In focus

Profession: translator

If there is one profession where Ottawans have left their mark, it is translation. Since Confederation, many Francophone journalists, editors and writers have joined the federal public service to translate into French all documents required for the nation to function properly, and for information to be available in the French language. Their responsibility is great: they must translate from English into French documents of the utmost importance, without altering their meaning. This can be difficult under political pressure. It is said, for example, that George-Étienne Cartier compelled Eugène-Philippe Dorion, chief translator of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, to translate “dominion” as “power” in the British North America Act Of 1867.

Some translators, with their intimate knowledge of government, are drawn to a career in politics. This is the case of Joseph Tassé (1848-1895) who, after collaborating with the Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe newspaper, comes to Ottawa in 1868 to replace Benjamin Sulte as editor of the Ottawa edition of Le Canada. He starts working as a translator in the House of Commons in 1872, and, in 1878, becomes a Conservative candidate in the riding of Ottawa, which he represents for nine years. Joseph Tassé serves in numerous political capacities during his prolific career.

The translation profession gains momentum in 1934 with the creation of the federal government’s Translation Bureau. All departments, without exception, must use its services, to contain chaos in an area that was often left in the hands of people whose sole competence was to be bilingual. Results of the Bureau’s first round of entrance exams are disastrous.

Over the years, federal translators form a select group of language specialists. Their work contributes to the professionalization of their trade in Ottawa and elsewhere in the country. The Guide du traducteur, published by Irène de Buisseret in 1972, filled with comments on the difficulty in using certain words, is a good example. Irène de Buisseret starts her federal government translation career with the Secretary of State in 1950, finishing in 1970 as head of the Translation Bureau of the Supreme Court of Canada.