by Margaret Sankey
I have a friend named Franck, who comes from Paris but now lives in the United States with his wife and two children. For the last couple of years, he’s been making noises about maybe coming to do some sightseeing in Montreal sometime. I like to encourage him to do it, for my own selfish reasons. Not pride in the city, not a desire to help stimulate our economy, but for the pleasure of giving him the following advice: I want to tell him that the Québecois love children, and that he should announce “J’ai deux gosses” (I have two kids) to every single person that he meets, because they are sure to react with pleasure.
I’m betting that he doesn’t know that while the word “gosse” in France refers to children, in Quebec, it means testicles.
In the same way that the Harry Potter books were adapted for American audiences before their release in the USA (Canadians got the British version), texts written for French-speaking audiences in Europe and elsewhere need to be adapted for Canada before publication.
First of all, there are distinct names for government services, agencies, and other kinds of institutions. Even the words for “high school” are different: in Quebec, it’s “école secondaire,” whereas in France, it’s “lycée.” The slang and swear words are utterly different, of course. (Equally entertaining, though.) But there are also different words for an odd assortment of things, like blueberries, hummingbirds, and various items of clothing, too. Verbs, even: “magasiner” (to shop, in Quebec French) is met by complete incomprehension by French people. I was asked if I was talking about reading a magazine when I used it in conversation with a friend from Nantes. “Barrer” for locking a door sounds very funny and old-fashioned on the other side of the pond, where they would use “verrouiller.” And in France, people don’t know that in Quebec, their word for breakfast means lunch, and their word for lunch means dinner. Imagine how many cross-cultural dates must have gone awry because of that one!
It’s a bit like the differences between British and American English, but it’s more extreme, because Quebec was cut off from France for a long time during its history, and because the relatively small size of its population ensures that its cultural influence in France is not as great as the American influence in the UK.
On top of it all, the two cultures also have the funny habit of complaining about each other’s anglicisms. They both use plenty, but they use different ones. The Québécois roll their eyes at “la cranberry,” since two perfectly good words for cranberries have already existed in French for generations, here: “canneberge,” and the even older “atoca” of Huron-Iroquois origin. The French, meanwhile, sneer at “bon matin” (modeled on “good morning”) and “faire du sens” (to make sense), both syntactical anglicisms, the type of anglicism more common here than there.
English speakers tend to shrug, until they come across one of those English words that have been adopted into the French language with a twisted meaning. “Un pressing” for a dry-cleaner, “slip” for men’s briefs, “un pull” for a sweater or pullover, “le footing” for jogging, and “brushing” for blow-drying. Ouch! These last are all frequently used in France, but mostly not in Quebec. I think that the worst one I’ve come across as a French to English translator was “un blader,” encountered in a French medical file. It turned out to be a bladder scan, but the spelling error really did not help!
The noun “universitaire” is a word that gave me pause recently, as I was working on a translation from Quebec French into English. According to my gut feeling, as well as the context, it was quite clear that it meant “university student.” But further along, I suddenly wondered whether the meaning also included “university graduate,” so I decided to look it up to be sure. The first dictionary I used gave a translation of “university lecturer, university professor, academic.” That dictionary is for international use and doesn’t always include Quebecois variants, so next I went to Termium, the Canadian government’s terminology database, and the Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique, the equivalent resource put online by the government of Quebec. Surprisingly, they had similar entries: “scholar,” “academician.” A Google search provided a few examples of the use of “universitaire” in context but was largely confounded by the word’s frequent use as an adjective rather than a noun. Luckily, I live in Montreal, so the simplest solution was to read out the sentence to a few people and ask them! “University student” really was the right translation.
Localization is important, because cultural differences abound between France and Quebec. An online tourist guide for French citizens travelling in Quebec advises people from France not to make the mistake of thinking that the Québécois are simply French people who happen to live in North America; rather, they are North Americans who happen to speak French. A prime example of this is to be found in peoples’ CVs. In North America, we are taught to blow our own horns, describing (perhaps even exaggerating) our accomplishments using every possible superlative when writing a resume. In France, this is frowned upon. I once saw a thread on a translation forum where someone had asked how to translate this sentence: “As you can see from my CV, I have a personal history of consistently delivering excellence.” A helpful member from Quebec provided an accurate translation, while a French member commented that the English sentence sounded terribly pretentious to start with! In France, resumes tend to be more understated. However, over there, people include a photo and information about their marital status with their CV, a practice that is unheard of here. Different history, different culture, different words.
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Then the university students can go jogging in their briefs at lunchtime, and everything will be just fine.