Last spring, in Halifax, I came across Antonine Maillet’s novel, Pélagie-la-Charette. Maillet tells of Pélagie LeBlanc, deported like thousands of others from l’Acadie (what’s now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; see this map at Wikimedia). Twenty years after le grand dérangement, Pélagie leads a band of Acadians in an oxcart (hence her nickname, Pélagie the Cart) from Georgia back to Acadia.
I’d never heard of Pélagie or of Maillet, but I wanted to know more about the Acadians, who don’t appear much in the Nova Scotia tales I grew up with (my family tree topples over with MacDougals and Macdonalds, MacLennans and MacLellans). As a bonus, I’d get more practice with French.
It’s slow going, though–I’m just not that fluent, and Maillet’s style is vivid, idiosyncratic, and sometimes more of a challenge than I’m up to. But it’s a new year, and today, I fished out a post I’d found months ago on John Biesnecker’s Global Maverick blog: How to read in a foreign language.
Biesnecker argues that new learners (and perhaps rusty ones like me) don’t know how to read…in a foreign language, anyway. We’re accustomed to understanding stuff written in our native language, or the vast majority of it.
He tried to read his first Chinese-language book while commuting. One practice he picked up was to ignore a word he didn’t know, and just keep going.
That’s not to say you should never look a word up while reading. If there’s a word that you’ve already seen five times in the last two pages and you still can’t figure it out by context, then by all means look it up. Just don’t waste your time on obscure adjectives that you’re not going to see again soon and that don’t affect the story if they’re ignored.
Here’s how this fits together for me: I hate not being fluent in French, especially since it’s the only other language I know (the odd Gaelic phrase notwithstanding). Sometimes that manifests itself in my not wanting to speak French with French speakers. Objectively I know it’s good for me; emotionally, I’m unhappy when I can’t express myself or when I feel I’m making things drag. And, frankly, sometimes I simply can’t keep because I have neither the vocabulary nor the skill.
At the same time, this is work I have to do for myself. I haven’t even looked to see if there’s a standard English translation, though I’m sure there must be. It’d be too tempting to let the translator do what I want and need to do.
I like Biesnecker’s suggestion, though, especially because it corresponds to the way we learn about any new culture: in pieces, in a disorganized fashion, through repetition. I’m not in a competition to finish Pélagie before the end of the week (or the quarter). So I’m going to restart something I began last fall: copying the French text into an online document, then writing my own English translation.
Copying the French intensifies my focus. I end up reading the text two or three times while transcribing, and then rereading the result (either in the document or in my book) to refresh the big picture. And writing my translation in an electronic document means I can annotate, mark stuff I’m not sure about, and leave room for ambiguity.
So far I’ve done only a few pages. I already like Pélagie (both La Charrette and her descendant, Pélagie-la-Gribouille ( ‘the scribbler’ ), so I feel I’ve neglected her, which is why I mention this mainly personal project here.
(Special thanks to Louise Côté, whose enthusiasm for Pélagie reinforced my choice, and to Jacques Cool, who recommended an ideal accompaniment: A Great and Noble Scheme: the Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadiens from Their American Homeland.)
(Added on January 4: here’s Maillet herself, reading an English translation from chapter one of Pélagie-la-Charrette.)