Saturday, September 26, 2009

Louis Hémon

The French international TV channel TV5 Monde often broadcasts Quebec films. We Canadians find it amusing that they sometimes take it on themselves to subtitle the Canadian French dialogue in ‘international’ French, but that could be taken as an example of intralingual translation (translation within the same language).

Last Monday they showed a beautiful Quebec documentary about the life of Louis Hémon: Sur les traces de Louis Hémon, directed by Monique Miguet, 2006.

Louis Hémon, 1880-1913, was a restless young Frenchman who travelled and worked in Canada from 1911 to 1913, and who was moved by his experience there, especially his stay in the Northern Quebec village of Péribonka, to write his masterpiece, the novel Maria Chapdelaine. It has the unusual distinction of being considered a classic of Canadian literature as well as of French literature, in spite of the brevity of Hémon’s stay in Canada. This is because he observed the Catholic rural society and harsh living conditions of the people of Péribonka with ethnographic realism. The result, for French Canadians, is a nostalgic portrait of an almost mythical period of their own history. But Hémon didn’t write for Canadians, he wrote for his own countrymen in terms they would understand and his book was first published in France; and so he became for the French a cultural translator. (Cultural translation does not necessarily require a change of language.)

And not only for the French. There have been nearly 90 editions in other languages, including five in Japanese. (There’s another Canadian classic, Anne of Green Gables, that’s very popular with the Japanese thanks to translation, and hundreds of them visit her house on Prince Edward Island every year.)

But the French don’t look at the picture with the same eyes as Canadians. For the French, it illustrates the survival of their own people and culture under harsh conditions in a faraway place. This is reflected in the film adaptations, of which there have been three. The poster for one of them is reproduced in miniature at the head of this posting. It’s for the 1934 version made in France by Julien Duvivier with Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin and Jean-Pierre Aumont – distinguished credits. It’s full of folk songs, but songs that are more typical of France than of Canada. (It also shows Maria picking blueberries in a tree.)

Meanwhile there’s another side to Hémon and translation. It’s that Hémon was himself a translator on and off. Before he went to Canada he had lived for nearly a decade in England, earning his living as contributor to French newspapers. So he learnt English well and even translated a Kipling story. In Canada he was short of money, and for two periods he found paid employment as a translator, not of literature but of commercial correspondence. The first time it was for a pulp and paper mill in Northern Quebec, and the second time for a firm of ironmongers in Montreal. His Montreal translating job equipped him with the typewriter on which he also typed his novel.

The Sur les traces documentary mentions that he obtained both the translation jobs “because he was bilingual”. Perhaps his fluency as a writer of French also helped, but there is no question of any training as a translator. Indeed, where would he have found training in those days? The first ‘professional’ (i.e., Expert) translation course in Canada was at the University of Ottawa in 1936. Hémon was therefore a typical advanced Native Translator. He honed his natural translation ability on French literature and journalism and the examples of translation that he read in Canada, England and France. Although, in those days of grammar-and-translation language courses, he would also have had to do some translation exercises at school, it was translation of a special kind about which I hope to write later. Anyway his work as a language translator was insignificant compared with his role as a cultural translator and as a novelist.

There’s a Louis Hémon page with editions of Maria in both French and English on

Both the French text of Maria and the English translation by W. H. Blake (Maria Chapdelaine: a story of French Canada, Toronto, 1921) can be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg.

Another English translation, with the title Maria Chapdelaine, a romance of French Canada, was published in Montreal, also in 1921, the same year as the original appeared in book form in Paris. (It had previously been published as a serial in a Paris newspaper.) Therefore the interest of translators and publishers in producing an English version was immediate. Notice that both translators (or perhaps their publishers) thought it advisable to expand the title to attract English Canadian readers, with the Montreal title slightly the more informative. For English Canadians, French Canadian society was an object of curiosity, a different country within their country. The Montreal translation was by Sir Andrew Macphail, a noted professor of medicine and a soldier as well as man of letters, and it was enhanced with illustrations by Suzor-Coté.

A DVD of the 1934 film is available from several French internet vendors.

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