Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Mistranslated concepts in usage in Inuktitut

I was asked if I could help with a discussion in Inuktitut on "uranium" (in Inuktitut: nungusuittuq = never-ending) but I never got a follow-up. I was more than happy to.

I know that the problem of translating technical/scientific terms like "uranium" arise from poorly done explanations in plain language English and not from any fault of Inuktitut itself. The Inuktitut term for uranium seems to have stemmed from an explanation that it is the source of "endless" supply of energy, hence: "never-ending" in Inuktitut got stuck.

But it is a non-productive term because it doesn't naturally link the concepts of "radiation" and "radioactivity" which is the actual problem with radioactive decay (or ending or transformation) of uranium into something more stable. The radiation and heat from the sun is radioactivity par excellence, for example, because the source of its power comes from nuclear fusion.

But one would be hard-pressed to link this phenomenon with radioactivity though it causes cancer in the form of melanoma. The problem is shrouded by the poorly chosen translated Inuktitut term which makes the phenomena nothing more than black-magic (again, not the fault of Inuktitut but the explanation that was given and passed along by Inuit to other Inuit).

Physics (both classical and quantum) is one of my obsessions and has been for many years. I actually love contemplating the equations and the mathematical concepts that describe what are thought to govern physical reality and chemistry. The concepts and principles are simple enough for most people to understand, actually. And Inuktitut may actually be a better vehicle for describing its first principles than English which has much baggage and anti-maths/anti-intellectual history to carry.

I say this with some knowledge of Inuktitut phrase structure (which has the structural ability to synthesize rather than merely compound morphemes) and the arbitrary nature of naming things. We can name things in a highly principled way with some prior knowledge that English wasn't afforded as it evolved along with the scientific revolution in fits and starts and inconsistencies. The mathematics is sound and cannot be improved upon and we should keep to the international symbolic conventions. But there is no compelling technical reason for not creating and constructing Inuktitut terminology for these concepts at a deep level making the concepts grammatically and conceptually productive and consistent in form.

This is not just a naming exercise (as with coming up with "nungusiuttuq") but a program of developing generative taxonomic frameworks for mathematics and scientific discourse that is physics and chemistry in Inuktitut. I know this can be done.

For far too long we've thought of Inuktitut (and aboriginal languages) only in terms of tradition and preserving traditions as dominating culture subconsciously and passively encouraged us to do; why not think of modernizing and keeping our languages relevent and productive for future generations. We must make room for tradition and modernity if our languages are to survive.

Jay

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