Before I lived in Canada, I knew very little about Aboriginal people, either their history or their contemporary lives. However, my first temp job in Vancouver was as a filing clerk at the Department of Justice, where I spent my days working with paperwork relating to the Aboriginal children who were forced to attend residential schools all across Canada. The schools, which were funded by the government and run by churches (mainly Catholic and Anglican), were established in the 1830’s, peaked around the turn of the century, and were not completely abolished until 1996. The Aboriginal children suffered all kinds of abuse there—physical, sexual, psychological—on top of being taken away from their families and forbidden to speak their own languages.
The legal cases, which began in the 1980’s, resulted in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Act. The Act awarded restitution to every person who attended government-funded schools, with the amount awarded to the plaintiffs varying according to how many years they spent there. There have been various high-profile apologies—from the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in 2008; from church leaders at different levels; and from the RCMP (the federal police force) in 2004—but the work of truth and reconciliation is far from done. The creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as part of the Settlement Act results from “an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future,” with the truth-telling and reconciliation process being “part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy.” For some, even the apologies are problematic. For others, the symbolism is fine, but what they really want to see is concrete action, which is still lacking.
Since I first arrived in Canada over a decade ago, I have noticed an increase in public awareness of, and perhaps an attitude shift towards, Aboriginal peoples. This has no doubt been helped along by the mainstream attention some Aboriginal writers have been receiving over the last few years. Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle won this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award, while The Orenda by Joseph Boyden was awarded the Canada Reads title in 2014. (Canada Reads is a battle of the books, with five public personalities championing a book they think all Canadians should read). It feels like an important moment for Aboriginal writing, so I was honored to be asked to translate some excerpts from Michel Noël’s historical novel À la recherche du bout du monde (In Search of the End of the World) for the YA issue of Words Without Borders.
Noël is a prolific author and storyteller who describes himself as being a Quebecois of Aboriginal origin. His book won the 2013 Prix TD littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse (prize for Canadian children’s literature). It’s easy to imagine it turning up on school curricula, because it combines an exciting adventure with an ode to Aboriginal cultures, values, spirituality, and history.
The historical context is where I expected to stumble most with the translation, but curiously, it was terminology and phrases relating to the natural world that required the most detective work. One of the wonderful things about translation is that you suddenly take crash courses on random subjects in which you had no prior interest. When the French name of a particular bird can only be tracked down in obscure publications, and even then it appears without any corresponding image or translation, you have to call on other networks that might be able to take you one step further in identification. Finally you find—if you’re lucky—the person who just might know what that bird is called in English. Continuing the bird theme, when a partridge is described as “rustling in the marshes” it seems fine—until you realise that “bruire,” whose first translation, “rustle,” seemed so satisfying, can also be the precise word used to name the mechanical drumming sound partridges make.
Trying to capture the poetic feel of the original language without making it too elegant or elaborate was another challenge. Wapush, the central character, is a young boy, thoughtful, strong, and observant. The narration reflects this, but in English it was often tempting to give his phrasing a more consciously literary feel than it should have had. Something about French can feel more “naturally” poetic than English when using simple language, which kept tempting me to subtly shift Wapush’s voice. Here, it was often the issue of gendered pronouns, some of which I decided to keep, along with the extensive descriptions of the natural world. The tree with the hump that Wapush often visits, for example, became a “she” rather than an “it” in English, which affected both the feel of the language and the relationship between the people and the other living things in the novel.
Michel Noël has written about feeling at home with both his Aboriginal and Quebec identities, but since I am neither of those things, I needed to take care not to make erroneous assumptions. The characters in this novel are not speaking or thinking in French, so it was important not to flatten out particularities that exist outside the French language. Although I was reading the novel in French, and it was written in French, it’s about another culture and another language altogether. Aboriginal words and phrases were scattered throughout the text, and keeping them in the original language seemed like one obvious way of conveying this. There’s a section that didn’t end up in the final piece, where the Great Man is ceremonially thanking the things that are spiritually important in his culture. “Miguetsh au Grand Créateur pour la vie qu’il nous donne!” he says. “Miguetsh aux animaux qui nous nourrissent et nous vêtissent! Miguetsh à notre grand-père le soleil, à notre grand-mère la lune!” This was a particularly salient moment to remember the cultural context, so the obvious approach was to leave “miguetsh” as is, simply altering the spelling to “megwech” or “miigwech” to match how it is transliterated into English. It’s not uncommon for Canadians to know this word, and those who don’t would easily understand it from the context.
Translating Michel Noël’s novel has been, in some ways, an act of triple translation, moving across three languages and cultures, only one of which is my own. I moved to Canada from England and have since lived in two Anglophone provinces. Although I personally feel that my transition from outsider to inside-outsider is—and should be—slow, many Canadians do not hesitate to call me Canadian without ever questioning me about my citizenship. But this same welcome is not always accorded to people born in this land. My own privileged experiences inform both my interests and my opinions; it’s therefore important to me that an author like Michel Noël, whose mother tongue is French and who learnt English at school, but whose primary culture and philosophy of life is Aboriginal, should be widely read in Anglophone Canada.