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What Translators Want You to Know About Translating from English to French

What linguistic instructions would you give your translation agency when working with a commercial translation from English to French or French to English? Below are some talking points for discussing your localizing strategy, to ensure the most accurate translation the first time around.

The Use of English in the French Language

When translating from English to French, there’s sometimes a preference to use an English word in the French translation, like ‘smiley’ or ‘email’. Like many things, this is a preference, which depends on your tone of voice and linguistic guidelines. To some, it might sound more modern to use the English term in some cases but, as a rule, the French prefer using their own words.

To delve deeper, here are two usage cases:

1) The usual term is the English word, but a French translation has been created (generally by the Académie française), but it is never used in everyday life. Using the artificial French word will sound unnatural to native French speakers. For example, smiley has the official translation “frimousse”, but nobody uses it, preferring “smiley” (pronounced “smi-leh” in French).

2) It may often sound more corporate, and therefore subjectively more “modern”, to use English words instead of existing French words, but only to specific audiences. If you target a corporate audience, they would like to read English words like “start-up”, “conf call”, “pitch”, etc.

Growing Language

We have so many new words being created, and then as the language evolves, these enter the dictionary. Depending on where the terms originated and how, new terms will simply be used in the language of the country from which the term originated. Sometimes, with French spelling techniques, accents will be added for pronunciation purposes, as in ‘cameraman’ becoming ‘caméraman’. In other cases, the English word might be used.

I researched some examples of recent additions to the French dictionary, and it was interesting to see how many English-based French terms there are, showing how our cultures are evolving. The recent societal trends from Covid, to technology and the environment, have all had an impact on recent additions to the French language.

Words recently added to the French dictionary, along with their meanings:

Is English More Repetitive Than French?

It is perceived that English can be more repetitive than French, but there is no simple, clear-cut answer. There is a dislike for repetition in French, however, language experts also know that it needs to depend on various factors such as context, style, and the purpose of the communication.

It’s very difficult to quantify, and therefore can be quite subjective. However, both English and French are capable of being repetitive or concise depending on how they are used. In technical writing, for example, it is important to use consistent terminology.
In terms of vocabulary, French has a richer vocabulary with more synonyms than English. This can result in French being less repetitive than English, as French speakers have more options to choose from when expressing a particular concept or idea.
Furthermore, English tends to use shorter words and phrases than French, which can make it more repetitive in certain contexts. English also frequently uses repetition for emphasis and rhetorical effect, such as in advertising slogans or political speeches.

In conclusion, the level of repetition in English and French depends on various factors, including context, style, and the purpose of the communication, and neither language is inherently more repetitive than the other.

Use of Enthusiasm in Localization

One cultural difference of writing in French is that French native speakers are less enthusiastic and more succinct. They are suspicious of words or phrases like ‘great, amazing, awesome, the best product’. They prefer to be more down to earth and realistic when describing products and services in French. Their French product descriptions on eCommerce sites will be more perfunctory and pragmatic, with less reliance on over-enthusiastically telling you how great it is.

Formal and Informal Tones in French

Would you be offended if someone you didn’t know used the informal ‘tu’ in an outreach email? Some French people would consider this rude and would prefer the formal tone in these communications. Even then, it depends on the age of your audience and the tone of your communication. It can work sometimes, and that’s when the human expertise and agreed tone of voice comes in handy to judge when it’s appropriate or not.

It’s not just ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ (singular and plural of you), as ‘vous’ is also distinguished between ‘formal vous’ and informal vous—friends, family, and colleagues are in a different category than professional groups, managers, and seniority figures. French has a more complex grammar, so context is always needed when translating.

Translation Challenges in French

There are a number of words that can be difficult to translate from English into French because they may have different cultural connotations or there may not be an exact equivalent in the other language. Here are a few examples:

Translating French Slang and Colloquial Terms:

English and French have many slang and colloquial terms that do not have a literal translation. For example, the English phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” (meaning it’s raining heavily) would use a different phrase of “il pleut des cordes”.

Localizing Idioms:

Idioms are expressions that have a meaning beyond the literal translation of the words that make them up. In contradiction to the example above, the English phrase “to break the ice” (meaning to initiate a conversation or social interaction) would be translated similarly as ‘briser la glace’ in French.

Localizing Cultural Concepts:

Some words or concepts may not exist in one language because they are specific to a particular culture. For example, the English words “baseball, basketball, and rugby” do not have a direct equivalent in French. So here the English terms would simply be used. Did you know that the word tennis comes from the Anglo-French tenetz, “Hold! Take! Receive!” which players called out before serving?

Words With Multiple Meanings:

Some words in English have multiple meanings that may not be easily translated into French. For example, the English word “bark” can refer to the noise made by a dog, or the outer layer of a tree. In French, these two meanings would be translated as ‘aboyer’ and ‘écorce,’ respectively. The resulting translation would have to be inferred from the context of the sentence.

French Words With No Direct Equivalent:

Everyone loves to claim they have a word or phrase that isn’t possible to translate, such as the Dutch’s love ‘gezellig’ (a cosy atmosphere). This is a much more descriptive word than the English equivalent of ‘cozy’.
It’s true that some words in one language may not have a direct equivalent in the other language. In these cases, a translator may have to use a phrase or a word that is similar in meaning but may not convey the exact same connotations.

Sometimes French words are used to show good etiquette and manners, such as, ‘bon appétit’, when the English equivalent of ‘enjoy your meal’ doesn’t seem as chic!

Another example is the French word ‘dépaysement describing the feeling that arises from not being in your home country, in essence ‘un-country-ing’. It refers to the strangeness and disorientation you feel in a foreign environment. However, it does not have the negative tint of homesickness or culture shock.

To summarize, there are so many factors that influence the translation from French to English. The purpose of this document isn’t to list each of them, as it would be too exhaustive. As society and language continuously evolve, there are many other elements which surface, such as: the prominent use of the passive voice, or the recent usage of inclusive language, which intends to reduce pro-male -bias in grammar but making pronouns, nouns, and titles include all genders, e.g. “tout.e.s les étudiant.e.s”. It is highly debated and will or will not be used depending on who speaks to whom.

The aim of highlighting these challenges for translation is to create talking points and to show insight into some of the complexities involved. It illustrates the need for native reviewers and clear linguistic guidelines before starting a project.

Now after looking through those talking points, which would cause you the most problems with your next translation? How will you prepare to brief your translation agency with the next English/French localization project?
You may find Jonckers Language Analysts offer a valuable service, as they can help you create your own terminology, linguistic instructions and basically everything you need to be contextually aware and get your translations right the first time!

Feel free to get in touch, or use our chatbot, if you have a complex translation project. Alternatively, if you just need a set of documents translating, did you know that you can upload them into our Translate Now service for an instant translation quote with online payment? Visit www.wordsonline.com to try it out.

If you want to find out more about French translations, and establish why you need professional translators for French or other languages we translate in, you can also carry on to our languages page.

If you are a French to English or English to French Translator, and you’re interested in working with us, Visit our dedicated microsite for Linguists and Translators. This will show you around our approach to working together. 

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