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The City of Montreal Style guide
A Handbook for Translators, Writers and Editors

Trahan, Victor
Publisher:  Ville de Montreal, Montreal, Canada
Year Published:  2001  
Pages:  293pp   Price:  $22.00   ISBN:  2-89417-719-4
Library of Congress Number:  Z253.T73 2002   Dewey:  808'.066351

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A style guide, like any reference work, is not so much read in the ordinary way, from front to back, as referenced and applied to one's own work in progress. A style guide for writers and editors that addresses the added challenge of translating French into English is going to be especially appealing to anyone working in Canada. Its value is broader than the title would suggest. At the same time, The City of Montreal Style Guide is a fine example of how good "house style" evolves, and how any organization can shape its own.

The story behind the guide, though not part of the book, will interest the user. Six years in the making, it began essentially as a style sheet connected to a specific project. Some style decisions are taken at the outset, the rest evolve through the life of a project. In this case the project was a major by-law consolidation undertaken by the City of Montreal in the late 1990s. The huge revision of 10,000 by-laws included their translation into English. Certified translator Victor Trahan was involved in it for four years, and for this project he developed a style "sheet" of about 40 pages, his log of usage and style decisions necessary to keep the consolidation work consistent throughout. By the time his guide had ballooned to 500 pages, it had long since become a labour of love consuming all his non-work hours.

Its usefulness throughout city government was apparent as Trahan regularly answered queries from employees, contractors and freelancers. For publication, he refined it to its current 293 pages, at which length it is both wide-ranging and concise. On any given topic, he surveys the other published guides, and includes them in a comprehensive bibliography at the back of the book

As you would expect, much of the material is specific to the City of Montreal, interpreting, for instance, the city's system of by-law numbering, naming and referencing; elsewhere four pages are devoted to the prescribed style for referring to city departments and committees. Yet the guide also addresses the more universal considerations of capitalization, grammar, hyphenation and non-sexist language, for example. Organizing all this material alphabetically by topic or key word was probably the wisest course. (These alphabetic entries, sub-topics and cross-references are fully indexed at the back of the book.)

Each entry includes many examples of correct and incorrect usage or style or translation. These are often followed by a clarifying summary of the issue-and the issues are legion. Trahan writes about controversies surrounding the use of particular words and phrases in a way that makes the reader's ultimate choice easier. He helpfully distinguishes between matters of correctness and matters of style, and he frequently condemns vocabulary that is "worn threadbare." But his bottom line in many disputes is: "There are weightier matters to consider."

The book's lightheartedness is intimated by page 2, where Trahan addresses the rule for using "a" or "an" in the example "a historian," then brings it home with "a hysterical historian." He relies rather heavily on clever or inadvertent historic quotes to sum up a dilemma or to provide an example. I marvel that he found a Diefenbaker quote to illustrate the proper use of "that" and "this." His own opinions are often quotable. On the tendency to capitalize for emphasis: "It's an escalating war that never ends, and it's really up to us to stop it."

If the distinction among possible usages is clear to the editor but likely lost on the reader, Trahan's advice is to seek a simpler way. His guide is not rigid in its recommendations; rather, consistency is its motto. Another might be "Eliminate redundancy," making it useful to writers at all levels of government.

Reviewers have all emphasized the book's value to translators and editors whose first language is not English. The entries that deal with inadvertent Gallicisms in English, or Frenglish, are most instructive, showing how they creep in when French is translated literally. "Three days' delay" may in fact be "three days' notice," "manifestations" actually "demonstrations," and "a reunion in my bureau" much more accurately "a meeting in my office."

My particular problem is the opposite one, and I found the guide goes a long way to solving it: how best to include French in an English context. How does one translate style? Copy editors and proofreaders who are not trained translators can use Trahan's work because he deals with what we have suspected instinctively, that apart from rules for written French and rules for translating French into written English, we must have conventions for incorporating French into an English context. The Canadian market is full of "hybrid" text, such as this very publication.

As a simple example, I will no longer feel doubtful when I retain the accents in Montreal and Quebec in an English description or the hyphens in a French street name; yet I may jettison the conventional parentheses from a mailing address, or substitute "Street" for "rue" while maintaining "Ile." In all these decisions, individually minor, consistency is still the overarching rule.

[Reviewed by Kathy Sauder]

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