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Through the Lens of History: Scheming Acadians and translators "dealt a blow to the head by fate"
Jean Delisle, FRSC
(Language Update, Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 2013)
Federal translators, 1867–1967 (II)
"Those men [Debates translators] have such a severe task that, I have been told, one of them generally dies every session."
Pascal Poirier, Senator
In the 1920s, Séraphin MarionFootnote 1 was very familiar with three characters whose strong personalities he sketched during an unpublished speech given at the Institut canadien-français in Ottawa in April 1971:Footnote 2 Louvigny de Montigny and Omer Chaput, both translators, and Arthur Beauchesne, a senior official who had also dabbled in translation. All three had been members of the institute.
Free-spirited and independent, these three characters were never short on words or afraid of being outspoken, even if it could trigger a bitter argument. They took no prisoners and viewed each other with hostility and even contempt. They were, so to speak, three enemy colleagues.
Whenever they happened to be in the same room, [Translation] "tact and ingenuity were required to prevent a spat or a verbal duel from ensuing."Footnote 3 Yet these three jousters had one thing in common: quick-wittedness. They jibed and bantered with great artistry and irony. Taking perverse pleasure during their conversations in throwing poison darts and making scathing remarks, they were the type who would rather lose a friend than an opportunity to answer back. Born in the 1870s, all three died in the 1950s.
Arthur Beauchesne (1876–1959), Deputy Clerk (1916), then Clerk (1925) of the House of Commons and the first French Canadian to hold this position since Confederation, had gained the stature of an influential federal public servant. He commanded respect and held enormous sway. He was even dubbed the "Talleyrand of Canada," which says a lot. A former Freemason of the émancipation lodge, he had worked as a journalist for various newspapers—both French (La Minerve, Le Journal, La Presse, Les Débats) and English (The Gazette, The Montreal Star)—and as private secretary to then Lieutenant Governor Adolphe Chapleau. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada from 1924 on. [Translation] "What a curious man is this Beauchesne, who works for conservative newspapers while attacking the clergy in anticlerical publications and helping to found the Ligue de l’enseignement,"Footnote 4 the goal of which was to promote the development of public education, a heresy in the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities. In the words of Olivar Asselin, he was [Translation] "a liberal mustang astray on a conservative ranch."Footnote 5 After he retired, Beauchesne acted as an adviser to Maurice Duplessis.
Former journalist Louvigny de Montigny (1876–1955) was a literary critic, writer and translator for the Senate starting in 1910. He co-founded the anticlerical, independent newspaper Les Débats. Also a founding member of the école littéraire de Montréal and publisher of Maria Chapdelaine, he was an influential man who had a sense of his own worth. In his own way, and especially during his tireless 50-year campaign for copyright compliance in Canada,Footnote 6 this colourful character knew how to assert himself.
Omer Chaput (1878–1951), also a former journalist and a Freemason, was the head translator at the Dominion Bureau of Statistics for 18 years before retiring in 1946. Séraphin Marion, who knew Chaput well, wrote of him: [Translation] "The high-and-mighty Louvigny de Montigny would rather cross the road than cross the path of ‘that simpleton.’ Even Beauchesne kept his distance."Footnote 7
The events presented below took place a short while before the centralization of 1934. Richard B. Bennett’s Conservatives were in power.
A plot uncovered
One day, Séraphin Marion ran into Omer Chaput not far from Parliament. With a grave, almost solemn, look on his face, Chaput advised him that he had caught wind of a sinister plot in the translation ranks in Ottawa: the powerful Arthur Beauchesne was slyly preparing to create a translation office that would report to the Clerk of the House of Commons. It was reportedly even a done deal, thanks to the complicity of the Secretary of State, Charles H. Cahan.
Upon closer investigation of this mysterious project, Chaput had become convinced that he had uncovered the truth. Beauchesne had Acadian blood in his veins, he told Marion. His right-hand man was Hector Carbonneau, an Acadian through and through. The name of the man who could very well be appointed director of this translation office was already circulating. It was none other than Domitien T. Robichaud, who, conveniently, was also a true Acadian. Everything added up.
That was enough to convince Omer Chaput that he had foiled an Acadian plot: within the English-Canadian establishment in Ottawa, an Acadian establishment was forming—not a French-Canadian establishment, but an Acadian one. It was all too much for him!
But the story doesn’t end there. Chaput had been born in the riding of L’Assomption. So had Séraphin Marion’s mother and father, and Chaput knew it, so he said to him, [Translation] "Marion, are we not as clever as anyone else? We should counter this Acadian establishment. I know other French-Canadian public servants from L’Assomption. Let’s found a group called the ‘Assomptionists.’"Footnote 8
Needless to say, this group never got off the ground.
Pieces of lyrical prose
We already saw how Omer Chaput didn’t mince words when expressing an opinion. If he had lived in our time, political correctness would have probably seemed to him like vile submission to the kind of social conformity that sterilizes human relations. Chaput was not politically correct; he was a freethinker. This is attested to by his Freemason background and his writing.
In a letter to his superintendent, Domitien T. Robichaud, he wrote: [Translation] "As agreed, Mrs. J*** came by yesterday afternoon to make her services available to this branch.… I let her use my best typewriter and gave her a few pages from the chapter on demographic statistics in the Year Book, the easiest thing there is to translate. Mrs. J*** set to work and did her best all afternoon (that is, all afternoon for a woman), less than two out of three hours."Footnote 9 Need I say more?
Omer Chaput’s administrative correspondence contains charming passages, real pieces of lyrical prose. His colourful letters evoke powerful images and are representative of his forceful personality, lively spirit and incisive writing style.
Regarding a new recruit with whom he was satisfied, he wrote: [Translation] "To be honest, I much prefer a young, active, alert man who seems qualified and willing and able to learn to some wreck who may have once had skill, but who with each passing day forgets twice as much as he learned in a year."Footnote 10 Such writing is reminiscent of the Caractères by La Bruyère.
"Not all died…"
This overworked head translator also produced tragically ironic writing. The excerpt below from a letter Chaput sent to his superintendant to obtain more staff was inspired by La Fontaine’s fable "The Animals Stricken with the Plague." In it, Chaput described the calamitous state of his office and the havoc that the excess work was wreaking on his staff.
[Translation] ‘Not all died, but all were afflicted,’ he [La Fontaine] wrote. The difference being in this case that the plague seems to have been replaced by overwork.
In the 15 years that I have been assigned to this branch, I have seen my former head, Durantel, take an early retirement, resigning himself to defeat because he had been run ragged and wanted to go off and die in his bed rather than perish at his desk like his predecessor, Paul Colonnier. I have seen the young René Morisset walk away after nine months of work at my side. I have seen Joséphine Taillon pass away after barely a few months of working in this branch. I have seen Maria Drouin leave us for six months or so of rest leave before taking her last breath, and I have seen Eulalie Charlebois, valiant but exhausted, leave us after expending all her remaining energy and vitality here. I have seen Maubach, Schuller and Renault make their escape for greener pastures at the first sign of trouble. I have seen Wilfrid Baril, beaten down by a relentless stream of work, seek a little respite in the vineyards of Hull, never to appear again. I was for a time in charge of breaking in a young buck from the West, one Louis-Philippe Gagnon, who deserted me at the first hole in the fence. I then had only one able-bodied assistant left, Charles Michaud, who withstood the drudgery for almost a year and a half until he nearly dug himself an early grave after losing over 30 pounds of his portly frame in the statistics. Since he did not deserve to die, he was reassigned to a less taxing position. émile Boucher, who has been with me for a year, was following a weight-loss regime when he arrived here. He quickly realized that the regime was unnecessary, as the statistics sufficed.
The youthful ones fade slowly. Young Blondin, who was married a year and a half ago, puts so much energy into his work that he does not have enough strength left to make children. Young Beaudet is in the hospital. The other three are waiting their turn with resignation.Footnote 11
In its class, this letter is a masterpiece. Judging from Chaput’s moving tone, the Dominion Bureau of Statistics from 1920 to 1940 was a true death camp; translation, a torture device; and overwork, the only plausible explanation for the massacre of translators.
But were the working conditions not more or less the same in other departments? It would not be unreasonable to think that by painting such a bleak picture and portraying his workplace as death row, Omer Chaput was looking for pity from his boss in an effort to obtain the requested reinforcements. Did his superintendent take the bait?
It’s doubtful, as two years earlier Omer Chaput had complained that his requests always remained unheeded: [Translation] "Every time I ask for help from the Bureau for Translations, I’m promised everything I want, but nothing ever comes of it."Footnote 12 This time, he drove home the message with an alarmist tone implying that the end was nigh.
"Dealt a blow to the head by fate"
However, the massacre described by the Statistics head translator was not unprecedented. Approximately 40 years earlier, at the turn of the century, overwork had decimated the translator ranks, which leads us to believe that perhaps Omer Chaput was not exaggerating as much as it seems in his letter. For example, after translator émile Tremblay passed away on May 17, 1901, his obituary read:
[Translation] Mr. Tremblay is the fourth member of the Debates of the House of Commons translation office to die in three years. Those who preceded him, almost all of whom were dealt a blow to the head by fate, were Mr. Montpetit, Mr. Raby and Mr. Dansereau. All died of overwork. A fifth member of the office, Mr. Geoffrion, had to resign owing to his deteriorating health, and a sixth is currently ill.Footnote 13
Who were these translators felled by an excess of work? Lawyer and journalist André-Napoléon MontpetitFootnote 14 (1840–1898) had left the Debates team in 1894 and was working on commission for the French translators’ section when he died. Before working for the federal government, he had been the head translator for the Government of Quebec.
Alphonse Raby died in 1899 and Joseph Clément Dansereau, in 1900. Georges Isidore Barthe (1834–1900), a clerk and translator of the Journals of the House of Commons, also died in 1900. He had been appointed as a clerk and translator for Parliament in 1897. [Translation] "Broken by sorrow and the first symptoms of old age," his obituary states, "he finished his days in a modest position at the House of Commons, where he had had a seat a few years earlier."Footnote 15
Amédée Geoffrion (1867–1935) was forced to leave for health reasons to avoid an early grave.
In 1901, Joseph Bouchard (1842–1922), who had been appointed two years earlier as the permanent translator of the Senate debates, was given two assistants: the poet William Chapman (1850–1917) and Pierre McLeod (1850–1901). Shortly after his appointment, McLeod died and had to be replaced by two translators, Rodolphe Laferrière (1869–1910) and someone referred to as Prieur.
The "ill" person mentioned in émile Tremblay’s obituary was Napoléon Hudon Beaulieu (1848–1902), head of the Debates Division from 1885 to 1899. He had attended law school and then worked as a journalist before finishing his career as a translator. He died in 1902 at the age of 54.
That same year, Joseph Auguste Genand, who had been a translator for the House of Commons since the 1860s, also passed away. This lawyer and journalist had worked for L’Ordre and, in 1865, published a translation of a novel by Rosanna E. Leprohon, Antoinette de Mirecourt, or, Secret Marrying and Secret Sorrowing (Antoinette de Mirecourt, ou Mariage secret et chagrins cachésFootnote 16), which he had [Translation] "translated from English with the kind permission of the author."
During his years of service at the House of Commons, J. Auguste Genand was known as a tireless worker who did not keep track of how many hours he worked. If death had not taken him at the age of 63, he would have succeeded T. G. Coursolles in 1903 as the head of the translation service.
If you tally up the numbers, in the space of five years (1898–1902) no fewer than eight federal translators died, in all likelihood, of overwork. [Translation] "The amount of work that the Debates translators have to do every session is more than most people’s constitutions can take,"Footnote 17 deplored the author of the obituary for émile Tremblay, probably his father, Rémi,Footnote 18 who was a Debates translator. The death notice specifies that Tremblay had been taken by a "stroke," as had many of his colleagues.
Acadian Senator Pascal Poirier confirmed this succession of deaths and the slave-driving regime imposed upon parliamentary translators at the time. During the Senate debate surrounding the hiring of poet William Chapman as a permanent translator, the senator noted the difficult working conditions: "Those men have such a severe task that, I have been told, one of them generally dies every session, because at the end of the session they have to work from ten to sixteen hours a day, which is too much for any man."Footnote 19 And they were "killing themselves on the job" for an annual salary of barely two thousand dollars.
A dozen or so years later, in a letter to her cousin, Achille Fréchette’s wife wrote regarding her husband: "After making the report [on the translation systems in Belgium and Switzerland] he asked for his retirement, as…nearly 40 years of service in the Translation Branch, of which he had become the head, had quite worn him out."Footnote 20 Day after day she had witnessed the decline of her husband, worn down by work.
Regarding journalists, Arthur Buies wrote: "The French Canadian journalist is truly a wage-slave, a beast of burden, a convict at hard labour, a rock breaker, a cleaner of underwater cables."21 You can’t help but compare the working conditions of journalists to those of federal translators during the "golden age of translation."
I would like to thank Alain Otis of the University of Moncton for the comments and additional information he provided.
Fig. 1 Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, P1000,S4,D1,P12
Fig. 2 Bust of Alfred Laliberté (1908). National Gallery of Canada
Fig. 3 Records Management and Archives Department, Concordia University
Fig. 4 Personal collection of Lise Boylan (Halifax), émile Boucher’s daughter
Fig. 5 Le Monde illustré, June 17, 1899, p. 97
Fig. 6 Le Monde illustré, September 8, 1900, p. 295
Fig. 7 Le Monde illustré, May 16, 1896, p. 36
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