Monday, 30 January 2012

Modernizing Inuktitut through curriculum development

As a translator with some linguistics training, I'm fascinated by the technical and aesthetic issues of translating. Many of the thinkers I admire think, read and write not in English but other languages - granted, most of them are European or from Ancient Greece or Latin or Sanskrit. But their works are made known to me by way of English. This being the case, I know that some translations are better than others.
There are (have been) many different versions of the Bible in English, for eg. Before the King James' Bible other versions existed (still exist). The Bishops' Bible (1568) version of Psalm 23 goes:

God is my shepherd, therefore I can lose nothing;
he will cause me to repose myself in pastures full of grass,
and he will lead me unto calm waters

which the King James translators rendered as:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters

The same kind of process happens for classical and modern literature. In Dorothy L Sayers' translation of Dante's Divine Comedy: 1 Hell for the Penguin Classics (1949), she writes of technical issues around the translation of symbolic language in poetry and allegory:

Dante's allegory is more complex. It differs from the standard type in two ways: (1) in its literal meaning, the story is - up to a certain point and with great many qualifications - intended to be a true story; (2) the figures of the allegory, instead of being personified abstractions, are symbolic personages.

To take the second point first: In dealing with the vexed subject of symbolism, we shall save ourselves much bewilderment of mind by realising that there are two kinds of symbols.

A conventional symbol is a sign, arbitrarily chosen to represent, or "stand for", something with which has no integral connection: thus the scrawl X may, by common agreement, stand, in mathematics, for an unknown quantity; in the alphabet, for a sound composed of a cluck and a hiss; at the end of a letter, for a fond embrace. The figure X is not, in itself, any of these things and tells us nothing about them. Any other sign would serve the same purpose if we agreed to accept it so, nor is there any reason why the same symbol should not stand, if we agreed that it should, for quite different things: infinity, or a murmuring sound, or a threat. With this kind of symbol we need not now concern ourselves except to distinguish it from the other.

A natural symbol is not an arbitrary sign, but a thing really existing which, by its very nature, stands for and images forth a greater reality of which it is itself an instance. Thus an arch, maintaining itself as it does by a balance of opposing strains, is a natural symbol of that stability in tension by which the whole universe maintains itself. Its significance is the same in all languages and in all circumstances, and may be applied indifferently to physical, psychical, or spiritual experience. (pp. 12-13)

I would suggest that mathematical/scientific knowledge are systems of natural symbolism, and so are psychologically-, spiritually- and sociologically- insightful works of literature (works known to us by way of translation though the source language may not be our own). This type of symbolism is what allows ideas to be translated without losing anything significant in the translation, if not in form.

I have advocated for Inuktitut translation of classics, science and mathematics (modernization) because I know what the world has to offer can be translated into Inuktitut without detraction from either the "original" source or Inuktitut itself. In fact, both would be enrichened by the interaction.

For mathematics and science (chemistry for eg), the conventional symbolism would remained unchanged but the terminology could easily be translated using agreed-upon and already existing pedagogical principles and systematic rules and procedures of nomenclature. In fact, I did some real world experimentations recently in translating some math concepts into Inuktitut. Since I'm naturally attracted to mathematics and science, I know these concepts can and do daunt English-only speakers but not me. I know that the first principles are usually simple enough for boot-strapping to occur once mastery of them takes hold.

Using either form or function or process or end result, the Inuktitut rendition of mathematical concepts are much easier to weld where, in plain-language English, the rendition may not come across so easily (given that math and science nomenclature in English is latin- or greek- based, and can become quite cumbersome English grammar-wise). Inuktitut is a polysynthetic language, meaning that it fuses together noun or verb roots with adjectival and adverbial modifiers naturally enough to not lose grammatical integrity while retaining its descriptive power long, long after English has lost them.

In fact, Inuktitut structure is out-right mathematic (ie, structurally predictable and conceptually- / logically- productive), and - I maintain - modern North and South Baffin dialects have an Elizabethan quality (ie, English that Shakespeare used). Inuktitut is beautiful. Even the Inuktitut bible (as rendered by Moravians using Labrador dialect) has power and beauty the best of German and King James' translations have to offer. Unilingual English-speakers got the wrong impression that Inuktitut is "primitive" from poorly translated/interpretations they are exposed to.


Sunday, 29 January 2012

Co-opting "Canadian" values

In a column piece by Umberto Eco called, The Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno, Eco writes:

According to the famous mot, statistics is the science according to which if one man eats two chickens daily and another man eats none, then each has eaten one chicken. In reality, for the man who hasn't eaten the goal of one chicken a day, it is something to which he can aspire. But in the realm of quantitative phenomena, reducing to the median means reducing to zero. A man who possesses all the moral and intellectual virtues to an average degree immediately finds himself at a minimal level of development. The Aristotelian "mean" signifies equilibrium in the exercise of one's own passions, the passions balanced by the discriminating virtue of prudence. But one who harbors passions to an average degree and posseses an average prudence is a poor sample of humanity. (misreadings, 1994)

Harper, when confronted by the tragic realities of Attawapiskat, tried to deflect "blame" by invoking accountibility issues and lack of "results" for umpteen millions already spent on the sorry community (every man, woman and child), insinuating that, all things being equal, some equals are greater than some equals. Attawapiskat, like a great majority of aboriginal communities in third-world conditions, is much like the man who eats no chicken (above) but who is now called upon to account for something he, in reality, didn't consume, had no means besides. The economies of scale, whether cost of living or sheer numbers of people or overhead and bureaucratic costs, just do not translate properly.

Harper believes, with no reason to believe otherwise, that his party's base comprises of Mike Bongiorno, whose "name stands not for the real man but for the public figure." Harper can count on the fact that:

Mike Bongiorno is not ashamed of being ignorant and feels no need to educate himself. He comes into contact with the most dazzling areas of knowledge and remains virgin, intact, a consolation to others in their natural tendencies to apathy and mental sloth... Mike Bongiorno hasn't the slightlest inkling that culture has a critical and creative function. For him, its only criterion is quantitative... [therefore, he] professes a boundless faith in the expert. A [political pundit of the right hue] is a man of learning, a representative of official culture; he is the technician in the field. The question goes to him, to his authority... Mike Bongiorno rejects the idea that a question has more than one answer. He regards all variants with suspicion. (ibid)

Harper's previous job was as an economist for an oil company (Imperial Oil) before engaging himself in politics. A unit like Mike Bongiorno is and has always been his bread-and-butter. His whole narrative is that "Canadian" values are neo-conservative values, and any voice of dissent to his agenda (both formal and informal) are fair game for demonization. He is a built-in lobby for the oil and resource extraction companies: ethical oil and ethical asbestos; civil society be damned and labelled "radical" and "unCanadian".

Except for Quebec voters, there his majority goes. I'd like to believe that Canadians and our society really are Canuckistanis, whose staunch individualism is balanced by social responsibility and civil sanity. Middle-of-the road Canada owes a huge debt of gratitude to Quebec - we may not always get along but it is our differences which are our source of strength and identity, not aspects of us to deaden and deny in favour of lowest common denominator of ourselves that is Mike Bongiorno.


Friday, 27 January 2012

Us and Them

Given Minister Oliver's dim views of "radicals" and "billionaire socialists" impacting the length and costs of Canada's environmental review process for mega-projects, I think it's worth trying to say that it's not as black and white as he would have us believe.

As a translator and someone interested in these types of things, I know that much of the back-and-forth between the quasi-judiciary panels and proponents have to do with the proponent not having done things properly or having tried to cut corners in fowarding their proposals. Rarely have I seen public interested parties (us aboriginal radicals, for eg) trying to gum up the review process - we tend to believe in the process having been protected as in the Berger Inquiry on the Mckenzie Vally pipeline project long enough to sign much necessary land claims.

The process itself is not the issue but the threat of political- and big business lobby- interference into what is supposed to be an arms-length, independent process should have all Canadians up in arms. The process may be slow and seemingly inefficient but that is for very real and good civic and national reasons/interests outside of short-term interests; to hear political and business interests talking about the review process this way will do nothing but poison a needful process and safe-guard intended to protect the commonweal, something both tangible and intangible.


Science vs Scientism

Wikipedia entry on "scientism" states that:

Scientism may refer to science applied in excess, as criticised by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who held that science risks being made a belief system like any other, and must be open to criticism if and when it becomes so. The term "Scientism" can apply in either two equally perjorative senses:

1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case the term is a counter-argument to appeals to scientific authority. (emphasis added by blogger)
2. To refer to "the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry," (Blackburn, 2005) or that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective" (Putnam, 1992) with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience."

Given the right-wing penchant for sophistry (ie, Harper and his ilk), the newly acquired term "science" in the context of the tar sands and environmental review and regulations in the conservative narrative "science" must be interpreted as nothing other than "scientism", especially when, in other fields of political discourse, the neo-cons have belligerently insisted that they do not operate on the assumption of evidence.

I mean, these are people who equate legality with morality and that the ends justify the means as long as the ends favour them and/or their friends. To wit: climate change has nothing to do with human activities, regardless of what scientific evidence says.


Thursday, 26 January 2012

"super karate monkey death car" and Harper's Davos speech

I just listened to Harper's speech carried live from Davos, and I couldn't help but be reminded of the sit-com episode of News Radio (episode #57): Super Karate Monkey Death Car. The owner of the radio station, Mr. Jimmy James' autobiography (Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer) which didn't do well in America turns out to be a hit, a best-seller in Japan. So, he has the book re-translated from Japanese to English to take advantage of the business opportinity.

Much to his chagrin, Mr James realizes that the book's title and the contents have been changed completely: Capitalist Lion Tamer to Macho Business Monkey Wrestler:

"I had the book translated into Japanese then back into English. Macho Business Donkey Wrestler... well, there you go... it's got kind of a ring to it, doesn't it? Anyway, I wanted to read from chapter three.. which is the story of my first rise to financial prominence... I had a small house of brokerage on Wall Street... many days no business come to my hut... my hut... but Jimmy has no fear? A thousand times no. I never doubted myself for a minute for I knew that my monkey strong bowels were girded with strength like the loins of a dragon ribboned with fat and the opulence of buffalo... dung. ...Glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans... and pants to match. The monkey clown horrible karate round and yummy like cute small baby chick would beat the donkey."

Given that Canada's numbers are just barely better than the rest of the world market economies, the propaganda machine of Harper's government sounds not unlike the re-translation of Jimmy James' fictional book, especially in the Q&A section when the host of the summit, Mr Schwab, asked Harper how Canada's successes could be replicated in other G20 nations. Harper nary mentioned the relatively strong regulatory measures of Canada's financial system that has been our saving grace, but he struggled instead to imply that the "forward-looking" policies his government has initiated are key: with strength like the loins of a dragon ribboned with fat and the opulence of buffalo... dung.


Saturday, 21 January 2012

Lost in translation?

One of my favourite episodes from the Star Trek series is "Darmok" from Star Trek: the next generation. It is an episode where Captain Picard is taken by the "children of Tama" whose language is "incomprehensible" to the Federation because they speak in purely "metaphorical" imagery from their native legends: "Rai and Jiri at Lungha - Rai of Lowani; Lowani under two moons; Jiri of Ubaya; Ubaya of crossroads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky grey." opens the Tamarian Captain to Captain Picard at their first meeting.

Everyone in the Enterprise's bridge is clearly perplexed by the Tamarians' overtures. The uncertain Picard suggests to the Tamarians that they and the Tamarians should strike a non-agression treaty possibly leading to a trade agreements and cultural interchange. The lack of comprehension on both sides makes the Tamarian underlings giggle at Picard's attempts to respond. But their captain says to them: "The River Temarc in winter!" and puts his hand up to silence them.

The story progresses and Picard is abducted and taken to the surface of a planet where he and the Tamarian Captain have to cooperate and fight against a shimmering entity. Through a series of misunderstandings on part of Picard's crew and their quickness to react, the Tamarian Captain is fatally injured and dies but not before demonstrating honour and bravery in the face of danger and death and winning Picard's respect.

In the beginning of the episode Picard says, "In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities we have in sufficient measure," in response to the concerns expressed by some of his crew about the strange incomprehensible Tamarians. Picard's willingness to be open-minded and to allow trust and reason to inform and direct his actions is certainly something of a rare quality in intercultural relations where humanist values (let alone spiritual values) are already difficult if not impossible or futile to try and observe and practice.

As a believer in the humanizing aspects of a "liberal arts education", the storyline of the Star Trek episode above is something I value greatly. The inevitable power dynamics at play in all human relations (whether personal, social or professional relations) seem always in default setting where the one who feels in no need for accomodation and understanding decides the outcome of the relationship. As a humanist and someone of "colour" I'm forever vigilant and sensitive to try and not play the role of either the "dominated"/"dominant" in all of my relations (ie, try to be equal instead of either/or). But perhaps because I'm too impatient or immature, I've acquired a nasty reputation for "inflexibility" and being an "iconoclast", which is sweetly perversed and ironic to me personally.

Having seen oodles of examples in history how dangerous unexamined, dogmatic and received values can be - or how dated and parochial they can become - I'm aversed to conservatism and dogma of all kinds. But I try and live by humanist principles, accomodation and reasonableness, and the lessons from my ancestors and spiritual beliefs I try and embrace whole-heartedly as long as living by them do not impact anyone unduly or take anyone's dignity away.

I believe in science but not the kind that is appealed to to try and control and administer the lives of others in a coercive fashion. Take "science" as practiced selectively by governments. The wildlife management discourse is somewhat heartening to me - the past hubris and certainty of social development ideology has slowly begun to give way to a willingness to listen and consider IQ knowledge of climate, ecology and wildlife. I hope this enlightenment process continues and expands.

The Harper government and those climate-change deniers do not believe in "science" 'til they want it to direct the findings of environmental review process in their favour. This is what aboriginal peoples see, and they become "anti-science" because they come from traditions that still consider hypocrisy and underhandedness as sinful and destructive to social relations (ie, those traditions that have not been co-opted by corporatism and rational-legalism).


Thursday, 19 January 2012

The flexible structure of Inuktitut

One of the biggest obstacles to the use of Inuktitut in the workplace and the proper development of technical terminologies is the presumption by non-Inuktitut speakers that the Inuit Languages are "primitive" and "backward" by nature, and the lack of technical regard for the inherent possibilities of Inuktitut by Inuit themselves. The presumptuous non-Inuit would be forgivable if they didn't have so much power and influence over the officialdom and governance of Inuit Nunaat and the lives of Inuit; Inuit themselves should realize that insistence on traditions and "purity" of language is a visceral reaction that only helps the death of Inuktitut and Inuit society (ie, has little to do with identity because it is a reflexive political/ideological stance).

The English-speaking world takes undeserved pride that much of the world of business, politics and science is English. Little do they realize that the business terms, political terms and, especially, scientific terms aren't really English at all but rather mainly come from Greco-roman classicism, and even from the Inuit language. I don't see this as a negative but a strength of modernity - that one is able to take from diverse sources to coin new words and concepts.

The structure of Inuktitut is that it naturally allows construction of words and phrases from bare morphemes (or meaning units) at the conceptual and grammatical levels much more readily than "English". With the right systems of nomenclature the possibilities for Inuktitut would surpass English-sounding systems of naming principles and procedures using consistencies in word generation and phonological rules by an inestimable factor. Couple this polysynthetic nature of Inuktitut word construction with a system of prefixing and the possibilities grow even more.

"English" can generate word lists like:


all from the same source ἄνθρωπος, Greek for "man" but the "English" constructions are arbitrary (ie, some do not follow grammatical and phonological rules consistently) and therefore have a certain degree of unpredictability and conjugation pattern layouts (consistent vowel deletion/insertion rules do not exist here, for eg).

Inuktitut can do much better. Besides being a genderless language (ie, there is no "he/she/it") Inuktitut is a single source of grammar, morphology and phonology and "specialist" terms can therefore be translated into other fields in a conceptually, logically, mathematically and etymologically consistent manner.


all terms having to do with the concept of "person" (ie, not "man", "woman", "child", "it" but all the concept of a (living) person) and each phonological/grammatical change is rational and predictable (ie, one can build upon the basic concept using consistent rules of construct and phonology).

For new technologies and concepts Inuktitut is just as flexible having adapted itself to snowmobiles (and parts thereof) and hunting and building techniques and new materials built up from terms at the conceptual level: -(r)uti-; -jaq-; -nnguaq-; -jaaq-; etc. are adjectival functions embedded into words. New and novel concepts are embraced and encapsulated into the language from either function and/or form of the "new" thing so the flexibility and adaptability of the language is truly infinite in nature.

With the right information, comprehension and properly laid-out logic systems of first principles/postulates, chemistry, mathematics, finance, politics and/or any field of discourse in which the Nobel Prize are awarded could fall into the realm of Inuktitut. The mathematical nature and elegance of Inuktitut language structure is one of the best ideas out there. No one has just really clued into it.


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Curriculum development and Inuit (aboriginal) education

As a translator many interesting things go through my hands, many opportunies to research and learn new things. One of the things close to my heart have to do with education and sciences - maths, experimental and experiential.

One of things I'm beginning to realize is that the proposed curriculum is very often quite advanced and well-thought out - meaning that there is nothing "wrong" or "inappropriate" about the curricula themselves but they are only as good as the teachers (and their opportunities to commit) for these are people who are supposed to teach our students. I'm not saying anything against teachers, per se. But what I'm critical of is the "frontier" mentality that comes with people from outside the territory who come to work here (often for a year or two) and the lack of follow-up and carry-through so necessary for learning and teaching. The schools here (more than anything) become unredeemably bureaucratic because of the high attrition and transient rates.

And the other thing I'm critical of is the apparent lack of "specialist" teachers, and, with this consultant culture of pedagogy, what often results in exegesis of critical text that has no discernible rhyme or reason (ie, not logically-productive way of teaching) for students to glom onto and build upon and from.

One other thing I'm critical of is that I find nary a workable/actionable section on investing in teacher education programs to develop "native" teacher work-force in often grandiose education "strategies"; I mean, without teachers to stay and work over a long-term in one spot the whole purpose of teaching our students is kind of self-defeating because "education" actually requires consistency and commitment from not only the students but also those teaching them.

So far, from what I've seen and experienced, there are very few committed and interested individuals who spend their whole careers teaching, and this compounds the problem of transience. Education in Nunavut seems to mainly consist of make-work project mentality for newly-minted teachers who plan only to put in time before moving onto something else because of stress and ill-preparedness. Those Inuit teachers who stay in the system tend to stay with the younger classes or become support staff. My best friend subs as a teacher, and he's told me that he doesn't enjoy anything about subbing for high school teachers because of the social dysfunction and complete apathy of the student body. This is what I picture in my mind of Stalinism and North Korea writ large. The high school is more a gulag that spits out Inuit students just in their most trying period of life. A lot of them commit suicide during or shortly after.

We have the right tools and/or ingredients already. I know or have known some exceptional individuals who chose the teaching profession and those who teach teachers. The problem, as I see it, has little to do with students' abilities (which have yet to be cultivated) and the teacher's abilities but the apathetic and dysfunctional social conditions that is the school system in which they find themselves. I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts, Education HQ and administration (at the high school level) spends inordinate amounts of time dealing with dysfunction, disruption, destruction of property, and punitive measures rather than the proper operations of and investments in the school.

I spent a great deal of time as a policy person on education issues: I rarely heard about the issues of and needs for teacher/student support programs but I certainly heard a lot about the misconceptions of education as an expected reward for time spent, as a consumer silver bullet. Education is a life-long process of learning and applying reason and first principles of one's chosen/prescribed subjects and, later on, one's chosen profession. It must be able to capture one's imagination and its comprehension should be able to carry one to a higher levels of consciousness and original insights, not confound and frustrate one into a life of passive agression.

We must, we need to recognize the social aspects and social needs of our schools to address the default hellish dysfunction that results from lack of ownership from all concerned.


Saturday, 7 January 2012

Suicide Prevention Strategies and "The Moral Equivalent of War"

A few weeks back I received an email from one of my readers that, though we talked about other issues, got me thinking about the high suicide rates for Nunavut especially but also in the aboriginal community in Canada in general.

He mentioned William James' "The Moral Equivalent of War" in the context of our discussion on the need for orientation for bureaucrats who serve in aboriginal communities, but it got me thinking that this concept of (voluntary) service "somewhere far from home for a year when they reach eighteen or graduate from high school, whichever comes first" is what is missing in most aboriginal communities - to wit: the utter alienation most aboriginal youth feel with respect to "life prospects" and the larger community to which they don't feel they belong to. In fact, the "suicide prevention strategies" for aborignal youth often fail to imagine this possibility being as suicide is seen and diagnosed as a "mental illness" rather than a social issue - ie, existential alienation mistaken for a root cause of rather than a contributing factor to suicide-by-Inuit.

It's been my experience that travel (for education, for service, etc.) outside of one's native environment is the distinguishing factor of those fortunate enough to have done it from those who've never step foot outside of their comfort zone. Despite my best friend ragging on about my homebody tendencies, I have travelled outside of my community and have benefitted from it psychologically and philosophically. I think most students and alumni of Nunavut Sivuniksavut would feel the same way, having spent pre-college time in Ottawa and having gone on to leadership roles in their own communities after the program. There is a boost to self-confidence and generally to how one carries oneself in this life not afforded to those who've never had to opportunity in youth for healthy alternatives like the NS program.

Granted, there are "exchange" programs that many Nunavut students have participated in (including me) but these aren't formalized with designed programming and outcomes in mind.

The clinical/medical approach to suicide is incapable of looking beyond diagnosis and the prejudices the medical profession holds jealously. In fact, the "patient" is often seen not as a person but a case to be documented, and experimented and worked on. The "treatments" are usually things and processes that the patients themselves cannot take ownership of, some with lasting dependency issues.

Dependency issues are what most aboriginal persons in the world are intimately familiar with; I think it's time to try something else, something else that regards independence, capacity and self-confidence as desirable outcomes.