I love seeing multilingual signage in public places, especially when Indigenous languages are included. In certain regions of Cree country this is more than mere tokenism as our language continues to be spoken by the majority and speakers are often literate. This is particularly true of elderly monolinguals who must often travel south for medical services. For these people, providing Cree signage is a small price to pay to make them feel welcome in a world where their ability to communicate is severely restricted. How difficult is it anyway to accommodate our people linguistically?
As it turns out, the most difficult part is often the translation itself as Cree language translators are often faced with thorny problems that lack eloquent solutions. For instance, translating between European languages is usually fairly straightforward. This is because most European language, barring Basque and the Finno-Urgic Languages, share a common ancestor and are therefore typologically quite similar. What’s more, they all make use of the International Scientific Vocabulary, a set of shared specialized vocabulary for all things scientific and many modern inventions. Cree, on the other hand, is neither related to, nor typologically similar to European languages and no consensus exists concerning the use of the International Scientific Vocabulary.
Take for instance the above image. A glance at both English and French translations will reveal a largely shared vocabulary. But while diagnostic imaging is rendered word for word as imagerie diagnostique in French, it is translated as ᔕᑄᐸᒋᑲᐣ (ᔖᑆᐸᐦᒋᑲᓐ) in Cree, a word coined decades ago that literally translates as “(thing used for) looking through.” This word, however, is quite common in Cree and would be readily understood by most speakers of the dialects spoken around both coasts of James Bay. A Cree translator would not have had any difficulty translating that word. However, the following makes me wonder just how long the translator had to ponder before deciding on this translation.
I must admit, I read this one twice before properly parsing it, but it turns out to be quite easy to understand. Despite this, the word is not likely to be in common use given its length and morphological complexity. While elevator and ascenseur are both nouns that each contain two morphemes (or word-parts), the Cree translation is a verb that contains no less than five morphemes and is conjugated in the third person passive of the conjunct indicative neutral – now that’s mouthful! Let us break it down and gain a better appreciation of the issues translators face. We will use the alphabetic spelling of this word in order to clearly illustrate its internal components.
This word was obviously provided by a translator fluent in a dialect linguists call Swampy Cree, but it should be intelligible to speakers of other dialects, especially after we parse it here together. Here is the same word, colour coded to display its internal components.
Whoever came up with this translation clearly flexed those brain muscles! It translates to something along the lines of “roped platform which is used to automatically ascend.” Let us get started. The grey w‘s in the above word carry no meaning, they are simply connectors linguists call epentheses. The purple parts that surround the word are third person singular conjunct indicative neutral inflexions – simply put, they provide the word with the sense of “that which is.” The black portion of the word above is a passive inflexion of an underlying verb of the following form.
This word literally means “he or she uses something akin to a roped platform to ascend automatically.” Let us break it down further. The turquoise part of the word is an instrumental morpheme – it adds the sense of “using something for a particular task” to an underlying verb. If we remove this, we are left with the following.
The remaining word now means “he or she ascends automatically on a roped platform.” The final part refers to the automatism of the action, the green portion refers to the use of a rope or something rope-like, and the red portion refers to any movement done on a surface above ground. Finally, the blue portion refers to ascent. We can further remove the two last parts and end up with the following verb.
Now the word literally just mean “he or she ascends on a surface above the ground.” This is a verb often used for climbing stairs or any other platform, but would not be used for climbing a slope or a mountain.
The complexity of Cree verbs, amply illustrated by this example, is often recruited to translate words that are otherwise quite simple in English or French. This complexity, however, also means there is no guarantee the intended audience will fully understand what is referred to at times. And while putting up signage in our language is indeed an important task, Cree translators are often baffled by the task at hand, often resorting to calling one another for advice. A Cree language commission could eventually work on providing guidelines for the creation of neologisms or even explore the use of the International Scientific Vocabulary, but until then translators are on their own, solving linguistic puzzles whose complexities few can truly appreciate.