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Of Whales and SavagesReflections on Translating Louis Nicolas’ Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales [1]

  • Nancy Senior

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Translating a text written several hundred years ago almost always involves questions about how language has changed in the centuries between composition and translation. In the case of a book-length document describing plants, animals and people of the New World, other kinds of questions, including scientific and ethnographic ones, arise in addition to linguistic concerns.

The document in question is the Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales, written by Louis Nicolas, a Jesuit missionary who was in New France from 1664 to 1675. In addition to this work, Nicolas is the author of a grammar of the Algonquin language, recently published for the first time (Nicolas 1994; see also Hanzeli 1969), of the Traité des animaux, which is a first draft of the Histoire naturelle, and of the Raretés des Indes, also known as the Codex Canadiensis, a book of drawings of plants, animals, birds, fish and people from New France. The Codex was long mistakenly attributed to Charles Bécard, Sieur de Grandville. Only in the latter part of the twentieth century was it discovered that a manuscript on natural history in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France was related to the much better-known Codex, and that the author of both was Louis Nicolas. (Sioui 1979) An English translation of the Histoire naturelle is now being prepared for publication. [2]

The Histoire naturelle is divided into four parts, which treat respectively plants, animals (specifically quadrupeds), birds and fish. The classification is based not only on their anatomy but also on their habitat, an equally or in some cases a more important criterion for Nicolas. [3] He discusses the way native people use the plants or animals and how they hunt and fish. His digressions, which were not appreciated by his superiors (Tremblay 1983), are among the most interesting parts of the work for the reader today.

Two contrasting approaches to translating such a document are possible. The translator can adhere to the wording of the original as closely as possible while producing a comprehensible text. On the other hand, one can depart more or less freely from the original wording in order to transmit, to a target-language reader, what the translator takes to be the meaning. Advocates of both approaches defend their preference by appealing to the value of fidelity to the source text, a fidelity which they see in different ways. Some prefer to set the translator free from the wording of the original in order better to transmit its underlying sense, or to produce, for a public contemporary with the translator, an impression comparable to that which was produced by the original work. This view is held by Nida, especially in the context of biblical translation (e.g. Nida 1964), and by Seleskovich in her studies of translation and interpretation (e.g. Seleskovitch and Lederer 1984). Implications of this approach for internationalization were studied at the 2003 Congress of the Canadian Society of Translation Studies, which examined ways in which pragmatic translations such as those for business and advertising are adapted for different target audiences. In contrast, particularly in the context of literary works, some writers object to what they judge to be over-adaptation; they consider that the serious reader should be willing to make the effort necessary to understand a different way of thinking. See Schleiermacher’s famous essay (Schleiermacher 1977), and Berman’s view that readers should test their view against a foreign one (Berman 1992). In practice, translators often adopt some mixture of these two approaches, depending on the particular text or passage being translated and the reading public envisaged. [4] Occasionally they insert brief explanations for what they fear may be unclear to the reader. [5]

In the case of the Histoire naturelle, a text-based rendering is appropriate, by the nature of the work and its historical interest. The question of adaptation to an audience arises rarely, although a particular point will be discussed below. Most of the text consists of descriptions of species, but other material is included, digressions are frequent, and the author at times indulges in rhetorical effects.

Nicolas’s sentences are sometimes long and hard to follow, and on occasion there are even ungrammatical ones where presumably the author lost track. In his discussion of le citron (a plant different from what is normally called “lemon,” but bearing similar-looking fruit), he writes: [6]

Pour vous dire maintenant pour quoy j’ay si bien fait la description de cette plante, cet qu’il faut sçavoir q’un iour mettant égaré avec un seul françois dans les bois, et dans les vastes prairies de la Virginie ou le foin y étoit presque de la hauteur d’un quart de pique et y mourant de faim avec ce cher camarade qui leiour auparavant que je rencontrasse des citrons mettoit tombé 2 fois endefaillance dans le chemin mourant de faim ayant soufert déia quelques iours sans beaucoup manger et ayant passé une nuit sur le bord d’une ecluse de castor couchés a platte terre sans nulle couverture, et sans vivres. Lelandemain nous trainant miserablement dans les bois pour tacher de nous remettre dans nôtre route nous tombames heureusement dans un grand fonds de bois et ensuite dans des prairies a perte de veue que nous avions veu du haut d’une montagne, Nous trouvames des citrons que je decrits icy avec des moeures de buisson, nous en mangeames beaucoup et enfimes provision pour quelques iours.

folio 11 [7]

In the greater part by far of the document, we follow Nicolas’ sentence structure closely, making only those changes necessary for comprehension.

Questions may arise at the level of the word as well as that of the sentence. Geographical features that had different names in the seventeenth century can be called by Nicolas’s term in the text, and identified when necessary – and possible – by a footnote. Nicolas identifies la mer Tracy as the “grand lac Supérieur,” but the lakes “de Saint-Pierre, de Saint-Louis, de Saint-François, de Saint-Jean, du Saint-Sacrement,” as well as le lac Puant and many others, are less obvious. The case of la mer Illande has an interesting twist. This “Illande Sea” is what is now called Chesapeake Bay, the name used by Nicolas apparently being a misunderstanding of the name “Maryland.”

As we all know, with time the meanings of words and of constructions change. The fact that some meanings of a word are different while others remain the same can pose problems for translators. One of Nicolas’ favourite adjectives is rare. All sorts of things are rare; indeed the subtitle of the Histoire naturelle promises “tout ce qu’il y a de rare dans les Indes occidentales.” Usually for him the word is a general term of praise: The traveller will find “mille petites raretés” along the shores of the Great Lakes (f. 2). The fruit that he calls the pomme de terre “n’a rien de rare que sa beauté” (f. 18). [8] Some arrows made of bois puant, when taken back to France, were considered to be “fort rares” (f. 26). White cedar has “une écorce fort rare” of four different colours (f. 44). Sometimes the word is used in the usual present-day sense of unusual or hard to find: The oranger américain is “un arbrisseau rare, qu’on ne voit que dans la Virginie, le long du fleuve de Techiroguen” (f. 21). “La pierre de taille de tout grain n’y est pas rare” (f. 2). “Les chardons ne sont pas rares; il y en a de toutes les espèces” (f. 9). Sometimes on the contrary the term is applied to things that are abundant: Chipmunks are “ces rares animaux,” although one sees “des grandes bandes” of them (f. 50). In the case of the capillaire, “Ce simple est un des plus rares et un des plus recherchés de tout le pays. Ce n’est pas qu’il n’y en ait beaucoup dans tous les bois, mais il est précieux pour cette vertu qu’il a de rafraîchir la poitrine” (f. 12).

In translating rare, we have used the corresponding English term “rare” where that seems to be the sense. In other cases, we have used other words such as “fine.” A similar approach has been used for the adjective beau, which is translated as “beautiful,” “fine” or another word, depending on the context, and curieux, which like the English “curious” at the time could have many senses including “odd,” “unusual” or “interesting.”

Another frequent adjective is admirable, sometimes in the present-day sense of laudable, at other times in the older sense of surprising or astonishing. [9] Among the many things Nicolas finds admirables one may mention the firefly, porcupine quills, the compartments of a beaver lodge, the size of the large trout, the cries of bears in their den, and the fact that the flying squirrel’s “wings” are covered with hair like the rest of its body. But admirable things are not limited to the New World. Nicolas cannot resist telling a story of two finches in France which he considers more admirable than anything else he has to say about birds. [10]

The practices of native people include many admirable things. Among them are stews made of fat from moose intestines (f.99), the way of hunting the tigre marin by using arrows attached to a hide rope (f. 121), and the technique of catching white fish by using nets spread out under the ice (f. 179). Nicolas admires (in our modern sense) the hunting and fishing techniques in question, but from his description of the stew, one may guess that he does not find it appetizing. He writes of the moose intestine: “Les Indiennes ne font que le presser un peu pour en faire sortir, vous m’entendez bien, et sans prendre la peine de le laver, elles le tortillent pour le faire cuire de la manière dont je donne ici la figure.” For admirable as for rare and other adjectives, we have tried to understand the meaning and to supply an appropriate word, often “admirable” but sometimes another term such as “remarkable.”

We have mentioned that the Histoire naturelle discusses plants, animals, birds and fish. The section on birds includes insects, which like birds live in the air; the one on fish includes aquatic mammals such as the whale and the porpoise, which are specifically referred to as poissons. This follows the principle of classification according to habitat. On the other hand Nicolas is quite aware of physiological differences between the different species. He says of the whale that “Ce poisson a des poumons, des reins, une vessie,” and states that porpoises are born alive and are nursed by their mother.

This use of the French word poisson, like the English “fish,” was normal for the time. The Thresor de la langue française (1606) mentions that poisson refers mainly to species with fins, but it also includes among its examples soft-fleshed animals such as the cuttlefish, shellfish such as oysters, and “Toute sorte de fort grand poisson, comme balaines.” The 1694 Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française entry begins with the definition: “Animal qui naist, & qui vit dans l’eau,” and the same definition appears in the 1798 edition of this dictionary. Only in the 1835 edition do we see the more restricted modern definition: “Animal à sang rouge et froid, qui respire par des branchies, et qui naît et vit dans l’eau, où il se meut à l’aide de nageoires.” Similarly, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1775) defines “fish” as “An animal that inhabits the water,” and quotes Shakespeare’s reference in A Comedy of Errors to “The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls” (the same division by habitat that one sees in the Histoire naturelle). The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language (second edition, 1989) defines the word as used in popular language to refer to “any animal living exclusively in the water,” whereas in modern scientific language, its meaning is “restricted to a class of vertebrate animals, provided with gills throughout life, and cold-blooded.”

If marine mammals had been treated entirely separately from fish in the Histoire naturelle, a translator might consider calling them by some name such as “water-dwelling animals.” However, they are included in the same section, in order: the halibut, the grey porpoise, the white porpoise, the shark (the title of the entry on this fish is “Du requiem, que le vulgaire ignorant appelle requin,” f. 188), the small whale, and the large whale. The order of figures in the Codex is the same. Porpoises and whales come at the end of the section on fish not because of their anatomy, but because of their size, as Nicolas in the various sections begins with the smallest species and ends with the largest. [11]

In order to reflect the world view embodied in the text, we consider it necessary to retain the use of the same term for both fish and marine mammals, and therefore to call them all fish. We are thus following a different principle from that tentatively adopted for rare and admirable, where Nicolas’ precise choice of words is not essential to his ideas.

Even a reader with a good general knowledge of seventeenth-century language and literature may have difficulty with specialized subject areas. A particularly hard part of the treatise to translate was the section on falconry. Although Nicolas states that falconry is not practiced in the New World, he nevertheless writes many pages about it, giving, as he says, “un extrait de tous les auteurs anciens et modernes.” Some passages, such as the following, seem to have no purpose except to use as much terminology as possible:

Enfin, je ne saurais expliquer ni dire le plaisir que ressentent ceux qui se plaisent et qui s’attachent à la chasse de l’oiseau quand ils le voient écumer, c’est-à-dire épier son gibier, quand ils le remarquent s’écarter du déduit, s’y remettre, impiéter, fondre, giboyer, guinder, reguinder, lier, envelopper, partir, redonner, remettre, venir, voler, décocher, choquer, charger, charrier, brancher, motter, arrêter et faire tous les merveilleux effets d’un oiseau des mieux affaités.

f. 151

The translator’s difficulty is compounded because Nicolas really has nothing original to say about the subject. He states that New World birds would be suitable to be trained for falconry; but all the rest comes from the authors that he quotes from without specific acknowledgement.

A different kind of question arises from Nicolas’ references to native people. The terms he uses include Americain or Ameriquain, Indien, habitant, coureur de bois, and other more limited or localized ones such as Huron, Virginien, Outtagami, Manataoué, and Outtaouak. However, he most frequently uses the terms sauvage and barbare[12] which pose problems for translators. Although these words could certainly be pejorative in the seventeenth century, they were not always so unfavourable as they seem today. Often Nicolas’ usage is neutral. He describes for example “la fraise que les sauvages nomment le fruit du coeur”; he writes of the blueberry that “Les sauvages en font partout des grandes provisions”; and he says of the maple: “lorsque les neiges sont fondues, l’arbre ne coule plus et ne donne plus à boire, ni aux sauvages ni aux Français.” Barbare is also used in a neutral sense. Nicolas explains that la mer Tracy is the “grand lac Supérieur, que les barbares appellent le Grand Lac” (f. 2). In discussing the wood of the walnut tree, he says: “Les barbares s’en servent pour faire des arcs.” Aware of the ambiguity of his vocabulary, he speaks with admiration of the way “ces barbares, qui n’ont que le nom de sauvages,” make ropes of moose skin (f. 96). On the other hand, he sometimes does use the terms in an unfavourable way: “Nos barbares Indiens, quoique les plus sauvages du monde, se croyant les plus nobles des hommes, n’ont point de plus forte inclination après celle de la guerre que de se rendre parfaits dans le noble exercice de la chasse où ils se plaisent infiniment” (f. 126). The irony here is double-edged; while primarily directed at native people, it also touches the European nobility and their occupations.

The French word sauvage and the English “savage” are not symmetrical. The meaning of the French word has changed less than the English one from Latin silvaticus (of the forest). The bilingual Robert et Collins Senior dictionary (1993) gives as English equivalents of the French sauvage: “wild,” “savage,” “unsociable,” “unauthorized,” etc. Thus a wild flower is une fleur sauvage, an unsociable man is un homme sauvage, and unauthorized camping is du camping sauvage. Vivre en sauvage means, according to this dictionary, “to live a secluded life, live as a recluse.” On the other hand, the French equivalents given for the English “savage” are brutal, méchant, féroce, virulent, furieux, colérique – all strongly pejorative terms. Readers of this article will recognize that “a savage crime” or “a savage attack” is a particularly cruel one. Other meanings of the French word, such as “not domesticated” or “uninhabited,” are expressed in English by the adjective “wild.” The word “savage” is thus a loaded term in English.

One of the most famous literary references to the sauvage occurs in Montaigne’s essay “Des cannibales.” The author takes advantage of the double nature of the word and its reference both to natural species and to human beings:

Or je trouve, pour revenir à mon propos, qu’il n’y a rien de barbare et de sauvage en cette nation, à ce qu’on m’a rapporté, sinon que chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage […] Ils sont sauvages, de mesme que nous apellons sauvages les fruicts que nature, de soy et de son progrez ordinaire, a produicts: là où, à la vérité, ce sont ceux que nous avons alterez par nostre artifice et detournez de l’ordre commun, que nous devrions appeller plustot sauvages.

Montaigne 1969, p. 254

This play on the different senses of the word proves to be a challenge for translators. In order to keep the symmetry, John Florio, the first translator of Montaigne, is forced into the unusual description of fruits as “savage”:

They are even savage, as we call those fruits wilde which nature of her selfe and of her ordinary progresse hath produced: whereas indeed, they are those which our selves have altered by our artificiall devices, and diverted from their common order, we should rather terme savage.

Montaigne 1885, p. 94

Charles Cotton’s version avoids this at the cost of losing the word play:

They are savages at the same rate that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas, in truth, we ought rather to call those wild whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order.

Montaigne 1923, p. 34

Jacob Zeitlin’s treatment is similar:

They are savages in the same sense that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces by herself and in her usual course; whereas in truth we ought rather to call wild those whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order.

Montaigne 1936, p. 181-182

Donald Frame chooses “wild” for all occurrences of sauvage in the sentence:

Those people are wild, just as we call wild the fruits that Nature has produced by herself in her normal course; whereas really it is those that we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order, that we should rather call wild.

Montaigne 1957, p. 152

M. A. Screech, like Florio is intent on capturing the word play: [13]

Those ‘savages’ are only wild in the sense that we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary course: whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order which we ought to call savage.

Montaigne 1991, p. 231

Although Florio and Screech make the most visible effort with sauvage, none of the translators succeeds completely in joining the two meanings.

As Dickason (Dickason 1984, p. 17-22 and 70-80) and Gagnon (Gagnon 1984, p. 20-27; see also Gagnon and Petel 1986) point out, many Europeans still held the medieval idea of the “wild man” as a hairy, apelike human, and expected to find such beings in the New World. For this reason, explorers and other writers stressed in their accounts that the people they had seen were well-formed and, contrary to expectations, had very little hair on their bodies. Once this information became widely known – and it took several centuries for it to replace even partially the earlier images of a human being seen as inferior – a different pre-existing stereotype came into play. Native people of the Americas came to be identified by some writers with the primitive innocence that was supposed to have characterized the earliest times of human existence. This idea finds expression in Lafiteau’s title Moeurs des sauvages américains comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps (Lafiteau 1983), in Montaine’s essay quoted above, and later in the writings of Rousseau, particularly the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755). Whether they fully believed in it or not, many writers used the picture of the savage, close to nature and uncorrupted by the vices of civilization, to criticize the faults of Europe. In Lahontan’s 1703 Suite du voyage de l’Amérique, the savage Adario points out the inconsistencies of Christianity to his interlocutor Lahontan (Lahontan 1990, vol. 2; see Ouellet’s Introduction, vol. 1). In the eighteenth century, Voltaire has the Huron hero of his novel L’Ingénu (1767) satirize French society, religion and government in the name of reason. In Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1796), the supposedly natural sexual mores of Tahiti are contrasted with the repressed sexuality of Europe.

English writers as well as French ones were intrigued by the contrast between inhabitants of the Old and the New Worlds. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English, the word “savage” was sometimes applied to people considered to be less advanced than Europeans. Athough often pejorative, the term could be neutral or even favourable, as in the expression “noble savage.” However, seventeenth-century English writers – particularly those who dealt directly with aboriginal people – were less likely to refer to these people as savages than were French writers. To take a sample of contemporary works in English, Thomas Harriot calls them “the inhabitants” or “the natural inhabitants” (Harriot 1588); John White (White, J. 1588), Bartholomew Gosnold (Gosnold1602), John Smith (Smith n.d.) and William Strachey (Strachey1612) refer to “the inhabitants”; Gabriel Archer (Archer 1602), Strachey, Andrew White (White, A. 1640), Roger Williams (Williams1973, orig. 1643) [14] and George Fox (Fox 1672) say “Indians.” Other terms are used, sometimes by the same writers: Williams says “natives,” Smith “the people,” “the naturals” and “the country people.” “Savages,” although not so frequent as the French sauvages, is used by Archer, Raphe Harmor (Harmor 1615), John White, Smith (Smith 1624. and Smith n.d.), and occasionally by Harriot and Strachey.

In the course of the twentieth century, both “savages” and “Indians” have been used by translators. Sauvages is rendered as “savages” in Annie N. Bourne’s translation of Champlain’s Voyages de la Nouvelle France occidentale, dite Canada,1632 (Champlain 1911), in Reuben Gold Thwaites’ translation of the Relations des Jésuites (Jesuit Relations 1896-1901) and in the extracts published subsequently (Jesuit Relations 1925, and other editions), in H. H. Langton’s translation of Sagard’s Grand Voyage au pays des Hurons, 1632 (Sagard 1939), and in the translation of Thevet’s 1586 Grand insulaire by Roger Schlesinger and Arthur P. Stabler (Thevet 1986). “Indians” is chosen in William F. Ganong’s English version of Le Clercq’s Nouvelle Relation de la Gaspesie, 1591 (Le Clercq 1910), Mrs. Clarence Webster’s version of Dièreville’s Relation du voyage du Port Royal de l’Acadie ou de la Nouvelle France, 1708 (Dièreville 1933), and W. N. Fenton and E. L. Moore’s version of Lafiteau’s Moeurs des sauvages américain comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps, 1724 (Lafiteau 1974). This sample thus includes four translators between 1896 and 1986 who choose “savages” and three from 1910 to 1974 who choose “Indians.” [15]

In the case of the Histoire naturelle one could argue for using “Indians” for Nicolas’ sauvages, since it does correspond to one of his synonyms. However, English usage has continued to change, and “Indian” is no longer so universally accepted as it was a few decades ago. In many contexts now, “Aboriginal” or “First Nations” is preferred. As these terms would be visibly anachronistic in a seventeenth-century text, we have not used them. Our choice of “savage” and “barbarian,” though it might appear to be a simple reflex, was in fact made after much weighing of alternative possibilities. The use of the term in Nicolas’ work will be explained in a note.

Although it is not primarily a problem of translation, identifying the various species of animals, plants, birds and fish mentioned in the Histoire naturelle is an enormous challenge. The task requires the knowledge and participation of experts in the various areas of natural history. [16] Nicolas often calls things by the name of the closest species in Europe, and says that the local one is similar, or how it is different. In such cases, we keep close to Nicolas’ expressions. The citronnier becomes the “lemon” although it is not what we mean by that term today; the écureuil jaune is the “yellow squirrel,” with a note that this is now called the red squirrel. In a number of cases definite identification is not possible. For example, Nicolas refers to a bird that he calls l’oiseau mort nommé Tchipai-zen, believed by native people to be the soul of a dead person. This bird has a remarkable song, but as it is seen only at a distance in the woods, he cannot give a precise description of it. We use the expression “dead bird” in the text, although one can guess it may be the whip-poor-will. The enfant du diable, or devil’s child, is probably the wolverine. Such questions are discussed in notes.

Whatever translators do, they run the risk of falsifying or even betraying the author. In translation the Histoire naturelle we choose various strategies depending on the material involved. In most cases we follow Nicolas’ wording closely, as the purpose of the translation – to make Nicolas’ work and thought available to readers today – is different from that of Nicolas – to make the flora and fauna of Nouvelle France known to the French reader of his time. We use various words to translate beau, rare and admirable, as we understand the meaning from context. On the other hand we keep “fish” for poisson, at the risk of giving a false impression of Nicolas’ knowledge. We use “savage” and “barbarian,” although this may make Nicolas seem more eurocentric and racist than he is. We hope that readers will avoid the temptation of thinking that people of the past were necessarily morally unenlightened by comparison with our superior views. It is quite true that Nicolas holds prejudices in favour of Europe and European culture. Without doubt, being a missionary, he considers Christianity to be the one true religion. He refers to certain beliefs and practices of native people as “aveuglement” (f. 37), “leur jonglerie” (f. 124) and “danses … superstitieuses” (f. 125). However, these views are to some extent balanced by those expressed in many places in the Histoire naturelle. It is a challenge for translators, editors and readers today to provide a more nuanced understanding by placing his writings in the intellectual and linguistic context of his time.

Parties annexes