Looking back

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Daughter takes father’s translation of 1880s work to publication

Robin McGrath (“The Winterhouse”) was 12 years old when her father, Dr. James McGrath, first translated “Terre-Neuve et les Terre-Neuviennes,” a book written by a Frenchman named Henri de la Chaume. She has now saved the manuscript from “being lost and forgotten.”

With the help of subsequent work by a French professor at Memorial University as well as her own research and editing of the text, McGrath has seen her father’s translation to publication, under the title “Hammered By The Waves.”

“Terre-Neuve et les Terre-Neuviennes,” was written by de la Chaume when he was 23 based on his experiences in Newfoundland. It was released in Paris in 1886.

As for its translation, the senior McGrath was a doctor by trade and de la Chaume’s work (trans. 1960-1961) was the only such translation he ever completed.

“(The doctor) broke his leg falling on the ice one winter and he was layed up, he was immobilized for, like, six weeks I think it was. During that time, he had this book Joe Smallwood had given him in French only and Joe didn’t speak French, but my father did,” McGrath said. “And he asked Dad to read it and tell him what was in it, because he was a very curious man. Since my father was layed up, he started reading it and then he started translating chunks, and then he ended up translating the whole book.”

McGrath said her father became ill not long after. Although he completed some subsequent work on the text — connecting with de la Chaume biographer and university French professor Mary M. White — he passed away in 1975 without having seen the book to print.

“I’ve had it sitting around in a bottom drawer for all these years and every now and again I’d go back and re-work a bit of it or look at it or do some more research and it just seemed such a pity that such an interesting piece of work should just sit in my desk,” his daughter told The Telegram.

She picked up the translation (the beginnings of which had been typed on onionskin and hand bound) and set to creating “Hammered by the Waves: A Young Frenchman’s Sojourn in Newfoundland in 1882-83.”

“Henri was 22 when he was in Newfoundland. He was here for 18 months, I think. And my father has spent that time in France. He was in medical school in Ireland (in the 1920s) and going to France on walking tours and things ... so he really related to this guy. He felt a real connection to him and I suppose that that connection, also, to my father as the very young man that I see in the book,” she said. “And he loved Newfoundland. They both did. My father did and Henri did.”

De la Chaume begins his book with a letter from St. John’s on March 1, 1883. He spends a great deal of time on the weather, but soon moves on to the to-dos of the day, describing the population and the entertainment. Later, he looks at local industry, the railway, the codfishery and the seal hunt. He writes about Parliament, the French Shore and a fisheries dispute with the French. In the last few chapters, he moves beyond Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario and across the border to New York.

In her introduction to the translation, McGrath states that her father discovered de la Chaume took some liberties with the truth, in some cases printing rumours circulating around the city rather than fact, in other cases making straight-out errors — for example, mis-stating the distance from St. John’s to Harbour Grace. Consulting with archivists and historians, McGrath confirmed her father’s findings and corrected the writing in her introduction.

“I think part of it is that being French and publishing in France, it probably never occurred to him that anybody in Newfoundland would ever read it. He kind of borrowed. He was very young. So some of the adventures that kind of happened to other people he took on for himself,” she said.

Despite the errors and mis-statements, the writing is very descriptive and the text provides a picture of St. John’s and the day-to-day concerns of Newfoundlanders in the late-1800s.

“I think that what you get is a very interesting snapshot of young women in St. John’s in the 1880s. These girls that were between 18 and 20, 22 years old, around that age, about to be married, but not quite settled on who, that kind of thing. They had extraordinarily good education. Many of the ones that Henri met spoke excellent French, he said, and he spoke no English when he arrived, so that’s what he relied on,” McGrath said.

“Since my father was laid up, he started reading it and then he started translating chunks and then he ended up translating the whole book.” — Robin McGrath on Dr. James McGrath’s work for “Hammered By the Waves”

“Not just in language, but in art, in music. He claimed that their brothers were all kind of channeled into very boring office jobs downtown on Water Street as soon as possible … but they found the women in particular to be extremely educated, interesting and very free and compared to the kind of restrictions he was used to in France — where all the girls were locked up in convents with nuns and stuff — he was quite shocked at first, I think, by what he saw as the kind of freedom of Newfoundland women, but also quite delighted by it, and I think he admired it.”

To supplement de la Chaume’s descriptions of the people he spoke of and the various places he visited, McGrath went on an archival search for sketches and photographs. Included in “Hammered By the Waves” are landscape sketches of Quidi Vidi Lake and a sealing ship trapped in the ice, as well as photographs of the Presentation Convent and the French rooms at St. Julian Harbour.

“In many of the cases, (de la Chaume) didn’t identify people by their real names. He gave them pseudonyms, you know, Lady S, that kind of thing. So I started scrambling around trying to figure out who were these people, because he gave their actual connection to one another, so you’re able to figure out well Father so and so’s brother was a doctor and there’s only one priest and doctor brother set in St. John’s. So I was able to figure out who most of them were,” McGrath said. “And, similarly, I began to come across — not just these drawings — but photography. Photography was huge at that time. It was at a really wonderful stage in its development, so there were a lot of photographs of St. John’s and of some of these people.

“I think my father would be very proud to see it, and Ms. White, too, because this is also her book. I’ve tried tracking down Henri’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so far I haven’t found them, but if I do, I think they will be very pleased. They loved the idea at the time — this was back in the 1960s, Ms. White went to visit them in France — and they loved the idea that people in Newfoundland would be able to read this book and remember and find out about Henri and his father, of course, who was also in St. John’s.”

As for De la Chaume himself, McGrath says following his return to France, the young author went on to marry and have three sons and a daughter. He lost all three sons to conflicts of the First World War and his wife shortly thereafter. He lived for a time at the Abbey of Chancelade in Dordogne, France, before moving in with his daughter and her children in 1932, at the age of 71.

McGrath said, in completing her father’s work and learning of de la Chaume’s life, she has gained new insight into what went into making Newfoundland and Labrador what it is today.

“People would say ‘How come your father spoke French?’ Well, my dad was born in 1902 and, at that time, Newfoundland — and St. John’s in particular — was a port and people did speak foreign languages and they did speak French. His cousins and relatives all spoke French as well. My husband’s family, some of them were French from the Port au Port area and I think that we kind of have forgot that part of our heritage and I think it’s something we need to take back,” she said.

“Hammered By the Waves” is available now from Creative Book Publishing.


Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, France, Paris Ireland Nova Scotia Quebec Ontario New York.In Water Street Quidi Vidi Lake Chancelade Dordogne Port au Port

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Recent comments

  • Ken OBrien
    August 25, 2010 - 09:31

    This article makes me want to read the book. Great job in bringing the translated book and supplementary material to press after all these decades.