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Gained In Translation

Gained In Translation

Ever notice how a word starts losing its meaning when you say it too often? Now, try hitting it with an “evil poison bullet"
By Herb Mathisen
Dec 12
2014
From the December 2014 Issue

The more I hear or see a word, quite often the less I understand it. That’s a problem, because I work with words all day. I’ll admit, due to time or space constraints—or through outright brainwashing—I’ve fallen victim to using Bureaucratese, that imprecise language that substitutes stand-in words like “stakeholder,” “consultation,” “engagement,” for, you know, real ones. In a place of transition like the North, where organizations are seemingly always engaging stakeholders in consultation, you start to wonder what that actually means.

When I mentioned this to a colleague, he hit me with a cruise missile. Well actually, he started telling me a bit about the process of translating English terms into Tlicho, the language of the people north of Great Slave Lake.

In Tlicho, he said, “cruise missile” becomes “evil poison bullet.” Look, I know what a cruise missile is. I’ve heard the term used over the years, most frequently when the United States stubbornly gets involved in the Middle East. But because it gets volleyed about so casually by pundits and politicians, “cruise missile” to me signifies a strategic tool used to assert power or dissuade a nation or group from a particular course of action. Not what it really is: a guided, high-speed bomb that inflicts carnage on people. “Evil poison bullet” spells that out pretty quickly.

How direct. How insightful. I found the honesty refreshing.

Interested to learn more about how these terms come to be, I got in touch with a Tlicho interpreter—a woman who, during her 30 years in the trade, has been an essential guide, conduit and communicator through some of the most important agreements in the NWT’s history. Though she didn’t want to be identified here—preferring to stay behind the scenes, behind the glass—she told me when new terms surface, the first consideration is: what does that thing do? (As an interpreter, this happens on the fly—she gets two to five seconds to figure this out. Translators, she says, have more time to think things out.) “Once we know what it does, we talk about what it does and then we nail it down to maybe one or two words if we can,” she says.

With its many dialects, Tłicho has evolved over hundreds of years of contact with outsiders, adopting and adapting many French and English words. Today, language practitioners have to keep pace with the relentless march of technology, constantly coming up with translations for foreign terms. A fax machine? (wet’ à ni ̨htł’ è kade) “With it, the paper comes out.” A cell phone? (wet’ à gots’ ede k’ ets’ e a) “With it, we talk, we carry.” A computer? (satsò ̨ t’ à ets’ ètł’ è) “Metal, we write with.” Often, she says, “it takes about four or five words to explain one little item.” This translation becomes the standard, “until we use it so many times and we shorten it, then it becomes embedded in our language.”

In the translation process, they lay bare the utility and purpose of the object, and I came away from the conversation feeling empowered to be more critical about how I use words. And, more specifically, the lazy ones. “Stakeholder” doesn’t tell you anything, but saying exactly who is present at a meeting does. (“Stakeholder” in Tlicho—amę ę̀ dǫ ǫ̀ wexè, or “which people, are included”— begs too for more information.) Can you actually tell me what the word “consultation” means? Is it sitting down at a table and discussing issues until everyone has been heard? Or is it faxing your intentions out to “stakeholders” and that’s that?

The truth is, if an organization or politician used more specific words, they’d likely open themselves up to questioning, criticism, or the risk of offending someone. Words are politicized. And with rote repetition, terms can be shaped and molded until they begin to lose significance.

Consider this: a bank, roughly translated in Tlicho, is “the house where they grow money.” With the countless convenience charges, annual fees and that gigantic meltdown south of the border that caused the collapse of the global economy six years ago, I’d been struggling to remember what it was that banks do.

They’re supposed to grow your money. That’s it.

It took hearing the word in another language for me to understand that.