In 2007, novelist Joseph Boyden and translator Greg Spence spent a week at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre working on a Cree-language edition of Boyden’s acclaimed first novel, Three Day Road (Penguin Canada).
“A translation like this has never been done before. The only major book translated into the Cree language is the Bible,” says Boyden. But despite the author’s enthusiasm to release his novel in the most widely used Native American language, the project has taken longer than expected, in part because Spence, who works as a professional translator on government, educational, and scientific texts, has been unable to find time in his schedule.
But difficulties in the translation project have also arisen from the inherent need to reconcile the two opposing worldviews expressed by English and Cree. “When you’re looking at an indigenous language, whether it’s Cree or Ojibway, the way the world is viewed is so different than the Western way,” Boyden says. “It’s also a very, very specific language – there are 50 different words for ‘snow’ – and it’s non-gender-oriented. It’s not an easy journey from that sociological or ethnographical perspective.”
More than seven years later, the duo has enlisted the help of a group of Cree speakers to reinvigorate the project, including Up Ghost River author and former Fort Albany First Nation chief Edmund Metatawabin and two young, fluent Cree speakers, Christopher Hunter and Gordon Hookimaw. Before publication, a panel of elders will also review the translation.
“It’s becoming more of a community effort and it’s bringing together the younger generations to work on it, which is thrilling,” says Boyden. “It is a big deal, for a first time doing this, we want to make sure we do it right.”