Umayichis: A Naskapi Legend (2016a), Achan: Naskapi Giant Stories (2015), Chahkapas: A Naskapi Legend (2014), Kuihkwahchaw: Naskapi Wolverine Stories (2013) available from]

Swann, Brian. (2011). Editor. Born in the Blood: On Native American Translation, Native Literature of the Americas Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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