John Steckley, ed. De Religione: Telling the Seventeenth-Century Jesuit Story in Huron to the Iroquois. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. 213 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-3617-2.
Reviewed by Tim Pearson (Department of History, McGill University)
Published on H-Canada (March, 2005)
Reading the Jesuits in Wendat
In his 1993 article entitled "The Warrior and the Lineage: Jesuit Use of Iroquoian Images to Communicate Christianity," John Steckley examined two documents written by Jesuit missionaries in the Wendat language of the Huron to show how the Jesuits strove to translate Christian concepts across cultures using aboriginal languages. The larger ethnohistorical contribution of this article, however, was to illuminate a side of the Jesuit mission project unavailable through readings of their famous Relations. The written works of the French missionaries in aboriginal languages are much referenced but seldom read by ethnohistorians, due mostly, one must suspect, to linguistic limitations that restrict contemporary researchers to documents that were destined almost invariably for European audiences. Steckley's 1993 article was a first step in opening up these valuable sources written in the languages of North America to a wider scholarly community. In this new work, he has provided a complete translation of one of these sources--the Wendat text De Religione.
Steckley's edition, De Religione: Telling the Seventeenth-Century Jesuit Story in Huron to the Iroquois, consists of a facing page English translation of the original Wendat text, plus an introduction which contextualizes the work and explains the translation and the editing strategies employed. The original text was written in the late-seventeenth century by an anonymous Jesuit missionary, but through careful detective work, Steckley is able to posit a date of composition between 1669 and 1673, and to attribute the original work to a Belgian Jesuit missionary, Father Philippe Pierson (pp. 5-6). The book includes a brief notes section, a list of general references, and an index of Huron root words used in De Religione. A general index of English and Wendat terms concludes the volume.
Although written in Wendat, De Religione was addressed to the Iroquois south of the Great Lakes amongst whom the Jesuits were hoping to establish a mission and who, along with the Huron, spoke languages of the Iroquoian group. The first printed edition was published in the Fifteenth Report of the Bureau of Archives for the Province of Ontario (1920), along with a collection of other material concerning the Wendat language. This collection was originally compiled by the Jesuit missionary Pierre Potier in the mid-eighteenth century. The Jesuits who came to Canada were master linguists and spent a great deal of time and energy studying the languages of the Aboriginal peoples. Copying material such as De Religione was a typical strategy of learning and it is likely, as Steckley suggests, that Potier's collection was the result of such an exercise.
The real significance of the work, argues Steckley in his introduction, is as an alternative to the Jesuit Relations which "helps to reveal the differences between what the Jesuits reported they communicated to Aboriginal people and what they actually said" (p. 6). The work shows how the Jesuits tried to explain concepts which had no cultural or linguistic counterpoints among Iroquoian speakers; concepts that ranged from basic Christian images such as sheep, camels, or a flock, to complicated theological concepts such as the trinity. "In its religious images and concepts, we see a unique synthesis of the ideas of Iroquoian and European Christian cultures, a synthesis not reported in the Jesuit Relations" (p. 7). De Religione also offers insight into the Iroquoian languages of the seventeenth century and the creation of an Aboriginal-Christian lexicon. Steckley argues that despite its Jesuit composition, the text "also bears the verbal soul of the Wendat language" (p. 7).
The translation strategy employed in this edition is directly related to the editor's understanding of the text as, above all, a work in Wendat destined for an Aboriginal audience. He has decided "to favor, whenever possible, the culture of the Huron over that of the Jesuit" (p. 19) in his translation, essentially positing an Iroquois or Huron reader and providing a Huron understanding of the text rendered in English. "I wanted, as much as possible, for the document to have a "Huron read"--to be understood in a way a Huron might have understood it--rather than to convey the Jesuits' intent" (p. 19). Steckley argues that because the Jesuits were more willing in this type of work to adapt the Christian message to Aboriginal culture than they would have admitted in works such as the Relations, a translation that reflects Aboriginal understanding is appropriate and even favorable. As Steckley readily admits, however, attempting to see what the Jesuits did not necessarily see--how the text would have been received and understood by a native speaker of Wendat--is a very difficult task.
A significant portion of his introduction is therefore devoted to explaining the intricacies of Wendat grammar as it relates to French and to English in order to explain and justify his translations of key terms and passages. The spiritual and linguistic worlds of the French and Huron were very different and so the way that the Jesuits translated dogma from French into Wendat had the possibility of being understood in ways contrary to their intent. The Jesuits had to be very careful in their translations to ensure that they were not imparting an unintended and undesired meaning. Steckley tries to demonstrate the difficulties of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic translation that the Jesuits faced through his own translation. For example, in his treatment of the Christian concept of sin he translates the Jesuit Wendat into English as "to be mistaken in some matter," (p. 27) rather than as "sin." He explains his rationale saying that, "for me, such a translation maintains in the message the sense of confusion and frustration that Huron and Iroquois people must have felt upon being told that 'mistakes' could be deadly and that priests were the only ones who could determine for sure which mistakes were lethal to one's eternal life and which were harmless" (p. 27).
As a result, the English version is relatively difficult to read and flows unnaturally which, of course, is Steckley's point. For example, his translation of the Fall reads, "It was hardly any time from when they became humans, and the two made mistakes. At that moment, truly, they spread badness to each other as they made mistakes" (p. 181).
This strategy is effective on one level, but on another raises questions about the intentions of the original author and the purpose of the work itself. The work rendered in English seems a long way off from the objectives that Pierson and his fellow missionaries may have had in mind when they wrote and copied it, with the result that it often reads as though the original were penned by a Huron author. It is unusual, indeed, to find a translation rendered from the point of view of a hypothetical reader rather than the author, and a Huron understanding of a French Jesuit text presented in English offers too many layers of complexity to present it without a significant accompanying critical apparatus. Yet, Steckley offers very little in the way of notes alongside his translation. Alternative readings generally are not provided outside of the introduction, and the fact that the text was likely meant to be spoken piece (p. 7) does not figure into the discussion of the impact this text might have had on the hearer. Indeed, it is likely that only Jesuits such as Potier actually read the text.
Furthermore, there is a lack of codicological information concerning the context of the original manuscript. Steckley's work seems to rely solely on the 1920 edition while there is no apparent effort to trace the original Potier manuscript or to find earlier exemplars. Information such as the location and provenance of the Potier manuscript is not provided, while the introduction contains only the most basic discussion of the accompanying texts in the collection and their relation to De Religione.
Steckley is clearly well immersed in the Iroquoian languages of the seventeenth century and has done much important work on the topic, of which this edition is a part. His attempt to comprehend what a Huron understanding of Jesuit doctrine might have been like is significant and this document provides a unique opportunity to learn more. But De Religione is not an Aboriginal-penned work, and the translation, without significant notes and alternative readings, suggests the translator's assumption of an overly authoritative historical voice. Steckley acknowledges the issue when he says, "Translating De Religione was an enormous challenge for an English-speaking, non-Aboriginal Canadian attempting, in the twenty-first century, to translate material written in the language of a seventeenth-century Aboriginal group as it was used by people of that time, but of a very different language and culture" (p. 19). He might have offered a Jesuit reading of the text as well, or at least of key passages, so that the two interpretations could be compared directly, illustrating more starkly the impact of De Religione on more conventional understandings of the Jesuit missions gleaned from the Relations and similar French texts. This work makes available and accessible to a wider audience an extremely valuable resource which will serve as a starting point for much research to come. This will be a much consulted, used, and well-traveled book among ethnohistorians who will be grateful for a new research tool. Steckley has chosen to take a very active role in the production of meaning through his translation strategies and the work must be read with this in mind.
. John Steckley, "The Warrior and the Lineage: Jesuit Use of Iroquoian Images to Communicate Christianity," Ethnohistory 39:4 (1992): 478-509.
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Tim Pearson. Review of Steckley, John, ed., De Religione: Telling the Seventeenth-Century Jesuit Story in Huron to the Iroquois.
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