The art of translation is essential to many industries that help save, sustain or enhance human life. The value of translating user manuals for medical equipment, for example, is clearly understood to aid health care, allowing medical professionals to monitor and improve the health of their patients worldwide. The value of translating software used by air traffic controllers, for example, is an obvious key to safe, global travel. And the value of translating nutrition facts on food labels is measured daily by appreciative consumers who see the importance of determining the quality of their sources of nourishment.
Still, the art of translation can prove invaluable in other circumstances. On January 19th, 2011, Dan Gunderson of Minnesota Public Radio delivered a broadcast from Fargo, North Dakota. “For nearly 150 years,” he says, “the voices of Dakota men imprisoned after the Dakota Conflict of 1862 went unheard. But the details of their imprisonment are starting to emerge, in letters written by those prisoners after six weeks of fighting along the Minnesota River Valley that left hundreds of Indians, settlers and soldiers dead.” Clifford Canku, an elder of the Native American Dakota tribe and professor of Dakota language at North Dakota State, has been working tirelessly to uncover the meaning behind these ancient transcripts. For over a century, the only available firsthand accounts of the Dakota Conflict of 1862 were written by soldiers of the U.S. Army, prison guards, or other members of the bureaucracy. Canku’s work is bringing the other side of the story to life. Slowly and deliberately, he is translating the 150 remaining prisoner letters, some taking nearly one week at a time, that up until now have been stored in a vault at the Minnesota Historical Society, because he feels a duty to his ancestors. These letters detail horrifying prison conditions which, though painful to read, are helping to bring a sense of closure to the prisoners’ descendants tormented by unanswered questions for so long.
While language translation makes an immense contribution to daily quality of life around the world, sometimes it takes a story of human dedication and compassion to remind us that communication goes beyond software and coding and machines; it connects us at the heart.