Partial Translation, Affect and Reception: The Case of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

Nicole Nolette


In Inuit imagination, it is place and time that remain constant as we travel through them: the stories, on the other hand, change in order to hold the passing of Memory, since the telling of a legend is always both a voice from the past and contemporary of the teller. 


For Inuit, it is the story, not time, that travels.

 – Manguel, “Memory and the Myth of the Last Men,” 122.


The film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner opens with a scene of Arctic blue, the sky barely distinguishable from the ground. At its centre, silhouettes starkly cut out against the background, are an Inuit man and three howling dogs. Man and Nature, in the North, captured as such on film once again. Almost immediately, text in Roman script appears on the screen: “Igloolik Isuma productions presents” and “A National Film Board of Canada co-production.” Then, before any faces are shown, as the first human voice speaks in Inuktitut, the bottom of the screen fills with the opening line in yellow-lettered English-language text: “I can only sing this song / to someone who understands it.” The film continues, images superimposed by more rolling text:

Let’s hear it

When you sing you laugh at the same time.

It must be because

you’re winning too!

It’s fun to sing

and play a game at the same time.

By this time, the screen is filled with Inuit faces in a qulliq-lit scene. Hugh Brody invokes this mythic opening scene in his review of Atanarjuat, proceeding to focus on the images. In contrast, Sophie McCall pays particular attention to the opening line. Following McCall, I intend to set forth the interplay between the partial translation invoked in this opening line and the invitation to community and winning of the second. These two early statements set the stage for the crisis of the arrival of the stranger in the first scene: on one hand, the invocation to song, to laughter, to play and to community; on the other, the closure of Kumaglak’s opening line.

In her article on community film-making and partial translation in Atanarjuat, McCall claims that

Kumaglak’s statement is a kind of manifesto that shapes the politics and poetics of the film: to respond to and contest the history of appropriation in recording Inuit songs. Kumaglak will not receive, retell, and reuse the song for his own purposes. His suspicions prove to be well founded: the “up North stranger” murders him, enabling Kumaglak’s maligned son, Sauri, to become the leader of the group and to steal the song as his own anthem. The incident suggests that the song’s power lies in its performance, and the relations of address cannot be separated from the song itself. Taking the song out of one context and recontextualizing it in another profoundly affects the range of meanings that it can generate. (19; emphasis added)

McCall makes the case for the shift affected by Inuit-owned Isuma productions from salvage anthropology to community film-making and for partial translation as a way to re-appropriate songs, to sing them to someone who understands them. She also links this shift in film-making to the formation of Nunavut, with its own mode of self-determination. While McCall focuses on songs and the politics of partial translation as a re-appropriation of anthropological and ethnographic film practices, I would like to review what she seems to imply by partial translation, as well as the mechanisms by which this practice posits different audiences of the film in terms of their relation to the traditions of ethnography, of translation and of hermeneutics. Following recent work by Jill Dolan and James Thompson, I will argue further that translation and performance in Atanarjuat de-centre the politics of spectatorship and address from effect to affect.

In Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, Craig S. Womack makes the case that past readings of Native oral literature, as they were focused on translation and performance problems, removed the politics involved in the telling of narratives. He suggests that “there are ways to talk about the very critical differences in the quality of translations of Native narratives without succumbing to this ‘the Indian world is falling apart’ trap, where nothing is as good as it used to be, which is implied by the pure versus tainted framework” (65-66). Using the tools Womack claims de-politicized Native narratives, I contend that reviewing translation and performance problems can lead to a complex and ambivalent reading of the politics of Atanarjuat. Moreover, these methodologies might best give a sense of theoretical depth to the work on partial translation begun by McCall.


Atanarjuat: Community (Self-)Translation

Said to be Inuit “written, produced, directed and acted” (“Independent”), Atanarjuat is multilingual and involved translation at every stage of development. After collecting versions of the legend of the naked man running across the ice from Inuit elders in Inuktitut, Paul Apak Angilirq, from Igloolik Isuma Productions, wrote the story in English by compressing and rearranging the eight Inuktitut versions collected. The following excerpt from an interview with Angilirq (PA), conducted by anthropologist Nancy Wachowich (NW), gives voice to this process:

NW: Did you write it in English or Inuktitut?

PA: The story, I wrote it in English. And when I started writing the script, I wrote it in Inuktitut.

NW: So let me get this straight, it was written out on paper from tapes of the elders speaking in Inuktitut, then turned into an English story, and then turned into an Inuktitut script, and then turned into an English script?

PA: Yes, that is the system that we had to use in order to get money. Because, like, Canada Council and other places where we could apply for money, they don’t read Inuktitut. They need to have something in writing in English. So that is why I wrote the story in English first, in order to get some funding to go ahead and continue with it. (“Interview”)

Finally, the English ‘story’ was transformed by Angilirq, Zacharias Kunuk, Pauloosie Qulitalik, Hervé Paniak and Norman Cohn into the English and Inuktitut film scripts. The whole process involved constant consultation of the community elders.

Norman Cohn, who ‘translated’ the script into English, recounts the collaborative writing/translating project:

We discussed every scene, every gesture, every line of dialogue, and wrote two scripts at the same time, arguing and acting things out around the table. Apak wrote the scenes down on one laptop in the old Inuktitut font we got from the school, while I wrote the same scenes in English on the second laptop… Apak and I would go home at night and each work on our scenes, trying to fix them up, and then the next day we would make sure they fit together and go on to the next ones. At the same time, Apak consulted with other elders, like Emile Immaroitok, a language specialist, or George Aggiak, who knew a lot about shamanism, to make sure the dialogue was right, especially for the olden times when Inuit spoke a more formal poetic and complex Inuktitut than today. (25)

Though intensely collaborative, bilingual and bicultural, the Atanarjuat project was nonetheless not entirely one of complete reciprocity. The languages and cultures at stake do not have the same value in the context of Inuit, Canadian and international filmmaking. Even though Atanarjuat is based on a pre-contact myth and was brought to screen in Inuktitut (unlike many other myths appropriated by Hollywood film-makers), the Canadian film-making institution through which Isuma applied for and received funding demanded two preliminary translations: one from Inuktitut to English, and the other from oral stories to written text. Then, simultaneously, two film scripts were drafted, and though the synopsis was in the English language, the process allowed for a certain revitalization of the old forms of Inuktitut. As such, both the process and the result of translation are telling manifestations of the power dynamics at play, dynamics that not only lead to language loss but also to a certain gain.


Partial and Incomplete Translation

While the article “I Can Only Sing This Song to Someone Who Understands It” touches on what is meant by “partial translation,” McCall does not elaborate on or situate this concept in relation either to translation theory or to previous film translation research on subtitles. As her focus is on one song in particular, she emphasizes that it “is sung three times in the film but is never translated into English” (66) and elaborates as follows:

The subtitled film enables the filmmakers to create two parallel texts that interact and speak to each other in complex and imperfect ways. The gap between what is spoken and what appears on the bottom of the screen can be manipulated strategically, for a variety of effects, enabling the filmmakers to address different audiences. (66)

Whereas McCall speaks of a “gap,” the specialized term typically used for differences, however small, between an original and its translation is translation shifts.1 As translation scholar Andrew Chesterman explains, “a shift may represent the result of a successful strategy or a routine technique, or indeed the consequence of a misunderstanding, an unsuccessful strategy or a badly chosen technique” (26). Whereas translation scholars such as Chesterman have generally attributed the shift to an unsuccessful strategy, to an error in translation, McCall sees the gap as a space for strategic intervention. In the finished product of the film, therefore, the gap between what is spoken and what appears at the bottom of the screen is the result of the strategies she chooses to examine. These differences (the ways in which parallel texts interact and speak to each other), after all, are what allow her to consider this form of translation partial and are what she qualifies as deployments of “strategies of incomplete translation” (27).

Sherry Simon coined the term traduction inachevée ‘incomplete translation’ in her early work on heterolingual texts – that is to say, literary texts written in more than one language. For her, this term reveals translation “comme mode de génération textuelle, de la création interlinguale, ainsi que des modes d’incorporation de l’altérité linguistique dans le texte” ‘as a mode for generating text, for interlingual creative writing, as well as modes for incorporating linguistic alterity into the text’(19). Simon’s view of inachevé in translation is far from one of deficiency and loss – the usual qualities attributed to translations. Rather, the inachevé is a space of creation and of supplementarity along the lines of Jacques Derrida in philosophy or Homi Bhabha in postcolonial criticism. This is in some measure reflected in McCall’s writing, where the incomplete is deemed to both “highlight the space of cultural contact and difference in acts of textualizing orature and orality” and to “resist the powerful explanatory impetus of the genre of the ethnographic film, which presumes to elucidate the roles and purposes of cultural practices for outsiders” (27). Beyond the textual aspect of these translation shifts, the effects that they engender also interest McCall. For her, these translation shifts, or partial translations, address different audiences, anticipating and grooming them, in a sense, for watching and listening to Atanarjuat. However, the attribution of a positive aspect to incomplete or partial translation by McCall clearly tips in favour of the Inuit audience. Herein lies the problematic – and yet extremely relevant – nature of naming this kind of translation partial. While very vividly pointing to incompleteness, this naming practice also emphasizes partiality as a way of favouring one side of an issue.


Partiality and Translation

Translation scholar Lawrence Venuti speaks of the double nature of partiality in communication as being inherent to translation:

Can a translation ever communicate to its readers the understanding of the foreign text that foreign readers have? Yes, I want to argue, but this communication will always be partial, both incomplete and inevitably slanted towards the domestic scene. It occurs only when the domestic remainder released by the translation includes an inscription of the foreign context in which the text first emerged. (487; emphasis added).

For Venuti, as for many other translation scholars, the bias of translation will inevitably slant towards the domestic scene; in trying to communicate the foreign text, translators will have to accommodate their readers’ understanding, often adapting, lengthening, and/or explaining. Venuti, himself inspired by Antoine Berman’s Heideggerian approach, describes how the foreign element is often deformed by translation.2 The only strategy identified that pertains to the slant towards the domestic scene perceived by Venuti would be a deliberate effort of foreignization “through a series of intensifications in the translating language – in other words, accentuating its strangeness” (277). On the other hand, McCall’s use of partial translation already seems to contain incompleteness and an inscription of the foreign context in which the text first emerged. This inscription of the foreign, for McCall, lies in what remains untranslated, or what is intrinsically linked to incompleteness. This insistence on the foreign before the domestic, hinted at by Venuti, finds its echoes amongst postcolonial thinkers on translation. These theorists, along with their colleagues in gender and cultural studies, have contributed to the deconstruction of the concepts and history of translation by placing them in the context of the unequal exchange of languages. Postcolonial scholars have, in fact, emphasized the very asymmetrical power dynamics between languages, putting into question the traditional ideal of mutual reciprocity advocated by George Steiner’s hermeneutic model.

Steiner suggests that the faithful translator “creates a condition of significant exchange. The arrows of meaning, of cultural, psychological benefaction, move both ways. There is, ideally, exchange without loss.” I need not reiterate the idea of the futility of such remarks in the colonial context, where the “exchange” is far from equal and the “benefaction” highly dubious, where the asymmetry between languages is perpetuated by imperial rule. (Niranjana 59, citing Steiner 318-19)

In light of the seemingly inevitable ways through which translation negotiates colonial dynamics, serving to maintain hegemonies at the same time as it proposes sites of resistance, politicized postcolonial translation scholars often advocate for translators to be subversive, ideological and transparent. As such, the multiple directions of translation in the production (continual loops and interactions between Inuktitut and English) and reception (interaction between the two languages) of Atanarjuat shed light on the translation tactics made possible by a politicized postcolonial position.


Countertranslation Tactics

Approaches to translation that purposefully focus on the foreign remainder – including Spivak’s literalism, Berman’s intensifications, Simon’s traduction inachevée and McCall’s partial translation – tend to give readers a feeling of not quite understanding everything on the terrain of the original. In a way, this is a call for countertranslation, for a subversion of the communicative or hermeneutic intent of translation. I use counter here in the same sense as McCall when she speaks of Atanarjuat as a “counterethnographic film. That is, it makes ethnographic references as a way of ironically echoing, parodying, or critiquing colonial ethnographic traditions” (29). She is quick to state, however, that “Atanarjuat is not an antiethnographic film” (29). Similarly, the forms of translation mentioned above are not antitranslative; rather, they will ‘echo,’ ‘parody’ or ‘critique’ the history of translation and its emphasis on linguistic and semantic equivalence. At the very centre of translation studies, and yet a point of great controversy within the field, equivalence has troubled both translators and theorists. Usually defined as “the relationship between a source text (ST) and a target text (TT) that allows the TT to be considered as a translation of the ST in the first place” (Kenny 77), equivalence seems to both define translation and be defined by it.

Approaches that run counter to equivalence thus trouble the lines between source text and target text as well as those between creation and translation. This deliberate act to counter translation is, in a lot of cases, one of extreme importance – one that is tied to the very linguistic and cultural survival of those who are being translated:

It is resistance to translation, not acceptance, that generates translation. If a group of individuals or a people agree to translate themselves into another language, that is if they accept translation unreservedly, then the need for translation soon disappears. For the translated there is no more translation. (Cronin 95)

That is to say, translation itself can act as a form of assimilation, and the translated might very well be the assimilated. To resist, then, and to counter is to maintain a certain part of self as self, as something not to be shared with the other. Yet the very communicative meaning of translation demands exactly this kind of sharing, however asymmetrical it may be. An act of resistance to translation might best be qualified, following Michel de Certeau, as a tactic:

a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus, it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. (36-37; emphasis added)

The resistance to translation is present within the translated (target) text – the space of the other – all the while giving a rough sense of the specific terrain of the original.3 It is important to note that, because the Inuktitut and English texts of Atanarjuat are superimposed as voice and script on screen, the resistance effects of the echoes, parodies and critiques, as they play between languages and parallel texts, will necessarily differ according to the end receivers. Audience members who understand both Inuktitut and English will grasp these effects, while they will only be hinted at for audience members whose linguistic understanding extends only to one of the texts. For McCall, this could mean that the bilingual audience members are the only ones who might emerge as winners because of their understanding of Atanarjuat, and yet, there must be alternative ways in which other audience members can also play a game and win.


Translation as a Telling

McCall has argued that differential effects could be perceived as different tellings of stories and songs: “historical constructions of Inuit stories and songs in text and film show how Atanarjuat‘s collaborative filmmaking production opens up for negotiation hierarchical relationships in both textmaking and filmmaking” (20). If so, then these tellings are highly directed: they are built upon the context of their address. Arnold Krupat has written at length about the different audiences of Atanarjuat, contending that there are “three fairly distinct audiences” (132): first and foremost, the local Inuit community; second, a “southern – French and English Canada and the United States, but also a more generally metropolitan – audience, which it challenges to see with a Native eye”; finally, a third consisting of “southerners who are either unwilling or unable to alter their habits of perception” (133). Interestingly, Krupat argues that these audiences differ in how they link the beauty of the film to its social power. For the Inuit, it seems that these elements are intrinsically connected: “the film’s beauty, in part, is that it does good things for the Inuit” (132). The second audience allows itself to be challenged by what it sees on screen. This audience “brackets […] its familiar habits of response” and this bracketing is already the beginning of the “practical social power” of the film (Krupat 133). The third audience, on the other hand, is considered to be “either unwilling or unable to alter [its] habits of perception” (ibid). Both partial translation and its call to see differently are ignored by this audience, who would prefer to continue “systematically translating the film’s world into familiar categories” (ibid; emphasis added). Krupat claims that with this audience any practical social power of the film is dissociated from its beauty, which is perceived on a purely formal, often universal, level. Incidentally, this third audience has been well catered to by the existence of an accompanying website and the distribution of several explanatory interviews. Moreover, Isuma published both English and Inuktitut screenplays (versions that differ considerably from the film scripts), accompanied by several supplements. Inasmuch as there is an attempt to partialize translation – to incomplete it, as it were – there is also an opposite, explanatory current at work. In other words, while there is a firm statement to “only sing this song to someone who understands it,” a competing response exists, one that calls for the possibility of everyone winning in singing. If partial translation was marked for McCall incompleteness, then this form of translation surely takes part in its implied opposite: a complete translation. Not only is every part of the Inuktitut version translated into English, but the domesticating strategy applied here systematically works to re-establish familiar domestic categories for the foreign material to be assimilated.

Yet, perhaps configuring translations as reiterated storytelling liberates a winning space for multiple textualisations, multiple ways into language(s) and, finally, multiple forms of audience reception. In other words, accepting the text and film as non-homogenous tellings also means imagining the possibility of non-homogenous interpretations as equal ways of understanding. Moreover, perhaps almost understanding or not understanding are valid reactions to Atanarjuat, as spectators then engage the dialogue for explanations, however partial they may be. If telling a story is an iteration, mobilizing past and remembered tellings, encapsulating them, choosing the voices to be included and the parts that will be added or omitted depending on the audience, then every telling is inherently both incomplete (missing parts of a nebulous whole of the story) and complete (as a constituted event). Translation as a telling is dynamic, destabilized, unregulated, unfixed. The goal of neither translation nor storytelling is to be final, the last telling, the penultimate interpretation. Rather, they both seem to generate further iterations, further incomplete understandings. Ultimately, this approach to translation as the telling of a story avoids a major pitfall of partial translation: that of implying that some translations are necessarily complete (and non-partial) products. Likewise, translation as it becomes unhinged by the storytelling metaphor in Atanarjuat tackles issues pertinent to the textualization of orality.


Orality, Subtitles, Translation

In the newly-released Isuma-produced documentary Qapirangajuk: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, Rita Nashook claims that “even without text, our culture is full of wisdom.” This statement will serve as a point of departure for my argument about textuality, orality and the place of partial translation between the two. In Atanarjuat, Inuktitut is the only language spoken; on the other hand, English, apart from the names of characters, is the language of the text that appears on the screen. This division of language in the film posits languages in their traditionally ascribed spaces: Inuktitut as orality and English as literacy. The positioning of these languages marked by colonial relationships is perhaps less problematic than the evolutionist tendencies accorded to them and criticized by postcolonial thought. The context of Atanarjuat, after all, is set in a mythic time, a distant past where the mention of literacy is likely irrelevant. This is a time before colonial encounters, and the faces and voices emanating from the film give audiovisual credence to such a rich, cultural time. The complete orality of Inuktitut in the film can then point to the depth of Inuit cultural wisdom and to its location. The elaborate old-style spoken Inuktitut, juxtaposed with the space and time constraints of English subtitles, highlights the very partiality of trying to translate from the oral to the written. Yet the creation process of Atanarjuat involved writing in both Inuktitut and English nearly from the beginning, from oral versions in Inuktitut to a story in English then transformed into Inuktitut and English language film scripts. Though others have spoken at length about the textualisation of oral stories and histories, my main interest here is the audience’s experience of translation. As such, the film is received through its audible Inuktitut and visual English components. Even as their production process negates this, the Isuma filmmakers have stated that digital technology allowed Inuit orality to bypass text (pending literacy and translation) through the audio-visual:

In an oral culture that never anchored its history with pen and paper, digital technology today affords new opportunities for storytellers. High-definition cameras are particularly well suited to the ancient art and values of Inuit storytelling, which invites viewers directly into a world of sentient beings – with no introductions – welcome to watch, listen and think for themselves. (“Journals”)

Isuma relies on the digital technology of film to transcend both time and space in order to reach viewers, yet the production company also foregrounds translation and literacy through its English subtitles with partial translation.

Insofar as the power dynamics in which the translation process is embedded here may be particular to Isuma’s filmmaking, concerns about subtitling have been studied more generally by film translation scholars. Abé Mark Nornes, one of the first to explore the cultural and ideological issues involved in subtitling, proposed two categories for subtitles. Reminiscent of Venuti’s “domesticating” and “foreignizing” translation strategies, Nornes’s subtitles can take either “corrupt” or “abusive” forms:

Even the subtitles for the most nondescript, realist film tamper with language usage and freely ignore or change much of the source text; however, corrupt subtitlers suppress the fact of this violence necessitated by the apparatus, while the abusive translator enjoys foregrounding it, heightening its impact and testing its limits and possibilities. (Nornes 464; emphasis added)

More than any strategy or tactic reviewed thus far, Nornes’s abusive subtitling spotlights the violence of the apparatus of translation itself. McCall’s insistence on partial translation, I would argue, also stands on the foregrounding of translation practices. Rather than suppressing the violent but often invisible process through which subtitling integrates the subtitled film, McCall’s vision of Atanarjuat is one of heightened, visible translation – translation that points itself out. As we have seen, the verbs echo, parody and critique have also been attributed to the practices involved here. McCall’s use of these verbs carries the trace of the abusive character of Nornes’s subtitles. In both McCall and Nornes, the practices of partial translation and abusive subtitling are given an extremely positive, radical value, whereas their binary opposites, complete translation and corrupt subtitles, are devalued on the basis of their history. In both cases, however, the celebrated shifts usually remain only hinted at in actual translation practice. McCall’s partial translation involves a few moments of non-translation when voices are heard singing but words and meaning remain inaccessible to most audiences. I would claim that it is in these moments of textual silence that McCall’s concept colludes with Krupat’s beauty; moreover, this is the space from which Krupat’s third audience can access a form of the film’s practical social power.


De-centering the Space of Practical Social Power

My argument here is that Atanarjuat’s beautiful moments of partial translation, in which the text of the subtitle is silent and the texture of voices is palpable, give rise to an affective version of how the world might be better. In his groundbreaking work on performance affects, James Thompson gives echo to my claim on the subtlety of such moments of beauty:

The autonomy-limiting call of beauty is, however, also somewhat modest. It is rarely a loud insistence but more often a quiet and intimate claim. […] We know that something is beautiful – and therefore make the claim to others – but at the same time we are aware that this claim can never command obedience. (154; emphasis added)

Thompson’s work is a powerful call for a shift in applied theatre; whereas this practice has previously legitimated socially and politically engaged work that focused on its effects, Thompson argues in favour of a turn to affect as a response to the beauty of any work, defining beauty as “an intense affect generated by an object or experience that is felt by the person, but simultaneously located beyond them” (143). The experience of beauty is the catalyst of response and a call to move beyond the body to share it. While the aesthetic, formal characteristics of beauty have previously been widely criticized as not serious enough, not engaged enough with practical social power (Krupat’s claim about the third audience, as well), Thompson puts forward two different perspectives. In the first of these,

art is understood to have a role in the present, as a protective form with an ‘in spite of’ quality that enables people to tolerate suffering not so that they become immune to it, but so that they have the energy to continue to resist. […] Second, participation in the joyful is part of a dream of a ‘beautiful future’, in the sense that it becomes an inspirational force. Far from being a diversion, it acts to make visible a better world. (2)

Thompson’s second perspective is indebted to Jill Dolan’s idea of the utopian, where performance makes “palpable an affective vision of how the world might be better” (Dolan 6). These two performance theorists seem to find, in the affective, ways to reach the poetics and politics sought by McCall: “how we can ensure the protective and resistant qualities of […] performances without minimising or denying their capacity for inducing enjoyment and pleasure” (Thompson 2).

In this sense, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s postcolonial plea for translation to give a “tough sense of the specific terrain of the original” (330; emphasis added) is highly textured and affective. The translation is “tough” because it demands an individualized aesthetic reaction, which in turn moves outside the body into realms of sociability and hermeneutics. Whereas Krupat has delved into the interplay of beauty and practical social power with different audiences, I believe that he has overlooked the subtle ways by which even his third audience, the one that he insists only appreciates the formal beauty of the film along domestic standards, can be mobilized. As this audience, in particular, takes in an incomprehensible better world, there are moments of enjoyment and pleasure that lead its members to seek explanation. While Krupat claims that supplementary materials published by Isuma “accommodate or actively encourage translation of the film into familiar (but largely irrelevant) Western categories” (133), the consultation of these materials is already an action towards sharing in a vision of a better world. Through audience response, Atanarjuat’s performance politics and translation devices thus extend beyond the film and into the other material produced by Isuma. I have already highlighted how there is a dual translation movement in Atanarjuat: on one hand, one of partial translation in the film; on the other, one of supplementary explanatory measures. While McCall has described the first direction of translation with Kumaglak’s statement, “I will only sing this song to someone who understands it,” I contend that the second direction may be ascribed to the shared win and laughter implied by the answer to this statement: “When you sing you laugh at the same time. It must be because you’re winning too!” An analysis of the supplementary materials produced by Isuma reveals a variety of responses to the film. In this sense, these materials seem to be as much about sharing affective experiences of beauty and the ways they have mobilized individual politics beyond the self. In these shared responses to the beautiful experience of the film, there is, I believe, a surprising and subtly palpable dream of a better world made possible through debate:

The work of creating the beautiful engages participants in a debate about what is good, and presents a place where the truth of that position is gently asserted. In this process all involved become political actors – making claims for new, better, more beautiful worlds that they want to linger as an ongoing inspiration for social change. Affect, and emblematic beauty, becomes a political force. (Thompson 159)

There remains one definition of partial that we have not touched upon yet which further enhances the texture of affective responses – that of being “partial to.” “Partial to” can be read as “fond of,” or, the call of art to have a role in the present and on audience members as sentient human beings responsive to beauty as a lingering inspiration for social change. Indeed, this particular deployment of partial translation hints at an affective approach to translation itself. As the affective turn of performance crosses into translation, as exemplified in Atanarjuat, new possibilities for critical thought on linguistic and cultural representation emerge. This is, I believe, beyond the current reaches of postcolonial thought, one of the beautiful (and better) futures of translation brought on by the dynamics of Atanarjuat’s partial translation.


Final Remarks

As the film ends and the credits roll across the screen, still-shots of the actors in the production process are shown in closing. These images bring the viewer back to the present-day, to the contemporary reality of the Igloolik Inuit and their lifestyle of producing beautiful artistic objects with practical social power. By pointing out the apparatus of filmmaking, Atanarjuat finishes on a note that seems to comment on the partiality of this practice in a way that resonates with that of translation. The self-reflexivity with which the Isuma crew deals with film-making and translation – from production to reception, including the making of the scripts and screenplays, the use of subtitles, the accompanying website and paratextual publications, partial translation, and the various tension involved – also speaks to the multi-modal construction of memory and community, postcolonial and Canadian, local and global, in English and otherwise. At once incomplete, biased and affective, the project of partial translation in this film evokes affective responses which “limit the ephemeral” (Thompson 156) and create the possibility of sharing, of laughing and of winning, too. As these responses to the tough sense of the terrain of the original extend the discursive fabric of the film, Simon’s inachevé unfolds its creativity, Venuti’s strangeness is intensified, Nornes’s subtitles foreground their abuse and de Certeau’s tactics are redeployed across the space of the other. For the pause in translation is a sensory moment of beauty, a moment of interruption followed by the proliferation of inherently politicized human connections. These, perhaps, are the moments of slippage through which it is possible to write and rewrite the beauty that is seen and heard, as the white and blue arctic landscape and the ajajaa songs of the opening sequence of Atanarjuat once again peel off our screens and subtly translate themselves onto our skins.


Works Cited


Angilirq, Paul Apak, et al. Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner; Inspired by a Traditional Inuit Legend of Igloolik. Ed. Gillian Robinson. Toronto: Coach House; Igloolik: Isuma, 2002. Print.

Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner. Dir. Zacharias Kunuk. Igloolik Isuma Productions and National Film Board Canada, 2002. DVD.

Berman, Antoine. “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign.” Venuti, 276-89. Print.

Brody, Hugh. “Film Review of Atanarjuat the Fast Runner.Isuma Inuit Studies Reader: An Inuit Anthology. Ed. Gillian Robinson. Montreal: Isuma Publishing, 2004. 12-17. Print.

Chesterman, Andrew. “Problems with Strategies.” New Trends in TS. In Honour of K.Klaudy. Ed. A. Károly and Agota Fóris. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2005. 17-28. Print.

Cohn, Norman. “The Art of Community-Based Filmmaking.” Angilirq, 25-27. Print.

Cronin, Michael. Across the Lines: Travel, Language, Translation. Cork: Cork UP, 2000. Print.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. London: U of California P, 1984. Print.

Dolan, Jill. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. Print.

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“Independent Inuit Video-Making.” Igloolik Video by Artists. Igloolik Isuma Productions and Arnait Video Productions, 2003. Film.

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After undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Alberta, Nicole Nolette is now a doctoral student in French Language and Literature at McGill University, in Montreal. Her research interests include translation studies, performance studies, multilingual theatre and Canadian francophone literature. She currently holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral scholarship.



1. It is important to note here that there is much debate around the metalanguage of translation and translation studies. While even the term ‘shift’ and its applications are debated, there seems to be growing support in its favour, in particular as it is put forward by Andrew Chesterman in “Problems with Strategies.”

2.  In English, see A. Berman, “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign.” Venuti, 280.

3. Catherine Leclerc speaks of this as “refuser de traduire (et traduire ce refus)” ‘refusing to translate (and translating that refusal’ (73).



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