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Jenny Kay Dupuis wanted her book to be available in the language her grandmother was punished for speaking

When Nipissing author Jenny Kay Dupuis co-wrote I Am Not a Number, she knew that she wanted to have it translated into the Nbising dialect of Nishnaabemwin, the language that her grandmother was forbidden to speak at residential school.
Jenny Kay Dupuis's I Am Not a Number tackles the history of Residential schools and is based on her grandmother's experiences. (Dan Robb/Second Story Press)
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This segment originally aired February 3, 2019

When Nipissing author Jenny Kay Dupuis co-wrote I Am Not a Number, she knew that she wanted to have it translated into the Nbising dialect of Nishnaabemwin, the language that her grandmother was forbidden to speak at residential school.

But she didn't realize that the translation would take years.

I Am Not a Number tells the story of Dupuis' late grandmother, Irene Couchie, who was removed from her family and forced to attend the Spanish Indian Residential School in Northern Ontario.

Nearly three years after it was first published in English and French, Dupuis' book is finally being translated into Nbising. And it's a process that's involving many members of the Nipissing community.

"When you think of the history of the residential school system, and the story itself, the intent being to take away language and culture. For many young children that attended those schools, it did take away the language and culture," explained Dupuis. "This is a way to give back."

In the publishing world, explained Dupuis, there's usually an official translator who will be hired to translate a book. But this translation approach wouldn't work for the Nbising dialect.

"So we had to sort of broaden our understanding of what translation typically looks like," said Dupuis. 

Dupuis, who doesn't speak Nbising, felt strongly that the translation had to come from within the community.

"If we're going to publish a story that's from Nipissing First Nation and the experiences of people from Nipissing First Nation, it's vital that we do it in the community language," she said.

Dupuis discussed the translation with her publisher Second Story Press, "through many conversations, and those conversations happened over more than two years."  

"We had to rethink the process,"  said Dupuis. "It was something new for a publisher to agree to do, to work with community."

Translation in community

The translation is being carried out now by Nbising speakers in the community. The core translation team consists of Muriel Sawyer, Geraldine McLeod, and Tory Fisher, and they consult with other Nbising speakers in the community to ensure accuracy.

Muriel Sawyer is part of the team translating I Am Not A Number into the Nbising dialect of Nishnaabemwin. (Submitted by Tory Fisher)

Sawyer, who is Deputy Chief of Nipissing First Nation and a retired Nbising teacher of 40 years, also knew Dupuis' grandmother and remembers speaking with her in their language when they were younger.

Sawyer originally turned down the translation work because she was over-committed. But when she heard that someone who speaks a different dialect of Nishnaabemwin might translate the book, she felt she had to do it, to honour Irene Couchie's story.

"I knew her, and I felt I owed that to her," said Sawyer.  

"I thought this has to be done. We need to do it here on Nipissing. I also wanted to give that to Jenny and to Irene. Here is your story now, in the dialect that you were forbidden to speak at this terrible residential school."

The team updates Dupuis on how the process is going, but it's important to Dupuis to give the translators the space they need to do the work.

"I've actually stepped back from it and really let the team — Muriel, Geraldine and Tory — have the time that they need to work through the story," explained Dupuis. "I look to them as language speakers, and that's something that's I hold really highly, and they're doing fantastic work."  

"It feels that I'm doing something right. It feels that I'm helping to support something that somebody tried to take away," said Dupuis.  

The Nbising translation will be available in duo-language (English and Nbising) through Second Story Press fall 2019.

The translation of I Am Not A Number into Nbising involves many members of the Nipissing community. (Submitted by Tory Fisher)