Kamik was wandering in the middle of a desert of ice and snow when a savage polar bear emerged out of nowhere to kill the dogs that had been pulling the sled of the group of hunters he was travelling with. The hunters decided that the bear must die.

So begins Harpoon of the Hunter, the first novel in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit in Canada. Written by an Inuit named Markoosie, the novel was originally published in a journal in 1969. It was a landmark book for many reasons, not least because it was the first time that an Inuit oral narrative in Canada had been formally published on paper.

Now imagine reading this rare work in Marathi or Hindi.

In January, the University of Mumbai, in collaboration with the University of Montreal, launched translations of Markoosie’s work in Hindi (Shikari ka harpoon with Sanjay Kumar) and in Marathi (Shikaryacha bhala with Jayant Dhupkar). These are the first translations into any Indian language of an aboriginal book from North America, said Daniel Chartier, the coordinating professor of the project at the Montreal University. Chartier described the launch as “historical for the Inuit all over the world”.

Inuktitut is the language spoken by the Inuit, who live in the northernmost areas of the world. There are only 11,000 Inuit in Quebec and 50,000 around the world. As Inuktitut is primarily an oral language, the Inuit began to write it down in self-developed scripts only very recently.

Bringing back a story

The translation project began with an academic exchange, as Vidya Vencatesan, head of the department of French at Mumbai University, travelled to Montreal in 2012.

“Whenever I travel, I always come back with a song, a story and a recipe,” she said. “In 2011, they had brought out a bilingual edition of the original book with Inuktitut on one side and French on the other. Professor Chartier asked if we could consider a translation from French into Marathi. That was when I realised no work in Inuktitut had ever been translated here.”

The 2011 bilingual edition Vencatesan was given was the first time that the story had been printed as a separate book in Inuktitut.

On her return, Vencatesan decided to pursue the project. Mumbai University was flush with funds at that time and she secured a small budget for the translations. Two French professors and veteran translators at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad stepped up to the task: Jayant Dhupkar for Marathi and Sanjay Kumar for Hindi.

The two translators worked from French, consulting with Markoosie via Chartier about the meanings of words and references. For around two years, the two translators worked independently, each arriving at a different process.

As a result, one deviation lies in the different titles of the two books. The Hindi version is called Shikari ka harpoon and the Marathi one is Shikaryacha bhala. Dhupkar wanted to use the Marathi word for an implement similar to the harpoon. Kumar, however, decided to retain the English word to retain its essence.

“We are all humans working against nature,” said Dhupkar. “Nature is not democratic. It is unpredictable and you don’t have full knowledge of it. How do you understand that struggle? That is very critical to the book.”

Translating between such vastly different cultures also meant that several references familiar to the Inuit would have no resonance for Indians without adequate explanation. A solution for this was to use photographs.

“The major difficulty was for the Indian readers to understand the relationship between the Inuit characters and their natural environment, made of snow, cold, ice, igloos and of course of different animals, like seals, polar bears,” said Chartier. “We decided to add photographs to the novel, so the Indian reader could better understand the action.”

Working in French

The book is translated into Marathi and Hindi not via English, but French. For the two translators, this was the natural way to go. Dhupkar is no lightweight in translations between Marathi and French. In 1993, he translated Gustave Flaubert’s seminal Madame Bovary into Marathi. His other achievements over the years include translating Molière into Marathi and Namdeo Dhasal into French.

“There is not much money in literary translations, but you feel like doing it because of a concern for culture,” Dhupkar said.

When he read the French translation of Markoosie’s book, he found few problems in following the references, apart from a few words that were retained from Inuktitut. The initial translation took Dhupkar two months, after which began the editing.

“It was a whole world that we knew nothing about,” Vencatesan said. “It was a tale of courage, a tale of people who are slowly becoming museumised. This was a world before Eurocentric civilisation happened. It was a deeply moving story and somehow I think an Indian reader will find it easy to identify with.”