Thoughts on How We Translate the Caretaker Convention


This follows up on and adds to my earlier entry describing my talk on government formation to Professor Philippe Lagassé’s seminar on parliamentarism, which you can read here.

When Phil and I were discussing the Privy Council Office’s Guidelines on the Conduct of Ministers, Ministers of State, Exempt Staff and Public Servants During An Election in his French-language seminar last Monday, we just stumbled upon an interesting quirk and question pertaining to this document in particular and the caretaker convention itself more generally: how should “caretaker convention” be translated into French? While the title itself of this document doesn’t mention the caretaker convention, PCO’s website does. At this stage, PCO has officially abandoned the phrase contained in The Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, which referred to this concept as “the principle of restraint” and has endorsed “caretaker convention” in English, so the French-language translation now reflects this.

But it doesn’t. In the 2015 edition of this document, PCO calls it “La Convention de transition,” which I highlighted to Phil in the discussion that I found imprecise and inadequate. (Sidenote, talking in French to someone with whom you’ve only ever conversed in English before feels very strange!) We certainly don’t call it the “Transition Convention” in English. I referred to this translation as imprecise because not all elections result in a transition of power from one ministry to another — because sometimes the incumbent government retains its parliamentary plurality or majority and can continue to govern thereafter. The elections of 2008 and 2011 did not produce a transition of power, and the Harper government, the 28th ministry, survived both. The main thrust behind the caretaker convention is uncertainty: that the incumbent government exercises restraint precisely because no one knows whether it will remain in office after the election. By referring to the caretaker convention as “La Convention de transition” in French, it’s almost as if PCO foretold or created a self-fulfilling prophecy on the Harper government’s defeat!

Phil and I agreed that this “convention de transition” is wholly inadequate. So I sought inspiration from the country most adept in implementing the caretaker convention — better yet, it also happens to be a French-speaking country: Belgium. The website of the Government of Belgium even includes a section devoted to the formation of governments and explains the entire process. In Belgium, a caretaker government is a “gouvernement d’affaires courantes” — a “routine proceedings government.” As Phil and I discovered over Twitter, this might not be the best name in the Canadian context because the National Assembly of Quebec defines “affaires courantes” as “routine proceedings” in terms of the conduct of parliamentary business — and, by definition, there are no routine proceedings during a caretaker period because the parliament is dissolved. Phil suggested “la convention de garde” as a better translation, since “garde” has the closest denotation and connotation in French to “caretaker” in English.

However, I just discovered in the course of writing this blog entry that I do in fact possess a French-language copy of PCO’s Guidelines from 2008. (Admittedly, yes, I should have checked for this document before presenting, but I do have a day job and an imperfect memory!). And in 2008, PCO had translated “Caretaker Convention” into French as “La Convention de retenue” — which translates most directly as “Restraint Convention.” This name comes much closer to capturing the spirit and underlying meaning of “caretaker convention” and also offers an excellent and faithful translation of what The Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada of 1968 calls “The Principle of Restraint.” In conclusion, “la convention de retenue” is a much better and precise French translation of “caretaker convention,” and PCO should have retained its own original translation from the 2008 edition of the Guidelines when it drafted and published online its 2015 edition of the same.

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