Pélagie’s oxcart, or, learning to read by reading

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.)

5 thoughts on “Pélagie’s oxcart, or, learning to read by reading

  1. What an exciting post! Maillet, Pelagie and La Sagouine are three of my heroines. Both Pelagie and La Sagoine are in English translation, in case you are interested. You may enjoy reading WRITING ACADIE by Hans Runte. It’s a comprehensive overview of Acadian literature and places Maillet as the writer of the Acadian Epic–i.e., Pelagie. I appreciate your comments on reading in a foreign language. I am of Acadian descent but grew up speaking English and seem to have trouble learning French.

  2. Caroline, thanks for the recommendation. I found this English-language video portrait of Maillet. She is clearly a born storyteller; she learned at the age of 3 that “there is another [story]” besides Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “Not only that, I could make some myself. I just had to send Cinderella to meet the bears.”

    G. K. Chesterton said that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. To me that means if you’re enjoying the results of your study of French–whether to read, or converse, or learn about your heritage, or study someone else’s–you’re already on the right path.

  3. I used to have ‘whatchamacallit’ days with a group of mostly-Mediterraneans I was teaching to do GMAT. Every word or phrase they weren’t sure of, they were allowed to say ‘whatchamacallit’ or some other placeholder (my favourite one, from my Grandad, is ‘doings’).

    This was amazingly productive in terms of what they were able to communicate.

    By contrast, I studied Russian and Czech at University where we routinely had to study phrases that even Russians or Czechs wouldn’t have known.

    We mostly don’t learn language through words but collocations, constructions and phrases. And wordy people like you have the most trouble with grasping this when they’re learning. I saw an interesting study which showed that for many native speakers, a good quality newspaper is pretty much like you reading French. The number of items an even averagely-educated reader wouldn’t get from, say, The Economist is staggering.

    My first boss as a language teacher ran some utterly wonderful reading seminars during lunch where he’d bring in things like sci-fi or Iceberg Slim or (and this is why his seminars were utterly wonderful – I can’t even imagine where he got some of the books from) something else. “Why didn’t you use the dictionary?” he’d ask. “Now go and teach them to do the same.”

  4. “…where we routinely had to study phrases that even Russians wouldn’t have known…”

    A good point — I remember learning demeurer for “to live,” as in “I live in Detroit.” But my current francophone friends use vivre; the other word is much more like “dwell.” I’m pretty sure I’ve never said “I dwell in Maryland,” at least not with a straight face.

    I confess to being wordy, at least on special occasions. I think, though, that the main hindrance on my ability in French was the lack of conversational practice when I was young–they just didn’t have that in my high schools.

    I have some regret about not trying to learn Gaelic, but I’d be starting pretty far back. Is e ‘n t-ionnsachadh òg an t-ionnsachadh bòidheach (the learning in youth is the pretty learning).

  5. I shared your thoughts while struggling through “Pélagie-la-Charrette” recently, finding it a compulsive and fascinating read, even though I’m unfamiliar with the Acadian vocabulary. I too felt it worth mentioning in a blogpost (http://alisonhobbs.blogspot.com/2011/11/guesswork.html).

    Did you finish your translation of the book?

    I have dual British-Canadian citizenship by the way. When I was at school (in England) we were never taught about the expulsion of the Acadians from their homeland. The truth would have been too shocking.

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