It’s all in the translation

October 4, 2007

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Diane Luckow

Liz Bolton, at bottom of steps, and Beth Humchitt, top, partnered with fellow student Andrew Speck to translate and record flight safety instructions into the Heiltsukvla language for Bella Bella passengers flying aboard Pacific Coastal Airlines.

Passengers flying on Pacific Coastal Airlines (PCA) into Bella Bella may soon be surprised to hear flight safety instructions in a third language besides English and French—Heiltsukvla.

Still spoken by some Heiltsuk First Nations people in the Bella Bella region, the language is taught in the Bella Bella community school and in the community through SFU courses.

Susan Russell, an SFU linguistics instructor and coordinator of the First Nations languages certificate for the SFU Kamloops Program, came up with the translation idea as a way to bring aboriginal relevance to an introductory Linguistics 220 course.

"As I was flying in and out of Bella Bella I noted that the plane is usually filled with elders listening to English and French and wondered, why couldn’t there be Heiltsuk on these planes?"

PCA was accommodating and provided the English instructions in writing. Russell then tasked her students to work with Bella Bella elders to create the translation.

Translating 21st century technology into a First Nations language proved challenging. How to name smoke detectors, seatbelts and personal electronic devices?

As with any language translation, they frequently had to go with wording that reflected the spirit of the meaning. A sentence including information about bathrooms equipped with smoke detectors, for example, turned into "if you smoke in the bathroom it will whistle."

A phrase cautioning passengers to turn off all electronic personal devices translated into a Heiltsuk phrase asking passengers not to play musical instruments or "your-talk-down-into containers."

"Tighten your seatbelt" was simple. It became "pull-and-tighten your belt". But PCA’s English instructions repeat this phrase many times. The elders refused to incorporate the phrase more than once in the translation, reasoning that in the Heiltsuk culture, says Russell, "You’re supposed to listen the first time."

"Every sentence was a delight," she says. "We feel that we captured the essence of the safety instructions as required by Transport Canada—but maintained the spirit and integrity of the Heiltsuk language."

Students Andrew Speck, Beth Humchitt and Liz Bolton recorded the translation on CD for PCA; they also co-wrote a paper on the project with Russell and their principal language consultant, Evelyn Windsor, and presented it at a conference over the summer.

"Everyone in Bella Bella was excited about this project," says Russell. "I’ve never had a course that generated so much enthusiasm."

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