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Thursday, 19 November 2015 15:54

Translating for National Geographic

SARATOGA SPRINGS –Jesse Bruchac, Native American author and Abenaki language teacher, has just finished one of his biggest projects yet. Bruchac, who lives in Greenfield Center and grew up in Saratoga, was asked by National Geographic to be the translator for their new two-part special, “Saints and Strangers.”

“Saints and Strangers” tells the story of the pilgrims on the Mayflower, and follows their first year settling in America, as well as their interactions with the native people. National Geographic, wanting this show to be as realistic as possible, included the Eastern Algonquian language Western Abenaki, a language similar to what the pilgrims might’ve heard spoken by the Native Americans.

Today, only about a dozen people speak Western Abenaki in the world, making Bruchac’s contribution to the show that much more remarkable. Though Bruchac is very busy with the premiere of “Saints and Strangers,” he took some time to answer questions about his latest venture and share what his experience was like.

“Saints and Strangers” premieres on Sunday, November 22 at 9 p.m. and concludes on Monday, November 23 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.

Q: How did you become involved with National Geographic? How did it feel?

A: I was contacted by email about the project less than a week before filming was scheduled to begin in South Africa after the first Wampanoag language consultant fell through. They asked if I could do the job of both translating nearly two hours of dialogue into the Western Abenaki language and act as Dialect Coach, teaching it to over a dozen actors on set for two months.  I felt I was up to the task, but realized it was a monumental endeavor!  I felt it was an amazing opportunity that I could not pass up: to share the Western Abenaki language I have worked over 20 years to revitalize, to help bring an essential level of authenticity to the film, and to build awareness about the ongoing struggle to maintain the diversity of Native American languages across the country. 

Q: What does it mean to you to be a part of this show?

A: It was life changing in many ways.  The cast of incredible actors I got to work with were totally dedicated to honoring the language and doing it right.  My main focus was the language, but I found myself involved in many aspects of the film, including offering four original Native chants, which I created while on set.

Q: What was the experience like? What was the average day filming like?

A: It was hard to be away from my family for two months, but it was an incredible opportunity I felt I had prepared my entire adult life to tackle.  It turned out to be a true adventure in ways I'd never imagined, and just being on a set of this magnitude and seeing how everyone worked, and being an integral part of it was incredible  Each evening I worked translating the script, running lines with the actors and preparing for the next day’s work.  We shot in several locations around the incredibly beautiful South African country side, and on both the Indian and Atlantic coasts.  Our days often started before dawn.  The producers ensured that the language was always given time to be done right.  However, I still worked tirelessly to make sure the actors were ready and confident to deliver their lines and their characters through the language.

 Q: Plans for future?

A: I hope this exposure will spark interest in others to learn their own languages.  I also hope it will grow our existing language revitalization of Abenaki across New England and at the Ndakinna Education Center in Greenfield Center where we offer monthly immersion camps in Western Abenaki.  The more people learning the language the more likely it will survive.  I plan to get back to my work in this direction, with a pending DEL (Documenting Endangered Languages) grant already in process. I will also return to my research into making more previously unavailable documents written in the language available to all those who can benefit from them.  For those who can't attend immersion camps, I also will return to my work maintaining and building new content for westernabenaki.com, a free online language learning portal I've been running since 2005.


If future film projects emerge, I will certainly consider them carefully, as I do see this platform as one of the best ways to spread and preserve the language and to have the largest and longest lasting effect, but only if it’s done with the level of integrity and attention to detail as “Saints and Strangers” afforded us.  

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