Introduction to These Translations

Introduction to These Translations

Translating these letters was both more challenging and more interesting than I originally anticipated.  Written in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the language used is of course “modern French.” Nonetheless, the extremely—and to twenty-first century eyes, unnecessarily—complicated syntax of many of the sentences made the process of rendering the same thoughts in clear, straightforward English a bit like putting together a puzzle.

At its most difficult, the language was, in fact, ambiguous—to such an extent, in the most extreme instances, that I simply had to guess. These instances were not very frequent and I have made what I think are reasonable, educated guesses. And, fortunately, some of the sticking points were not about especially important matters. For example, the descriptions of Mongin’s ledgers, his “catalog of souls,” the clerical details of which were often quite unclear but of no great significance, since a clear understanding of what he was doing and why he was doing it was not dependent on those details. Not surprisingly, the oldest of the letters (written by Mongin, in 1682) presented the most difficulty and the work of translation tended to flow more smoothly and quickly with the later letters (for example, Margat’s last letter, written in 1743).

As one might expect with texts of this age, some of the instances of ambiguity were created by various instances of now-archaic usages. A bit of period authenticity in the language has been lost here and there but the result is a considerably more legible text (with few, if any, any actual nuances of meaning having been lost or altered).

A few words about some of the specific challenges:

–Double (or multiple) negatives in a single sentence (which I tended to try to convert into simple assertions, to spare the reader of the translation from having to piece together the fairly simple meaning of a very complicated sentence).

–Impersonal constructions (“Il” as subject of  a sentence, creating a sort of implicitly passive construction, when a much more straightforward construction of specific subject and active verb was possible).

–Multiple interlocking subordinate clauses, requiring the reader to follow a sort of syntactic trail of breadcrumbs. In some cases, the solution was simply to break up a sentence into two or three separate sentences.  In others, it was to deconstruct the multiple negatives by converting them into affirmative phrases, which sometimes went hand-in-hand with transforming impersonal or passive-voice sentences into sentences with a personal subject and/or in the active voice or both (see above). (These tactics came into play with particular frequency in translating Mongin.)

–Ambiguity concerning verb tenses. In Mongin, in particular, it was often unclear whether he was talking about work that he did upon his arrival and in the first year of his mission, to set up systems of various kinds, or if he was talking about work that was ongoing at the time he was writing. (Sometimes the content of a subsequent sentence of a paragraph would clarify whether a passage should be rendered in the past or present tenses.)

–Demonstrative vs. definite articles: very liberal use of demonstrative article was common in the letters. In many cases, I chose to translate these as definite articles, as the use of the demonstrative would seem awkward or even puzzling to a modern reader of English.

–Mongin frequently uses “quelqu’un” and, more frequently, “un autre” or “une autre.” In the interest of clarity I often translated these as “a man,” “a woman,” “another man,” or “another woman.”

— Sentences beginning—in some cases, gratuitously– with “Mais.” It was often possible to simply ignore this “mais” in the translation; in other cases, I replaced it with “however” or “nonetheless,” usually within the sentence rather than at the beginning.

–Awkward, archaic expressions to convey chronology, often at beginning of a sentence. I tended to replace these by “then” or “later” or the like, thereby simplifying things.

— The pronoun “on” poses a nearly universal problem in French-to-English translation but it is a particular problem in Margat, given his liberal use of the pronoun and the fact that his letters contain both frequent references to general practices and frequent references to the person to whom the letter is addressed. I tried to maintain consistency within a given paragraph in terms of the way in which I chose to translate “on,” but within the document as a whole, I translated in number of different ways. Depending on the specific context provided by a sentence or paragraph, I have translated “on” as “one,” “you” (an impersonal, general “you,” not a specific second-person addressee), “they,” “we” (where the matter at hand is general Jesuit practice in the islands), or a verb in the passive voice.

— Cap Français vs. “le Cap” and other place names. I have dropped the definite articles often found in the French but, for the most part, I have chosen not to “translate” place names—a couple of exceptions like “St Louis Cay” notwithstanding.

–“Nos Français” vs. “les Francais.” Both are used and it is difficult to judge from the context how the choice was made in any given instance. This is an especially interesting phenomenon, as it may provide subtle clues about Jesuit ambivalence vis-à-vis the planters and merchants: at moments, the Jesuits seem to identify with their white compatriots (“nos Français”); at other moments, they seem to want to underscore the fact that planters and missionaries are not in fact part of the same enterprise, despite their common ethnicity and nationality. (This vacillation can also be seen, at certain moments, in the various uses of “on,” discussed above—i.e., the “on” that seems to mean “we” and the “on” that seems to mean “they” or “people.”)

–Words like “procureur” and “économe” and “commandant,” in the context of the administration of a plantation context, are sometimes difficult to translate, as the available English counterparts (“overseer,” “foreman,” “bursar,” et al.) do not necessarily represent an exact overlap with the French terms.

In addition to the examples cited above, which refer to individual words or clauses, paragraph structure was also sometimes problematic. Some paragraphs contain fairly disparate thematic elements and would need to be separated into two or even three in the translation. In a few cases, however, I left the rather puzzlingly disparate paragraphs stand as such (where there was some ambiguity about exactly where to make the break, for example). I also chose to separate some excessively long paragraphs into two or three.

I must also mention the delicate and difficult matter of translating direct speech, reported in “dialect” (what was long referred to, pejoratively, as “petit nègre”). Mongin uses this device on several occasions to render the speech of slaves. I have tried to achieve a compromise: enough “dialect” to convey his use of same, but a slightly softened version to mitigate, however slightly, the condescending and offensive nature of it. For example, I do not translate the “moi” used by Mongin as a subject pronoun as “me,” but rather as “I,” thereby, perhaps, rendering it (very) slightly less caricatural. “Whitewashing” all the caricature out entirely would give a false impression of Mongin’s attitude toward the slaves but  making a few micro-gestures to take a bit of the edge off seems justified (otherwise, a translator runs the risk of reproducing, however inadvertently, the attitudes of the author).

Finally, a word about the word “nègre” itself.  Not surprisingly, this word poses an eternal, and very serious, challenge for a translator. It is a clearly perjorative and definitely archaic term but does not carry quite the same weight of hate as does the profoundly and intentionally offensive “n-word” in English. The affective intention in a context such as these letters appears to be relatively neutral. It is used here more or less as a synonym for “slave” (a word that is itself much less frequently used). I translate “nègre”/”négresse” as “Negro”/”Negress,” in full knowledge of the archaic and dubious nature of those words in English and only use the word “slave” in those instances where the actual French word “esclave” has been used. The word “noir” (for “black”/”black person”/”black man”) is virtually absent from these letters.

Christopher Rivers

Granby, Massachusetts

14 January 2019