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How a retired Ottawa teacher became Diana Gabaldon’s Gaelic translation supervisor

Catherine MacGregor and Diana Gabaldon (photo: Catherine-Ann MacPhee)

Catherine MacGregor and Diana Gabaldon (photo: Catherine-Ann MacPhee)

Retired Ottawa high-school English teacher Catherine MacGregor has only met Diana Gabaldon twice, but the two are good friends.

MacGregor is supervisor of Gaelic translation for Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander series (Doubleday Canada) and, at Gabaldon’s request, writer of its readers’ guide.

“I would say our friendship has developed primarily through the written word,” MacGregor says.

So how did a 63-year-old, retired Ottawa high-school teacher get involved with the series, which just concluded the first season of its television adaptation?

While teaching at Merivale High School in 2005, a Grade 11 student asked if he could read Outlander for an assignment. MacGregor had never heard of the book so she took it home for the weekend to see if it was suitable.

“I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be a bodice-ripper, a beach-read sort of thing.’ Anyway, I started reading it and I couldn’t put it down,” she says.

MacGregor began corresponding with Gabaldon on an online forum, answering historical questions as Gabaldon wrote the next novel in the series. MacGregor also mentioned her interest in Gaelic.

There are currently eight books in the Outlander series with a ninth one on its way, as well as a spin-off series, several novellas and short stories. The books, set in the Scottish Highlands during the Jacobite rebellion of the 1740s, use Gaelic for endearments or curse words – a colourful way of showing the culture of the time.

After months of correspondence, MacGregor and Gabaldon finally met at a Montreal launch for the French translation of A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the fifth book in the series.

“I kept hearing these ladies [in line address Gabaldon in French], and I kept hearing her patiently saying ‘I’m very sorry. I can autograph your book in English or in Gaelic but … I don’t speak any French,’” MacGregor says.

When she got to the table, MacGregor addressed Gabaldon in Gaelic. “And she said, “Oh! You’re Cathy MacGregor from Ottawa!’”

Right there in the book-signing line, Gabaldon asked MacGregor if she’d take on supervision of the Gaelic translations. At the time, MacGregor was just a beginner, but she jumped at the chance and suggested bringing on her friend Catherine-Ann MacPhee, a Scottish actress and singer who is a native Gaelic speaker.

“I said, ‘I’ll do the idiot-proof stuff. But anything that requires more learning, I’ll make sure that Cathy-Ann does,’” says MacGregor.

Gaelic is a complicated, evolving language, but MacGregor and MacPhee try to make it as historically accurate as possible.

“When it comes to a simple sentence being spoken or written, that’s fine, that’s the way we say it today. But how would they have said it back then?” MacPhee asks.

MacPhee is excited about the attention Gabaldon is bringing to the language. “There isn’t that much Gaelic in the books,” she says. “Enough for everyone to get a taste. And for her to have put it on the map, which is fabulous. She’s pushed Gaelic right out there.”

While MacGregor stresses they are a small part of the larger project, Gabaldon has shown her appreciation by dedicating the last two books to them.

“We’ve been acknowledged in several of her books. But … dedicated. That’s a whole different thing,” says MacGregor.