At the time this article was written Donna
Laing was former head of the Northwest Territories Interpreter Corps.
At the best of times simultaneous
interpretation of parliamentary debates is a difficult job. Canada is
well-known for expertise in this area but its reputation is based almost
entirely on the simultaneous interpretation division of the House of Commons. How
many Canadians realize that the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest
Territories provides simultaneous translation of English into Inuktitut and
vice versa? In this article the author outlines the origins and operation of
this little known service.
The Legislative Assembly of the Northwest
Territories is in session. The Speaker recognizes the member from Foxe Basin,
Mark Evaluarjuk, who rises and begins to speak: 'Uqa qtii, uqausiqarumavunga
nannuqutiksakkannirnik. . . "
From the interpreter's booth, a voice
translates the speech into English: Mr. Speaker, I wish to speak on the matter
of polar bear quotas. . . "
This interpreting service, unique in North
America. has been provided to members of the Legislative Assembly by the
Northwest Territories Interpreter Corps since 1974. The Interpreter Corps was
formed in 1973 when it was recognized that some means would have to be found to
overcome language barriers between a predominantly English-speaking government
and people who were unilingual in one of the native languages of the NWT. The
task of improving communications was given to the Territorial Government's
Department of Information.
Nine recruits representing the Dene (Indian)
languages and two main Inuit dialects, were selected to undergo a nine-month training
course. The training focussed on government structure, programs and objectives.
linguistic and translation skills and public speaking. After completing their
training, members of the Corps began work in various centres across the north.
In 1975, when nine native members were
elected to the fifteen member council, there was an urgent need to provide
English-Inuktitut translations during sessions of the Territorial Council.
The Interpreter Corps was asked to provide
simultaneous interpreting because it was thought consecutive interpreting would
be too slow. An experiment at first, simultaneous interpreting is now used for
all sessions of the Legislative Assembly, most committee meetings and many
The council expanded to a twenty-two member
Legislative Assembly in 1979 with eleven English-speaking members and five
unilingual Inuktitut-speaking members. Six MLAs are bilingual in English and
one of the native languages.
About one-third of the time, the language
spoken on the floor is Inuktitut, so the demand for English-Inuktitut
interpreters and translators is heaviest. Although none of the native languages
of the NWT have the status of an official language, practicality demands that
interpretation and translation be provided to allow unilingual members to
participate effectively in the decision-making process.
The Corps usually has between 10 and 15
members. Approximately half of these are trainees learning through a
combination of on the job training and workshops up to three weeks long. Students
are tested at the end of their yearlong training and. if successful, are
certified and offered permanent positions as members of the Interpreter Corps.
During a session, six senior
interpreter/translators are required. Four to six trainees are responsible for
the day-to-day translation needs of the Assembly. Their work is monitored by
one or two of the senior people. The Corps is occasionally assisted by two or
three interpreter/translators hired on contract during Assembly sessions.
There are two major differences between the
functions of the NWT Corps members and those of their southern counterparts.
Corps members are expected to provide both written and verbal translations and
to work not only in their mother tongue but also in English.
The Territorial government has recently
approved a plan to expand its Dene language interpreter and translation
services. The Department of Information plans to form a Corps of eight
interpreters and support staff to work in the Dene languages of the Mackenzie
Valley, including Loucheux, Slavey, Dogrib and Chipewyan.
Equipment and Other Problems
In the north, developing the equipment
required to deliver even the most basic service has taken time. A portable.
"soundproof' interpreter's booth of padded Egyptian cotton was developed.
It looked very attractive but in fact the interpreter's voice could be
overheard by anyone standing near the booth. This booth was lost somewhere
between Yellowknife and a regional interpreting assignment It is believed that
some enterprising person saw its possibilities as an ice fishing shelter.
Perhaps it was better suited to that purpose!
The Interpreter Corps uses its own portable
interpreting system for caucus and committee meetings. Another larger, more
elaborate system is used during Assembly debates. Since two sessions of the
Assembly each year are usually held outside Yellowknife (to acquaint people
with the operation of the Legislative Assembly), a great deal of preparation is
required for these sittings. Planes transporting MLAs, support staff and
interpreters are loaded to the cockpit with everything from sound systems to
The development of professional interpreting
and translating is also frustrated by the lack of Inuktitut/English
equivalents. Groups of interpreter/translators from Labrador, Northern Quebec
and the NWT meet regularly to attempt to define new terms and find equivalents.
Many items known until recently only in Southern Canada do not have equivalents
in the North. They are usually described in terms people in the north would
recognize. The Inuktitut translation for "chicken", for instance,
would be 1ike a big ptarmigan". Another difficulty which is gradually
becoming less troublesome is the traditional differences in dialects spoken
from one region to another. Training, travel and experience are slowly
overcoming this problem.
The popularity of English Inuktitut
simultaneous interpreting has been spreading across the circumpolar regions. In
1979. Inuit delegates from Greenland and Alaska heard simultaneous interpreting
for the first time at the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Greenland. Since
then, there has been a great deal of interest in developing a comparable
service in these countries. Alaska, in particular, has been drawing on the
experience of the NWT Corps to set up their own training program.
It is often difficult to interpret jokes
effectively. After many struggles to interpret jokes where the humour fell flat,
one enterprising interpreter finally hit on the technique of explaining to the
Inuit listeners: "He's telling a joke now; We should all laugh". The
speaker and guests were both relieved by this strategy – the speaker, because
his humour was apparently being appreciated, and the audience because they were
spared from embarrassing the speaker.