Quill and Quire

Book news

« Back to

University of Alberta researchers track down province’s first publisher

A team at the University of Alberta has traced the province’s first book publishing enterprise to a Catholic missionary and polyglot.

In The Beginning of Print Culture in Athabasca Country (University of Alberta Press, 2010), researchers Patricia Demers, Naomi McIlwraith, and Dorothy Thunder examine the work of Bishop Émile Grouard, owner of the province’s first printing press. Gouard was also the author and translator of its first books: Catholic texts printed in the aboriginal languages of Cree, Dene, Beaver, Hareskin, and Loucheux.

In addition to the remarkable Belgian-made metal fonts in Cree syllabics, the historians, who included a reprint and painstaking translation of Grouard’s 1883 Cree prayer book, were struck by the missionary’s efforts to contextualize catechism to suit his 19th“century aboriginal audience.

From the Edmonton Journal:

In Grouard’s version, for example, Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden for eating forbidden berries. Because Cree has no word for “descend,” Grouard had to be creative in finding a way to describe Christ’s descent to Earth.

“He has Jesus sledding down from heaven, tobogganing down to Earth,” Demers says, laughing.

In Grouard’s translation, even the Ten Commandments take on a more folksy, conversational tone. “Thou shalt not kill,” for example, comes out as: “Do not kill. Do not even think about how to kill.”

“Cree is entirely different from English,” McIlwraith says. “In English, the syntax is very rigid. Cree is more flexible and more fluid, more melodic.”

“He Cree-ized the Latin liturgy, with the intonation of Cree,” Demers says. “This document is a kind of living testimony to a hallmark of Cree identity. The loss of that language is what this project wanted to address and rectify.

In 2011, The Beginning of Print Culture took home the Scholarly and Academic Book Award at the Alberta Book Awards.