In late January, Microsoft announced that the inuctitute was going to be added to its text translator online. It is the first time that an indigenous language spoken in Canada has been added.
According to Vice, any of the 70 languages that exist in the Microsoft Translator it can now be translated from or into the inuctitute, the main dialect of the Inuit that is spoken by 40,000 people from Alaska to Greenland and the mother tongue of 65% of the population of Nunavut.
“The ability to communicate through these means is vital for the preservation of the inuctitute,” said Margaret Nakashuk, Nunavut Minister of Culture and Heritage.
As the inuctitute is the official language of Nunavut, along with English and French, the Microsoft Translator it can be a useful tool to help ensure compliance with language legislation. “I tested it and it is a great tool to be the first step in ensuring that obligations are being met by the private sector and territorial institutions,” he said Karliin Aariak, Nunavut language commissioner.
To create the translator, Microsoft worked on close collaboration with the Government of Nunavut, e volunteer speakers validated and tested the translations.
A standardized translation project for the inuctitute is complicated by the diversity of dialects spoken in the Arctic, which are generally mutually understandable but have local differences.
Canada’s legacy of colonization and assimilation has resulted in the loss of speakers from many indigenous communities, but indigenous-led initiatives are actively trying to make native languages previously threatened more accessible.
Today, there are more than 70 indigenous languages spoken by some 260,000 people in Canada, but more than half of them are at risk of extinction. Despite recent efforts to revitalize Inuit languages in Nunavut, speakers fell from 72% to 65% between 2001 and 2016.
“The language is part of the identity, even if it does not speak it or does not use it regularly, so it is important for the Government to recognize that indigenous peoples have their own language and this is important for the way of thinking,” he said Louis-Jacques Dorais, speaker and researcher of the Inuit language and culture in Laval University.
For now, speakers say the translator needs a “second set of eyes” to examine the translations, but many consider the tool a significant way to preserve the inuctitute.
Microsoft’s tool, however, is far from perfect. Solomon Awa, manager marketing linguistic Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit, a Nunavut-based organization that promotes and protects the Inuit language, said fluent speakers would recognize the low quality translations, but people less familiar with the language may not.
“Sometimes it is close, but sometimes it gave the opposite meaning or one that was misleading,” said Awa.
The inuctitute is a polysynthetic language, which means it builds sentences by adding elements that describe place, time, size and more in a root word. With each suffix or affix added, the meaning of the root word changes completely. For that reason, the inuctitute uses simple words to express what other languages need a complete sentence to say.
Maria Campos, ZAP //