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The Language Police

by Robert M. Smith

being a French Canadian, I had never understood the concerns of English-speaking Quebecers regarding Bill 101 and the language laws. My father had been a member of the Société Saint-Jean Baptiste and l'Ordre de Jacques Cartier. My mother's sister and father, that is my aunt and my grandfather, had been involved in l'Action catholique years ago. I had been taught, like most French Canadians, that "les Anglais" were all rich, unemotional, frigid lovers, hostile to us, prejudiced against French Canadians, arrogant and smug. Their only goal in life was to assimilate French Canadians. What is worse, some of them were Protestants!

However, I started getting an insight into the Anglo concerns and acquiring sympathy for Quebec Anglophones four years ago, in 1989, when I was working as a French-English translator for the Ministry of Education under Claude Ryan. Everyone in the office was an Anglophone but me, and the boss couldn't even speak French. So we had nothing to do with applying language laws.

What my job did involve was translating Quebec academic programs into English, and once in a while, into French. One afternoon, I was in the middle of translating a technical manual about the chemicals used in making paints, and I couldn't find some terms. I looked and looked in computers, data banks and dictionaries, but could find nowhere the names of these chemicals in French. So, being a good translator, I used the phone book. I thought I would call a paint company or a paint dealer and ask for my French equivalents over the phone.

I found a small paint dealer on Cavendish Boulevard, in NDG. I dialed their main number.

"Hello, could I speak to your translator, please?"

"Who's calling, may I ask?"

"My name is Robert Smith, and I am calling from the Quebec government. Could I speak to your company translator, please?"

(Aside, to another employee) "It's the government. They want to know if we have a translator!"

(Answering me, a moment later) "I am afraid we don't have a translator. Can I help you?"

"Well, I wanted to know if your sales catalogue is translated into French..."

(Aside, to the other employee) "George, do something. It's the language police! We're in trouble! Do something, quick!"

(Answering me, a moment later) "Does this have anything to do with Bill 101?"

"No, no, no. I am a translator, and I am calling from the Ministry of Education. I just want to find some French terms."

"You mean to say, you're calling from the Quebec government and you don't know French? Or you want to check up on us to know if we speak French?"

"No, I just want to know if you could give me some terms from your sales catalogue."

"You want to check the quality of our French?"

"No, I simply want to find some terms in French."

(Aside, to another employee) "George, what do I tell him?"

(Answering me, a moment later) "I am afraid our sales catalogue is in English only, but I promise you we'll have it translated soon."

"No problem." "Does that mean you're going to send the inspectors here? Our signs in front of the store are bilingual."

"Look, I am just a translator."

"But you're a fonctionnaire."

"Yes, but... Thanks anyway. No hard feelings."

"Bye."

I finally did find my French expressions from a federal phone-in data bank. A terminologist was glad to oblige. As for the employees of the small paint dealer on Cavendish, either they have moved to Ontario by now or they are still waiting for the inspectors to show up with a warrant for their arrest, four years later.

May 26, 1994


Published in Cornucopia no. 10 April '96


Robert M. Smith is a recycled teenager who thinks he is an underground cult figure. He writes about the revolution and Jesus and doesn't know the difference. In fact, he is a middle-aged parent who lives in Montreal with his two young daughters and translates for the government.
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