The Challenges of Chuukese Translation and Interpretation

February 8, 2011 |

Chuukese is the official language of Chuuk, an island group approximately halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. Chuuk is part of Micronesia, located in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean inhabiting thousands of islands, atolls and islets. Polynesia is more widely known, with islands such as Samoa, Fiji and Tuvalu. Melanesia claims the larger islands such as New Guinea and New Zealand. Micronesia is less known.

Micronesia is made up of 607 islands, covers 271 square miles, has a coastline of 3,798 miles, and is scattered over 1 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. There is a total of eight major languages. Each language is truly unique in and of itself, making communication between the islands difficult. Until recent years, these languages were non-written languages, relying only on traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Chuuk is one of the many island groups within Micronesia. Located seven degrees north of the equator, Chuuk is a beautiful, tropical group of volcanic islands within a large barrier reef. Inside the reef (or lagoon), there are seventeen inhabited islands. The islanders living within the Chuuk Lagoon, as well as those inhabiting the scores of tiny islands sprawled within a few hundred miles of the reef, all speak a language called Chuukese.
Chuukese is of the Malayo-Polynesian family, descending from the expansive Austronesian language phylum. There is an estimated 45,000 Chuukese-speaking people living throughout the world.
Today, many Chuukese words are compilations of Japanese, Spanish, German and English, especially words that denote progress, technology and modern development.

Translating and interpreting for the Chuukese language is challenging, especially due to major cultural differences between the islands and the mainland United States. The islands are very primitive, many having no running water or roads. The Chuukese language usually does not have its own words for legal, scientific or modern socio-economic terms.
When translating certain concepts, groundwork must be laid and lengthy explanations carefully taught, oftentimes requiring many words to make a point. Most of the time, informal documents can be easily translated. Conversely, the translation of documents requiring concise words and terms, as in legal and medical documents, translation is much more challenging. Simultaneous interpretation can also prove difficult at times, due to the number of Chuukese words in ratio to English words.

Chuukese is a very poetic language, rich with idioms and a flare for the dramatic. Chuukese phrases such as “You don’t love me anymore” might take on an almost Shakespearian form: “You have flown away from me on swift wings”. Because of the artistic nature of the Chuukese language, an interpreter must weed out and carefully maintain true meaning and be able to intelligently convey proper feelings and facts.
Many words in the Chuukese language are extremely diverse, such as the word “package”. The word for package, as with many other Chuukese words, poses many different variations, depending on what is enclosed within the package (i.e., a parcel of bananas, fabric, fish, taro, goods etc.,). When trying to interpret a normal American scenario (as in a court case, describing what took place), it may become tricky to choose the correct word, especially when the objects being discussed may not exist in Chuukese culture. Not only does the translator have to describe the unknown word (for clarity) but must quickly and adequately decide which word would apply to its packaging, container or method of transportation—none of which may seem to be fitting. Oftentimes, there may be no comparable object in their language. Many times, one must merely choose similar scenarios from the Chuukese culture to portray an idea.

Constantly having to maintain exact meaning forces the translator to make quick decisions, often resulting in stressful moments. Using the Consecutive form of interpretation often proves to be better suited to conveying proper meaning, since adequate time can be taken to explain what needs to be understood.
The Chuukese number system poses one of the greatest challenges to an interpreter. The Chuukese language has a completely different numbering system for objects of different sizes and shapes: long objects, round objects, meats and certain vegetables, people, weapons, etc. The Chuukese dictionary lists two pages of such variants!

Another interesting challenge is Chuukese spelling. In all of Chuukese history, there has never been success in establishing a set way to spell words. Ward H. Goodenough and Hiroshi Sugita, who wrote the best and most current dictionary to date, tried to phonetically mandate the spelling of Chuukese words. He ended up with a very hard to use dictionary with words such as, “ttuuruutiw” and “pwuungw”—which the Chuukese people refuse to follow, due to the excessive, unnecessary amount of letters. Those words, the Chuukese argue, can easily just be written, “turutiw” and “pung”. Consequently, each individual determines his or her own way of writing a word, thus determining the spelling thereof! In many ways, this lack of mandate makes the translator’s job easier. In other ways, the clarity of a sentence can be terribly misunderstood if someone phonetically “sounds out” a word incorrectly. Either way, Chuukese spelling is never far from a translator’s mind!

With the advent of readily available Internet, the Chuukese language is becoming much more versed and visual across the globe. Today, as a culture, the Chuukese people are being forced to juggle the overpowering influence of the English language with their own centuries of traditions. The island languages are quickly changing and adopting Westernized vernacular, lingo and even ghetto phrases. Language purity is being lost at exponential rates, posing problems for teachers and linguists alike. Because of these swiftly changing boundaries, Chuukese translators and interpreters must always be learning and staying up to date with common, everyday phrases within the islands.

By providing up-to-date translation and interpreting skills, translators are aiding in both the preservation of the Chuukese language as well as the promotion of growth and expansion for the future of Chuukese people within our world.

Jill Parsons

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Category: Foreign Language

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