EDMONTON - The story reaches out of an Arctic past stretching back to long before Europeans came, a world when a hunter's fate was determined by snow and ice, claws and courage.
An academic is dusting off a text considered the first Inuit novel in an effort to understand the travels and many translations of an almost-forgotten Canadian classic: "Harpoon of the Hunter."
"I'm interested in the journeys texts take," said Valerie Henitiuk of MacEwan University in Edmonton.
"Harpoon of the Hunter," first published in 1970, is the story of an Inuit boy coming of age as a hunter and a man. Its journey begins in the preliterate past.
"I heard some of the stories from my grandfather and grandmother, mother and father," said author Markoosie Patsauq, reached at his home in Inukjuaq, Que.
"From their stories, I decided to find out more. I started asking some elders from the community, how can I do this? How can I make something? It's like a small part of the history of our people."
Patsauq was a pilot in the 1960s — the first Inuk to get a pilot's licence — who wrote as he waited for weather to clear.
The original text was in Inuktitut and used syllabics — the circles, triangles and squiggles first developed by missionaries to write down the language.
"Harpoon" originally appeared serialized in a government-sponsored magazine. The magazine's editor, James MacNeill, encouraged Patsauq to translate the story into English.
That was the version, edited by MacNeill, that was published.
It's short, but complex. It uses four different points of view, including a polar bear's, and flips verb tenses as freely as it alternates between joy and sorrow. It offers a vivid view of how Inuit communities worked, the relationships between men and women, and the realities of their daily lives.
Translations followed in French, then German and Danish. The book was recently retranslated into French, and that version was translated into Hindi and Marathi.
A French academic is currently working on a new translation using the syllabic text. Other than that, no translator has ever gone back to the original, said Henitiuk.
"We have a game of telephone. We have an English self-translation which becomes the source text for everything else and nobody looks back at the Inuktitut."
Patsauq said he's content with the English version. "I was satisfied with the way it came out."
Henitiuk said she's not criticizing his translation of his own work.
"(But) translations exist to do different things. The English translation, the aim of the text, is to appeal to English readers and, sometimes, changes need to be made."
Although Henitituk already translates from French, Spanish, Romanian and Latin — as well as modern and classical Japanese — she acknowledges she's just starting with Inuktitut.
"Inuktitut is the most challenging language I've looked at yet."
But already she's sensing that the original and the English version Patsauq produced for his government editor are slightly different.
Drama is played up. Activities that would have been obvious to an Inuit reader are expanded and explained. Christianized elements are added. Phrases are used that sit oddly in Inuit mouths — "Three sunrises passed," for example.
"The original seems to be more much more sombre, much more stark, much cleaner," Henitiuk said.
Perhaps MacNeill, himself a children's author, saw the story as a children's book despite its often dark and bleak material. It has been marketed that way complete with illustrations.
"I believe (MacNeill) had quite a hand in what was published."
The subtle changes in the text, from Patsauq's original syllabics to fourth-hand versions published in India, are the subject of Henitiuk's work.
With the help of a native Inuktitut speaker, she hopes to come up with a new English translation directly from the original.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all if we found an even better book in that original Inuktitut."