blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On s'arrange entre nous

Yesterday morning I heard a talk in French given by the novelist and translator Daniel Poliquin: he was speaking about a book he has recently translated entitled Le Rêve de Champlain, written originally in English by the American historian David Hackett Fisher––Champlain's Dream, 2008; in the hardcover version it is 848 pages long.

It would have been interesting to hear M. Poliquin say more about the challenges of translating such a weighty book, and he did tell us a little about this (making the nice little aside that he thinks the French version is probably better than the original; he had been able to correct some mistakes in the English version!), how his research into nautical vocabulary had taken him three days work with an expert mariner and so on, but mostly we learned about what an impressive man Samuel de Champlain must have been, and how his vision for New France (i.e. Canada) was way ahead of his time (Champlain died in 1635). Poliquin compared his policies with those of Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt who advocated a peaceable (pacifique) reunification of Germany in the 1980s. "Wandel durch Handel" (change through commerce; Poliquin made the striking remark that the Berlin Wall was brought down by fax machines).

The explorer-diplomat Champlain, who crossed the Atlantic 27 times during his 16th / 17th century lifetime, had the difficult task of having to work with the "Amérindiens" on behalf of France without being too confrontational about it. His attitude mattered. He was respectful and non-judgemental. He asked the native people about their beliefs and their politics and found them as intelligent and "evolués" as the Europeans. He considered their kayaks, for example, to be one of the greatest of human inventions. Champlain having paddled (or been paddled) along the lakes and rivers from Detroit to Montreal, this was not just a casual turn of phrase.

The word "sauvage" (savage, wild), as Poliquin pointed out, comes from the Latin silva, forest, so les sauvages were actually "people of the forest."

The word caucus, used in N. American politics today, is said by some to come from an Algonquin word cau´cau-as´u, although there's some debate about this. Champlain liked the way the native Americans arrived at their decisions by consensus, after giving everyone a chance to speak his mind freely. Because of his deference to the native way, there has been no genocide perpetrated by Europeans in this northern part of the Americas. When a Frenchman was murdered by one of the native people, Champlain played for time and would not countenance a knee-jerk, vengeful reaction. He entered into discussions, persuaded the tribesmen to make amends, effected an exchange of hostages and gifts. Poliquin said that this foreshadowed typical present day Canadian behaviour:
S'il y a du trouble avec des voisins, on n'appelle pas la police, ou seulement en dernier recours. On se débrouille entre nous, on s'arrange entre nous.
Poliquin calls Champlain's vision for Canada "un rêve modeste ... et fou." But Champlain's legacy, his influence upon Canada, and his dream of a peaceful new world remains. Champlain was a Renaissance man, a humanist, a botanist, a writer, an expert navigator and cartographer, not just a governor. "Il pouvait lire la forêt" and his maps, as modern tools confirm, were astonishingly accurate. As a scientist he did make some mistakes, however, convinced that the goal of his explorations –– China –– lay not so far from Montreal. There's a suspicion he may have been a Protestant, not a Catholic, although the French régime that supported his endeavours was Catholic, and very right wing at that. He was a failure in one aspect of his life. Married at 40 to a girl of twelve, she left him when she grew up and joined a convent.

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