Pam Robinson: Canada sales Rep
Much to my chagrin, after years of school instruction, dual labeling, and signage – from soup cans and cereal boxes to official government documents – I am still not bilingual in English and French. I can and do get by when necessary, and in an extraordinary incident (to me at least), I once found myself ordering coffee and doughnuts for a French-Canadian family in a unilingual Tim Horton’s at a highway service centre (doughnut being one of those words that transcends translation). Although Canada is an officially bilingual country, truth is French is primarily spoken in Quebec, New Brunswick, and pockets of Ontario and Manitoba. And even then, the need for my limited skills is pretty much confined to Montreal and Quebec City. I have mastered directions for cab drivers – popping out in short, rapid bursts – “bonjour monsieur/madame, l’universite, la librairie, s’il vous plait, merci!”… “… de la gare …VIA, merci”. I gave up attempting full sentences long ago … my grammatical mangling usually being greeted with cringes and grimaces of incomprehension. In my dreams, my accent is oh-so-elegant … in reality the recipients roll their eyes and look away.
We do not publish books in French, however many of the books or types of books we publish are unavailable in translation, and are carried by French language stores. I regularly call on French stores in Montreal and Quebec City: independents and university stores. Visiting them is a lesson at once in ‘les deux solitudes – the two solitudes’ and again in the cultural accommodation that exists amongst les Quebecois and les Anglais. Everything is familiar, and yet not:shelves and tables piled high with best-selling titles by well known authors, but looking strangely different, posters announcing upcoming lectures d’auteurs/author readings, recommandations du personnel/staff picks. Quiet jazz or classical music plays in the background, espresso machines steam and voices chatter in the adjoining cafes… all in French, with the occasional English word leaping out … sounding oddly harsh amidst the soothing conversational tones.
It can be an adventure making one’s way through the many Cambridge catalogues at the best of times – so many subjects, concepts and themes. And while most of my Quebec buyers are ridiculously more proficient in English than I in French, inevitably we get stuck on something. Thus a discussion like this ensues:
“What is this ‘genre’ Pam? … What does it mean … ‘genre’?”
“What do you mean, what does it mean? … it’s French for Pete’s sake … it’s ‘genre’ … it’s, you know … a type or sort or a group of like minded things …” (imagine wildly gesticulating hands, if you will)
“Is it gender? Is this a gender studies book?”
“No … it’s genre. It’s about literary genres.”
“Well …sometimes genre is gender, Pam.”
“Huh? I didn’t know that … hmm … well, this is not gender. It’s something else.”
“Ahhh … okay … I will take two.”
Like most things in the bilingual nation: it all works out in the end.