"Everyone Says No": Canadian Public Service Broadcasting and the Failure of Translation During Canada's Constitutional Crisis

Kyle Conway (krconwa@yahoo.com)
Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison
May, 2008
 
Kyle Conway earned his PhD in communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. He is currently an assistant professor in the school of communication of the University of North Dakota.
 

Abstract

Between 1987 and 1992, Canadian leaders negotiated two agreements, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, intended to end Canada’s longstanding constitutional impasse by meeting Québec’s conditions for adhesion to the constitution. These accords would have redefined the relationships between Francophone Québec, Canada’s nine Anglophone provinces, the federal government in Ottawa, and Canada’s First Nations. Both accords failed: Meech Lake died when Manitoba’s and Newfoundland’s legislatures refused to bring it to a vote in 1990, while Charlottetown was defeated in a national referendum in 1992.

The news departments of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s English- and French-language television networks (the CBC and Radio-Canada) faced the task of explaining not only the political and legal implications of the complex accords but also how different linguistic and cultural communities interpreted them. Two forms of translation played central roles in their coverage: linguistic translation, when journalists speaking one language quoted a politician speaking another, and cultural translation, when journalists interpreted Canada’s diverse communities for viewers. In both cases, translation was characterized by a paradox: while it appeared to facilitate communication across linguistic and cultural lines, it instead worked to confirm viewers’ preexisting assumptions about each other.

A historically grounded analysis of Canadian broadcasting policy and the Canadian television industry, combined with a statistical and textual analysis of coverage of the accords by the CBC’s The National and Radio-Canada’s Le Téléjournal, reveals several points where translation failed. For instance, political and institutional pressures defeated the corporation’s attempts to use its all-news cable networks to deliver subtitled programs to Anglophone and Francophone viewers. Similar pressures shaped the culturally specific techniques journalists used to incorporate translated speech into The National and Le Téléjournal. As a result, these programs attributed different meanings to the accords’ key terms, especially recognition of Québec as a “société distincte”/“distinct society.”

Such cultural and linguistic disconnects can be ameliorated, however. New uses of television and internet technology, in particular viewers’ ability to post responses to news stories, offer the potential to allow Canadians to move closer to understanding how people they perceive as different interpret the world.
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