My Translation Adventure with Northern Sami ‘n Friends

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A week from tomorrow is my birthday. In looking for potential gifts and wish-list constructions, one click led to another and I found myself discovering something about Minecraft (a well-known video game with quite simplistic but cute graphics that I can’t really grasp the point of) being translated into many languages.

Since my travels have hardened my discipline, I’m usually not one for game-playing, but I was so intrigued that I had to take a look.

Turned out, the list of languages included the standard ones that most Americans can name off the top of their head, but then spun into complete unpredictability with Manx Gaelic and Cornish being featured (!!!!)

Both languages, for those unaware, had passed into extinction and have been revived. In the UN’s Atlas of Endangered Languages, these two are noted with the red pin (indicating “critically endangered”) with a letter “R” on it, indicating that it had been brought, pardon my expression, back from the bring.

It is interesting to note that the game is likely being used to further the revival attempts at both languages, even though neither translation is truly complete (Cornish is at 65% or so as of the time of writing, with Manx slightly over 70%).

Now here’s the most interesting part: Minecraft outsourced its translations to the public. What that means: you can create an account on CrowdIn, and start translating to whatever degree you want to, no matter who you are. Of course, those who know the language better will vote on your translations accordingly, acting as quality control.

Taking a look at its offerings, I noted that there was a Northern Sami translation and that it was not making signs of great progress (as of last week it was about 1%).

Keeping in mind the adage from the language encourager community that languages need to be experienced rather than learned, I snatched the chance, created the account, and then began translating.

My only experiences with the game dealt with watching some of my college friends play it (and try to hopelessly explain the game to me), but luckily this was no barrier in me getting to work.

A few days later, and the progress for the translation is now at around 14% or so, and when I’m in more of a working mood I’m likely to continue it.

Some of my thoughts / frustrations:

  1. There are lots of languages recognized by CrowdIn, possibly the longest list I’ve seen on anywhere that isn’t Reddit. Very interestingly, while they had offerings like Ewe and other languages whose name I only recall seeing once, Greenlandic / Kalaallisut was nowhere on the list.

 

Mixed blessing?

 

  1. A Material Notebook proved helpful. I had grammar tables and the like in my notebook that was right by my side. I had also copied the contents of a screenshot from Wikipedia that showed Kubuntu being translated into Northern Sami, and I had never thought that I would ever to put it to use like this when I first wrote it.

 

As it turns out, I consult multiple dictionaries for the translation, Giella Tekno (which is Norwegian/Finnish to Northern Sami and back to both), as well as two English-Northern Sami Dictionary lists, and another Norwegian/Swedish /Sami Languages dictionary. But clicking between the tabs proved difficult and really wore out my hand, after which I needed to take a walk.

 

  1. There was an original stage of self-consciousness, but I quickly got over it. I thought, “what if a Native speaker comes in and demolishes all of my translations?”, then I figured, “well, you know what, Jared? If you don’t get this done, who on earth is going to do it? Are you going to put your skills to use or are you just going to close the window and forget than anything ever happened?. Jared. Samiland needs you. You might not know it perfectly, but good enough is okay. And you can trust that others will modify your work accordingly…”

 

Further adding to the degree of self-consciousness was the fact that the language, as small as it is, is fractured (for those who don’t know, there are about 15,000 native speakers of this language at least, and definitely many others who learn it as a second language).

 

The word for “I” can be spelled either “mon” or “mun”, and I opted for the first one. Now among the books and websites that I was using, some of them did end up using alternate spellings and I might have not been perfectly consistent. But yet again, Minecraft does note that the “translations may not be 100% correct”.

 

Speaking of which, Facebook is also working on its Northern Sami Translation and it is showing almost no signs of activity, last I checked (which was last week or so).

 

  1. “My dictionaries aren’t showing up any word for X. Should I use the English word instead?”

 

  1. “My dictionaries offer multiple words, one that is more purist Sami and the other that is very clearly ‘Dárogiella’ (the “land language” which is either Norwegian or Swedish, depending on where in Samiland you are). Which one do I use?”

 

I am reminded of the same struggles in some other languages, specifically in Hebrew and in Greenlandic, where there are purist words and European loanwords (all over Europe in Hebrew’s case, Danish in the case of Greenlandic). Yiddish also comes to mind, with its blend of Germanic, Slavic and “Loshn-Koydesh” elements, all of which carry different connotations to a trained ear.

 

The situations are very comparable between the lot of them.

 

  1. “This language has lots of words for reindeer and lots of words for snow, but for some odd reason I can’t find any equivalent for word X (usually something related to technology)…odd…”

 

  1. CrowdIn gathers a list of your “preferred languages” as a result of your profile registration. This proved to be very useful, as I could reference the Finnish and Estonian translations, as well as those in the Scandinavian and West Germanic Languages (among many others) and note what routes I could take. (I usually checked my results with Google Search or Giella Tekno…you’d be surprised how much material there is online even for the smallest of languages…)

 

  1. Despite the fact that it was working, it didn’t really feel like work. I kept in mind Robert Benchley’s adage that “anyone can do any amount of work, as long as it is the work he’s not supposed to be doing at the moment” (note to world: I did not miss any assignments on account of this project).

 

  1. This exercise dramatically improved my vocabulary in all of the “preferred languages”, especially in Norwegian, Finnish and, of course, Northern Sami itself. A speaking exercise afterwards noted that I almost never was grasping for words or pausing as a result of this immersion.

 

I help translate things, and my languages get better…

 

And who knows? Maybe I’ll end up playing the game one day…

 

What a deal!

Northern Sami: What? Why? How?

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Something to think about: the person who designed the Sami National Flag is only a few years older than I am. Sobering…but comforting, because the Sami Flag is one of my personal favorites anywhere!

One fine day at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, I was walking around and I was very hungry, having traversed each of the four stories of the very large museum. (Yes, there was a restaurant, but it was expensive and it didn’t seem that it would have too high quality food. And besides, it was on the bottom story and I was on the upper floors when the hunger hit!)

The Nordic Museum is a fantastic place, complete with a journey through Swedish fashion throughout the ages, and an in-detail description of the life and writings of August Strindberg, possibly the best known Swedish author of them all (okay, Astrid Lindgren also deserves a mention).

The top story of the museum had an array of Sami crafts and clothing, not also to mention a history of Swedish-Sami relations. For those of you who have ever heard of “Lapland”, “Sami” is the politically correct term for the people who live there, with the word “Lapp” and “Lappish” being considered offensive in some circles, despite being used on multiple translations of Wikipedia. (These words still make me cringe when I hear them spoken…)

The indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia, the Sami have a host of languages to their name, the most prominent of which is Northern Sami (Davvisámegiella), in which the National Anthem of Samiland (Sápmi) is written.

Thanks largely to the Sami people being on the recieving end of a host oppressive campaigns of many sorts, as well as the fact that the Sami people and languages have been influenced by Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and that these cultures have been influenced by the Sami in return—there are many resources for the learning the Sami Languages, especially Northern Sami, with the most popular being Giella Tekno at the University of Tromsø: (http://giellatekno.uit.no/)

I cannot speak about the other Sami Languages right now, although it should be noted that a significant amount of them have become extinct and a host of others are still living. The Sami Languages are not mutually intelligible, but since I have only put serious effort into one of them I cannot comment on the similarities between them (or lack thereof).

If you are a Finnic Language buff, you may recognize that the word “Giella” in Northern Sami resembles that of “Kieli” in Finnish and “Keel” in Estonia. Northern Sami is Finno-Ugric, and as a result resembles Finnish and Estonian not only in cognates but in other regards:

(1)   The accent is always on the first syllable (a hard-set rule throughout the language family).

 

(2)   No articles!

 

(3)   Consonant Gradation is a thing. Note in Finnish: “Katu” = “a/the street” vs “Kadulle” (on the street)—the “t” changes to a “d”. Other times this gradation doesn’t happen: “Pomo” = “a/the boss” vs. “Pomolle” = “to/for a/the boss”

 

In Northern Sami, it isn’t as intuitive (Remember that with the lack of articles, “the” can be also translated as “a” in the example):

 

Jávri = the sea (subject)

Jávrri = of the sea, sea (direct object)

Jávrái = to the sea

Jávrris = from the sea, by the sea

Jávrriin = to the sea

Jávrin = such as the sea

 

Note the nominative with the singular “r” and the other forms with two. Now for this:

 

Sápmi = A Sami person

Sámi = of a Sami person, Sami person (direct object)

Sápmái = to a Sami person

Sámis = from a Sami person, by a Sami person

Sámiin = to a Sami Person

Sápmin = such as a Sami Person

 

In this example, the nominative has the “pm” and then is gradated to “m”. Hence, Finland in Northern Sami is “Suopma”, of Finnish/Finland would be “Suoma”.

About Northern Sami itself, I have heard people asking why I even bother to invest my time in it every single time I bring it up! In other cases, I’m even lucky if I’m asking people who know what it is. If they do, however, the fact that I know even a bit of Northern Sami is very, very heartily appreciated.

I cannot understand why many people overlook the fact that very rarely spoken languages can reap huge rewards when you run into the right people—or even with commanding a significant respect from many others who have never even heard of it! Even if you know only about one page’s worth of vocabulary! (This was particularly true about a year ago when I had a non-serious flirtationship with Greenlandic. Now that relationship is serious…)

So that’s your homework: get learning a very rare language. There are lots of them. And more resources for them that you realize. Start today!

Back on topic…

The primary reason I chose to invest in Northern Sami was because I have an interest in Nordic Culture and I wanted to investigate the linguistic interplay between the Northern Sami Languages and Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Russian (and I look forward to dragging Russian out of my “Forgotten Language” zone).

One fine day at a pool party I brought my very trusty Northern Sami notebook (the words “Ale Stuža!” [Do not splash!] were very useful!), I had to explain what sort of language this was and why I was learning it(for what was not the first and what definitely will not be the last time).

Why? Understanding Scandinavia better, through its more unheard voices.

What? Picture this: Norwegian and Swedish have a baby, and then that baby grows up and has a baby with the Finnish Language. That is what Northern Sami is…very, very roughly.

What do you do with it? Well, that’s up to you. There are translations to be done, there is the Bible in Northern Sami, there is even a Learn Useless Northern Sami Page on Facebook (which has been inactive for a while but is still useful). If you learn by association (the way I do), the other Nordic Languages become easier to memorize and learn (especially Finnish).

Of course, it is also a vital piece of history as well, and in many tourist attractions in Sweden you can see Northern Sami being used in Museum media. It is, after all, one of the official languages of Sweden, and one of the official languages of NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

There is also a Sami kindergarten in Helsinki and in all four countries which make up a part of Samiland, there are efforts and usages that will reward you, not also to mention “Ođđasat” (the Sami News channel), a Kubuntu translation, and a handful of Northern Sami video games that you can find it you look hard enough!

And for those of you who scrolled all the way to the bottom in order to find out how many speakers the language has, I’ll place the estimate at around 20,000, a number which is probably either from UNESCO or Wikipedia.

As to what I used, the biggest piece of it was a Northern Sami-Swedish Course called “Gulahalan” (I Make Myself Understood), which has twenty lessons all for free! I will review the course on another occasion!

Until then, I hope that this post inspires you to take up a study, however serious, of some small language that you may have had your eyes or heart on for a while!

What’s stopping you?