How a Canadian interpreter is keeping Inuktut speakers safe through COVID-19

Ooleepika Ikkidluak has been an interpreter for Nunavut’s cabinet members for 15 years. Now she’s interpreting COVID-19 news conferences for the whole territory. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)
Nunavummiut have gotten used to hearing from their health minister and chief public health officer since pandemic precautions were put into place.

But there’s one other face, and voice, many residents are relying on for the information they need to stay safe during COVID-19.

That person is Ooleepika Ikkidluak, the interpreter translator for Nunavut’s cabinet.

Because Health Minister George Hickes and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson don’t speak Inuktut, Ikkidluak has become a kind of lifeline for unilingual Inuit and Nunavummiut who speak Inuktut as their first language across the territory.

“I take it very seriously. It has some life and death implications. Inuit need to understand how serious COVID-19 is. I’m glad I can help in getting the message across.”Ooleepika Ikkidluaq, cabinet interpreter

Ikkidluak, who is originally from Kimmirut, has filled this role at the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut in Iqaluit for 15 years.

Usually, she works behind the scenes, translating documents, and doing simultaneous interpretation for cabinet meetings.

Since the territorial government began holding regular news conferences to update the public on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s been seen on TV a lot lately, sitting next to government officials.

“I really had to think about how I would say them in Inuktitut so it captures the whole meaning.”Ooleepika Ikkidluaq, cabinet interpreter

The conferences are broadcast live by CBC News and by the Legislative Assembly. Hundreds of people watch the press conferences on social media.

Many watchers are reaching out online to thank her for helping their elder parents to get the information they need from officials.

“It’s been rewarding. I’ve had a lot of feedback [from viewers], thanking me for making them understand exactly what they need to do to protect themselves.”Ooleepika Ikkidluaq
In Inuktut, COVID-19 means ‘major cold’

During the briefings, Ikkidluak’s interpretation is done right after a statement or response is made in English.

It means making fast decisions about health terminology that is new to her language, she said.

“There are a few terms I’ve had to figure out how to say in Inuktitut so that Inuit can understand. For one thing, what are we going to call COVID-19?”Ooleepika Ikkidluaq

The Inuktitut term for COVID-19 is nuvajjuarnaq. It translates roughly to “major cold,” she said.

Ikkidluaq is one of the few guests CBC Nunavut has been able to invite into the station since COVID-19 precautions began. Here she is doing an Inuktitut interview for CBC Iqalaaq. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Ikkidluak has also been able to consult with colleagues who have experience with interpreting health terminology.

“For personal protective equipment, those kinds of terms, I really had to think about how I would say them in Inuktitut so it captures the whole meaning,” she said.

The translation for personal protective equipment means “things that you use to protect you physically on your body,” she said.

Ikkidluak started learning to work as an interpreter translator while Nunavut was still a part of the Northwest Territories. Most of her training comes from working alongside senior government interpreters and translators who were her mentors, she said.

A reporters view of the Nunavut government’s COVID-19 press conferences, where Ikkidluak, right, provides the live translation. (David Gunn/CBC)

At the pressers, she’s been mentoring English speakers on the importance of Inuktut, by asking for questions to be stated more clearly so her interpretations match, and slowing down reporters and politicians who forget to leave time for her to interpret what they say.

“I was able to keep them in place,” she said.

The Nunavut government’s next COVID-19 briefing is on Tuesday at the Legislative Assembly.

After that, the premier’s office said in a statement on Friday that the news conferences will break for the remainder of August, unless there is an announcement that needs to be made.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut, Canada writer wins Indigenous creative non-fiction award, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Walt Disney Animation Studios to release Saami-language version of “Frozen 2”, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Can cross-border cooperation decolonize Sami language education?, Eye on the Arctic 

United States: American cartoonist says his new book on Canadian Indigenous history helped decolonize part of himself, CBC North

Beth Brown, CBC News

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