Have you ever noticed how in science fiction movies, all the aliens seem to speak English?
If languages were really that simple, people like Sarah Basil and Elenore Bran would be out of a job. Luckily for us, the NWT has six distinct languages, which means people like Basil and Bran will have lots of work for the foreseeable future.
“The main idea is to get the message across,” said Basil during a break at the Dene National Assembly. Basil is a Chipewyan translator. She was seated in a semi-soundproof both next to four other translators, each with their own booth
The translators wear headphones so they can hear the speaker. They then speak their translation into a microphone and the signal is broadcast through a low powered radio transmitter. Anyone wishing to listen in a different language uses a radio headset to tune into the language of his or her choice.
There is a lot more to being a translator than simply being bilingual. The job requires constant training and upgrading.
“We are trained in all aspects of life such as politics and the environment. It gives you a good foundation. We’re not greenhorns. We know what we’re talking about and the people really appreciate that,” said Bran, who translates between English and South Slavey.
The challenge in translating often comes when there is no direct translation. Many of the traditional aboriginal languages such as Slavey, Gwich’in, or Dogrib do not have words for new technologies. To overcome this difficulty, translators from all the languages attend terminology workshops to learn the jargon of mining, industry, and politics.
“Tailings pond would be translated as ‘the water that is polluted’ in most languages. That is how we help each other through the terminology,” said Basil.
Getting into the translating business is not easy. You first have to speak English and another traditional language fluently. Basil said she went to Arctic College for her training back in the late 1980s. Bran said she was hired on as an interpreter in training by the language bureau.
“I tried to get on with the CBC, but because I had been down south for 22 years they thought I might have lost some of my language. I eventually went on to become the manager of the Dene section of the language bureau,” said Bran.
Both women said they love their job because they know how important it is for all the different groups in the NWT to communicate with each other.
“When you know that you’ve made an impact by having both sides understand each other through interpretation, you know you’ve done your job,” said Bran.