Lost in Translation: How Language Can Contain a Worldview

By Taylor MacLean

It’s difficult to show, explain or talk about the meaning that’s lost when languages are translated. While most people accept the limits of translatability, they can’t fully appreciate the depth of what gets discarded.

Languages contain a wealth of cultural information, this we know. But if this cultural information is lost in translation, how can we truly understand someone without speaking their language?

When asked about how Indigenous languages convey cultural differences, many Canadians will reference the number of Inuktitut words for “snow.” But they haven’t grasped the deeper philosophies and ideologies encoded within a language. Nor do they always understand the politics associated with speaking a language that’s been silenced for so many years.

Correcting the misunderstanding and finding concrete examples can be extremely difficult. So, when Keith Goulet visited the Centre for Indigenous Studies in January for a talk on land and colonization, I was thrilled to hear him talk about language and its relationship to culture.

Goulet began with a language lesson on “artificial substitutions.”

The Cree, the suffix “gan” can be added onto a word to denote that the thing being referred to is in some way artificial.

For example, “peesim” means sun. Add “gan” to the end and you get “peesimoogan”, which means clock. “Uskee” means collective and “uskeegan” means private.

My favourite: “Kistun” is the word for bountiful, while “kistigan” refers to a garden. What ideas can be drawn from this simple substitution? A garden represents an artificial abundance. If we’re not careful we may deplete the soil, the resources, and that abundance may collapse.

It’s a simple and brilliant example of the political and philosophical subjectivities that languages carry. And it’s the best illustration of the problem of translation that I’ve come across.

Goulet also explained that the concept of artificiality reveals the politics embedded within language. (Add “gan” onto the word for Chief, and that leader becomes an “artificial Chief.” “Gan” can also be used to distinguish between an Indigenous warrior and a government soldier.

How do the complexities of language relate to land and colonization? Keith told us that worldviews, politics and philosophies embedded within Indigenous languages provide context for how Indigenous nations viewed treaty agreements. Many Canadians are under the false impression that Indigenous nations didn’t have a concept of land ownership. Indigenous land ownership may have been quite different from Western concepts of property, but territory was certainly defined and respected.

In Cree, there is a word for “our land,” which refers to a nation’s territory that’s held in collective ownership. When land is sectioned off for private use it’s conceived of as “artificial land:” privacy is respected, but the land remains collectively owned. Western legal documents just don’t capture these nuanced views of land ownership, use and care. In the process of translation into English, Indigenous concepts have been discarded and Western ideals transcribed over top.

Explaining the barriers with translation and providing glimpses into thought systems through small language lessons, Goulet makes important interventions into commonplace misunderstandings of colonialism, settlement and language.