“This will be a light Canadianization,” a company memo stated
In 1999, when I returned to Canada from London, England, to teach Spanish at the University of Guelph, I was handed an introductory Spanish textbook and told that two-thirds of my teaching load was basic language instruction. The textbook was American. This fact, which seemed unimportant at first, became an irritation and an impediment.
I wasn’t surprised by the map of North America that ended at the forty-ninth parallel, the two Mexicans conversing in Mexico City who spoke of the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, or the line drawings showing eager students saluting the stars and stripes. But other examples of American insularity dispatched class discussion into time-consuming detours. Dialogues in which characters debated paying in-state versus out-of-state fees necessitated mini-lectures on how U.S. universities worked. The textbook taught students Spanish expressions to describe the weather—“It’s hot,” “It’s cold,” “It’s raining”—then provided prompts to elicit the desired response. My students knew how to respond to “You are in Alaska in January,” but what was the answer to “You are in Indiana in May”? Dates, presented in a similar fashion, provoked equivalent problems. The student was asked to say in Spanish the date of George Washington’s birthday. Canadian students, I discovered, do not know George Washington’s birthday. I began to wonder whether I was imparting Hispanic culture, or that of the United States.
The textbook’s procedures were based on the premise that students had no experience in studying other languages. In Canada the majority of students who enrol in introductory Spanish bring with them the cargo of high school French classes. The assumptions they make as a result of this experience raise a tangle of pedagogical and cultural issues that U.S. textbooks fail to address. And then there was politics. The Spanish-speaking countries featured in our textbook varied with the whims of U.S. foreign policy. Cuba may be one of our two closest Spanish-speaking neighbours, visited by 500,000 Canadians in 2004, but not even the word Cuba is allowed to appear in most U.S. textbooks. When Venezuela elected a socialist president, one of the most popular U.S. texts replaced the chapter set in Venezuela with a chapter in which students savoured the culture of Texas. The North American Free Trade Agreement, a subject on which Canadian students have diverse and often well-informed opinions, is not acknowledged as a source of controversy. One U.S. textbook dismisses NAFTA with a photograph of a harried-looking Mexican woman leaning over a sewing machine, accompanied by the caption: “This woman is happy because she owes her job to NAFTA.”
One day a man I didn’t recognize appeared at my office, pointed to the book on my desk and said, “What do you think of that textbook?” I lashed out with a diatribe about how humiliated the book made me feel. “You’ve written a few books,” he said. “How’d you like to write one for us?”
I had blown up at the representative for the publisher Thomson Nelson. My outburst led to intensive discussions. I invited my friend Professor Antonio Velásquez of McMaster University to join these discussions. Thomson Nelson’s copious market research indicated that Spanish professors across Canada shared my exasperation; but the Canadian market wasn’t large enough to offset the high cost of producing a complete Canadian textbook “package,” including a video, DVD and interactive CD-ROM. Chris Carson, then acquisitions editor at Thomson Nelson, suggested an ingenious solution: Tony Velásquez and I would translate a popular U.S. textbook into “Canadian.”
It must have looked so simple. “This will be a light Canadianization,” a company memo stated. The illusion collapsed as soon as Tony and I started tearing apart the American textbook to which Thomson Nelson had acquired Canadian rights. Our efforts disabused us of the popular misconception that swapping names around is enough to transform one culture into another. It was easy to change “Hi, I’m from New Jersey,” to “Hi, I’m from Saskatchewan,” but anything more serious required a thorough overhaul. The dialogues in the U.S. textbook followed a student from Wisconsin in her travels through the Hispanic world. American students, whether Boston liberals or Dallas conservatives, could identify with a Midwesterner. Canada has no neutral Midwest. Whichever region I chose as my protagonist’s home, other Canadians would feel alienated. After wracking my brains, I decided that the best compromise was to weave new dialogues around three central characters of different ethnic backgrounds, one each from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Tony wrote groundbreaking spots on Hispanic culture in Canada. Again, new material was required: the most influential Hispanics in U.S. society are the ultra-conservative Miami Cubans; the founders of the Hispanic community in Canada were liberal Chileans and Argentines who fled military dictatorships during the 1970s.
The American textbook was drenched in the ideology of empire. Each example of a Spanish saying was offset by a line informing students that all cultures had the same “universal” (i.e., U.S.) values. A culture spot explaining the Mexican university system extolled Mexico’s new private universities but did not mention the state universities attended by at least two-thirds of Mexican students. A note on the novelist Carlos Fuentes declared that the only theme in his work was “freedom of speech,” an assertion that might make Fuentes blink. The capsule history of how Teddy Roosevelt brought the Panama Canal into being was an unspeakable whitewash. A chapter set in Arizona even boasted about the superiority of the U.S. health system! We took particular pleasure in replacing this chapter with one set in Cuba, which enjoys a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S. and provided an apt background for the introduction of medical vocabulary.
We amended many other assertions to provide a more balanced view of cultural difference, Mexican universities, Fuentes’ explorations of cultural history, the creation of Panama, NAFTA and other topics. And that was before we began revising the grammar lessons to better fit Canadian university curricula.
The most obvious lesson I learned from my two years of work on Intercambios: Spanish for Global Communication, First Canadian Edition is the depth of the ideological debt we incur by inflicting U.S. textbooks on our students. But another lesson may be more important: to avoid analogies when imagining Canada. Analogy is our national disease (“The Liberals are Canada’s Democrats,” “Vancouver is Canada’s Seattle”); it is the rotten heart of our sloppy intellectual culture. In translating our textbook, Antonio Velásquez and I learned to resist facile equivalencies and seek out precise information. Like other translators, we had to accept that translation was impossible, that the U.S. and Canadian cultures are as different as separate languages, before we could convert an expression of American dominance into a Canadian introduction to the Hispanic world.