August 4, 2014

Lost in Translation?: Pierre Menard’s 1810 letter from the Three Forks—Part One


By Jared Peloquin, Montana Historical Society Research Center Intern
Attempting to translate an historic document can be a tricky task.  The difficulty is most prominent when the text of a document is far removed from one’s own language, customs, and culture.  I was recently asked to translate an 1810 letter written to Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849) in French and, even though I’ve studied French, this would require more than just an understanding of the French language.

I was forced to think not only about the letter, but about the person who wrote the letter.  The author, Pierre Menard, spoke French but was born in 18th century Montreal to a French soldier’s wife.  He left school at the age of fifteen to become a fur trader in the expansive American wilderness.  Given the age of the document, the changing nature of any language over the past two hundred years, and the fact that this man was born in the New World, I knew I would encounter words or spellings with which I was unfamiliar.  Growing up in Louisiana, I learned Parisian French while attending a French immersion school.  However, at home my elders spoke Cajun, which closely resembles 18th and 19th century peasant, or rural, French.  Despite my background, there were many questions I didn’t anticipate.
Close-up of the first page of a letter from Pierre Menard to Pierre Chouteau, written April 12, 1810, from the Three Forks area of what would become Montana
[From MHS Archives Collection  MC 4, Box 1, Folder 1]

Reading the first sentence, I noticed unique problems immediately.  The letter begins, “Je matandaie Pouvoire vous Ecrire Plus favorable…”  But, the words “pouvoire,” “ecrire,” and “plus” are not capitalized in contemporary French, and, there is no “e” at the end of “pouvoire.”  More troubling was the second word, “matandaie,” which I had never seen before.  I labored for some time until I started saying the word out loud.  Then I realized that the author must have meant “Je m’attendais” or “I was expecting…”  This makes sense in the context of the entire sentence: “I was expecting (or hoping) to be able to write you more favorably…”*

Multiple thoughts ran through my head, even after successfully translating that first sentence.  I wondered if “m’attendais” was spelled differently in 19th century North America, or if it was simply a result of the author’s lack of education.  Moreover, I was concerned about the capitalization of words throughout the letter.  All nouns in German - not just proper nouns as in English and French - are capitalized.  However, if one reads American documents written in English during the early Republic, one may notice often times that all nouns are capitalized, signifying a much closer connection to the English language’s Germanic roots.



Close-up of the signature of Pierre Menard from his 1810 letter from the Three Forks
[From MHS Archives Collection MC 4, Box 1, Folder 1]
We may never know all the factors which influenced and determined Pierre Menard’s particular French writing style.  Nevertheless, these are just some of the problems and questions one might face when translating any document.  Language is essential to culture, society, and history; and language can tell us much about all three.

* See the English translation of Menard's letter in Part Two.

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