Norm MacMillan, Quebec’s junior transport minister, is known for his rough-hewn way with words, so there was little surprise when he had to apologize last week for insulting an opposition member of the provincial legislature.
Microphones had caught Mr. MacMillan muttering grosse crisse, after Sylvie Roy, House Leader for Action démocratique du Québec, asked a question in the National Assembly.
But what does grosse crisse actually mean in English? He certainly didn’t call her a fat Christ.
There's no exact translation, since many Quebec insults are based on Catholic terminology – such as calice, hostie, Christ, tabernacle – so one has to try to approximate the tone of that insult.
There was some head scratching among political junkies and journalists, especially after Quebecor’s QMI news agency translated Mr. MacMillan’s epithet as “fat f---.”
Others thought a more accurate English-language rendering would be that Mr. MacMillan called Ms. Roy a fat female dog.
Such discussions are one of the behind-the-scene realities of the work of journalists covering Quebec politics.
Every day, sometimes within minutes of deadlines, they have to decide what is the most faithful English version of a discourse full of jargon, literary allusions or crude insults.
The challenge ranges from leaden bureaucratic language full of arrimages and conciliation travail-famille to the Parti Québécois’s propensity for rosy labels (the nation-building business of sovereignty is a projet de société; Bernard Landry’s attempt to revive his party program was the Saison des idées. And every so often someone will call for a meeting of the États généraux, the Estate Generals gatherings in pre-revolutionary France, giving the modern event an appearance of civic consensus.)
Translating insults is particularly tricky since they are bound to be controversial and be part of a public figure’s legacy.
During this spring’s federal election, the Bloc Québécois trotted out former union leader Gérald Larose at a news conference in an attempt to lend more vigour to their faltering campaign.
It backfired. Mr. Larose unleashed a series of insults, saying that NDP Leader Jack Layton was a phony and that other federalist politicians were professional crosseurs.
Crosseur means someone who is disloyal, so reporters often translate it as “double-crosser.”
But crosseur is also sexual slang for someone pleasuring himself or herself. So translating that insult as “double-crosser” or “wanker” misses on the crudeness of Mr. Larose’s remarks.
Another tricky translation issue happened during the 1995 referendum after Liberal senator Jacques Hébert was overheard calling the political scientist and commentator Josée Legault une vache séparatiste.
Most translated the remark as the senator having called her “a separatist cow.”
However, Mr. Hébert, a well-travelled man, might have been using the word vache the way it is used in France, to refer to a mean, unpleasant person (for example, Qu’elle est vache!).
In that light, Mr. Hébert wasn’t just commenting on Ms. Legault’s political leanings but also her pugnacious personality, saying that she was a separatist female dog.
Deciphering insults in Quebec politics can take one from high-brow literature to pop culture.
In the early 1990s, when he was the PQ’s intergovernmental affairs critic, Jacques Brassard called premier Robert Bourassa a “Tartuffe” and “Scapin.”
Tartuffe is the eponymous main character in a Molière play about hypocrisy, while Scapin is another Molière character associated with deceit ( Les fourberies de Scapin).
The PQ’s long-time house leader, Guy Chevrette, momentarily stumped anglophone reporters when he said Mr. Bourassa acted like “Ti-Coune.”
Ti-Coune is a mentally-deficient character from Le Temps d’une paix, a Radio-Canada TV drama series set in a small rural community in the 1930s.
In the end, the CBC’s Tom Kennedy translated “Ti-Coune” as “a dim-wit” while CTV’s Alan Fryer reported that the premier had been compared to “the village idiot.”