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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Forging Deaf Education in Nineteenth-Century France: Biographical Sketches of Bébian, Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc

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In the pages that follow, Berthier enumerates many of his attributes: the favor he enjoyed with his students, the famous definitions that “were transmitted far and wide,” his “epistolary style and familiar tone,” his abiding commitment to friendship. But there is another side as well. Berthier portrays Massieu’s intellectual growth as having been stunted, causing him to remain “forever a child in his way of viewing things.” Strange conduct and other blunders add up to a certain dysfunction. Massieu could not keep a secret; he withheld nothing from his students, even when it may have been to his own detriment; as an adult he had an infantile passion for watches, keys, stamps, and seals; he loved to collect books, not for the sake of reading, but rather to feel them, to leaf through them, and then to trade them in for more books. Letters had to be written for him, owing to his failure to master the necessary formal writing skills; because he was not capable of truly understanding the most popular children’s books of the day, he believed deaf students incapable of reading challenging authors such as Voltaire, much to the disapproval of Berthier and Bébian. For the culprit one must look, once again, beyond Massieu himself: “Perhaps it was Abbé Sicard’s fault,” Berthier speculates, “for desiring above all, in his own interest, to have his pupil shine in public and, consequently, for failing to concentrate on this all-important aspect.”

Like the Sicard biography, the final sections of Berthier’s treatment of Massieu form a eulogistic tribute. Having left the Paris Institute to assume the directorship of the Rodez school some years before, Massieu accepted yet another position in 1835, the directorship of the newly founded school in the city of Lille where he resided until his death in July of 1846.

None of the negative characteristics attributed to Massieu can be found in the few pages Berthier devotes to Laurent Clerc. Indeed, Berthier writes, “he possessed qualities that Massieu did not: polished manners, politeness, an engaging personality, and a knack for choosing good company. He was in these respects the opposite of his schoolmate.” Clerc was especially adept at analyzing and conveying complex concepts: his definitions of the terms mind, matter, reason, judgment, and ingenuousness, for example, are shown to be superior to those offered by Massieu. Berthier goes on to chronicle Clerc’s departure for America with the Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and his success in the United States. Highlighting that brief section is a report, included in its entirety, on the establishment and progress of the school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, which was founded by Gallaudet with Clerc’s assistance. This report was presented to the institute when Clerc returned to Paris in 1825.

The Translations

Translation is never a straightforward process. The form that a text assumes in another language inevitably results in differences in meaning and connotation, however subtle. It is widely accepted that the cultural shadings and sensibilities inherent in the source language cannot be transmitted wholly and intact to the target language. Strategies of translation can and do compensate, of course. But the limitations are real. Translators do their best, knowing that in the end the product will be imperfect, that is to say, different. They are compelled to make decisions, both conscious and unconscious, with every word and sentence they write. Some of the decisions made in the translation of these biographies have already been mentioned. In the interest of readability, they have undergone a process of reformatting, to a minor degree in the case of the Bébian biography and to a greater degree in the case of the Sicard biography. Whereas the form of the texts has been altered, the language of the sections involved has not been subjected to a similar process. The same can be said of the texts as a whole. Berthier’s writings in French are rather uneven, stylistically speaking. Some passages are very engaging, for example, those describing Sicard’s plight during the Revolution. Others drone on repetitiously, especially the accounts of the many official visitations that followed a set plan. In the translations some sentences have been bifurcated or recast for the sake of clarity, but no effort has been made to embellish or to enhance any of Berthier’s renderings. Similarly, no effort has been made to “foreignize” the translations as such. From time to time common French designations are left intact as reminders: “Monsieur,” “Mademoiselle,” “Madame,” “Duchesse,” “Académie Française,” “Institut de France,” and so on. Otherwise, English syntax and phraseology prevail.

In the nineteenth century, as Rachel M. Hartig has pointed out so aptly, biography and autobiography were often conflated. Berthier’s biographies certainly exhibit that tendency. Stylistically, however, the literary devices that constitute such a worrisome challenge for the translator, metaphor and simile, are not exploited to an appreciable degree. A challenge of another sort does give reason for pause. The nomenclature relative to deaf people and their institutions has evolved significantly since the nineteenth century, both in French and in English, as attitudes have evolved. To substitute verbatim the equivalent English period terms for the French-period terms in the name of accuracy was a temptation—but a temptation I resisted. Just as other choices were made in the interest of a reader-friendly text, so too was this one. The terms sourd-muet and sourd et muet are the most frequent designations in the French texts. These have been commonly rendered as the deaf, deaf people, person(s) born deaf, or more rarely nonhearing or nonspeaking (the equivalents of the modern French non-entendant and non-parlant). The sole exception, Clerc’s reference to the Hartford school in his 1825 report, is left as it was written by its author, once again as a reminder of how far we have come: “The American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.”


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