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By Riteba McCallum
March 10, 2020

How to Create an Idiomatic French-to-English Translation

Translation is so much more than simply plugging in equivalents for words in other languages. If it were that simple, we would use Google Translate or a dictionary and leave it at that! But differences between languages go far beyond variances in the words we use. There is deep, structural diversity from one language to the next. A few well-known examples of this are German, where the verb appears at the end of a sentence, and Mandarin Chinese, which basically doesn’t have any verb tenses at all! While French and English might not be as different from each other as Chinese and German, they do have significant disparities. Here are some of the differences between French and English that translators need to consider to create a fluid, idiomatic translation.

Move modifiers to the front of the noun

One of the main differences between French and English is the way nouns are modified. In English, modifiers tend to come before the noun (green truck), whereas in French, they tend to come after (camion vert). Using an adjective like green is a simple example, but it can get much more complicated. French has a tendency to use long strings of prepositional phrases, which often means that the preposition de appears several times after a noun:

Cette activité s’adresse uniquement aux gens impliqués dans le processus de vente et de développement des affaires de leur entreprise.

However, if we try to do the same in English, the phrase sounds stilted, long, and confusing:

This activity is only for people involved in the process of sales and development of business in their company.

In English, the preference is for stacking modifiers ahead of the noun:

This activity is only for people involved in their company’s sales and business development process.

I like to call this “front-loading” the noun. It is important to remember that this isn’t always possible—translators should always use their best judgement and avoid creating word salad by stacking too many modifiers on top of each other—but it often makes for the most idiomatic translation.

Sometimes, rather than move the modifier to the front, the solution is simply to add a connecting “that is”:

Une culture numérique forte est basée sur des informations factuelles et accessibles par tous.

A strong digital culture must be based on factual information that is accessible to everyone.

Flip the sentence structure

French uses a lot of front-loaded sentences that start with a long modifying clause, followed by a comma and then the main subject. Although we front-load our nouns in English, we don’t front-load our sentences as much. It tends to make the syntax needlessly complicated.

Homme d’affaires aguerri, John Smith possède une solide formation en enseignement.

You could translate this as:

A seasoned businessman, John Smith has a solid background in education.

But this sounds much better:

John Smith is a seasoned businessman with a solid background in education.

You do want to include some variety in sentence structure, but do so wisely. A more idiomatic front-loaded sentence in English is one that begins with a preposition like with or as. Beware of misplaced modifiers—“As a seasoned businessman, John Smith has a solid background in education” does not make sense.

Turn abstract nouns into concrete actions

Possibly the most all-encompassing difference between French and English is that French tends to be more abstract, while English tends to be more action-oriented. One of the ways this manifests most frequently in texts is that English tends to use verbs where French often uses nouns. Take lists, for example:

  • La vérification des circonstances
  • Le suivi des dossiers
  • Investigating the circumstances
  • Monitoring cases

When nouns like these appear in French sentences, they often require restructuring or the use of entirely different words in English:

Connaître le fonctionnement = find out how it works

There are also many French words that are used to designate concepts that are quite abstract and don’t have an English equivalent. Take valoriser, for example. It tends to mean something along the lines of adding value, esteem, respect or importance to something. Fellow translation company Anglocom has managed to come up with 76 different ways to translate the word!

With words like valoriser (aménagement and animation also come to mind), it is really up to the translator to deduce the meaning from the context and select the most appropriate equivalent.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

In addition to being a fairly abstract language, French can also be quite elaborate. My favourite example of this is from British comedian Al Murray, who jokes that the very simple “boat show” in English would be translated to “une exposition des bateaux et des équipements maritimes” in French. English is a very direct language, and so it is essential for translators to try to simplify and condense their translations in English without losing any of the meaning of the original text. Translators should always re-read their finished translations before submitting them, hunting for extraneous or obsolete words and phrases.

At OXO, all of our translations are revised by a second translator before being sent to the client. The reviser brings a fresh eye to the document, and can help find places where the text can be lightened and made easier to read.

Curb your enthusiasm

While the French are known for being romantics, in English we tend to keep a stiff upper lip. For one thing, we tend not to use the word passionate as much as French-speakers use passionné. Instead, in English you would be avid, excited, keen, enthusiastic, a fan or even a lover, but passion is a whole other level, defined as “a strong and barely controllable emotion.” Culturally, that’s not something we Anglo-Saxons are that comfortable displaying.

In a similar vein, a sensible French-to-English translator will often find themselves weeding out exclamation points. For example, we recently translated a letter soliciting donations that had an exclamation point or two in every paragraph:

Nous sommes également ravis de vous annoncer que pour chaque don amassé, M. Untel s’engage à doubler votre mise! Nous le remercions pour ce geste altruiste ainsi que pour son précieux engagement envers notre organisation depuis ses tout débuts!

In the translation, we replaced almost all the exclamation points with regular periods. It’s enough to say you’re “delighted” and “very grateful” in English—no need to shout it.

Keep it casual

It seems somewhat counter-intuitive after the last point, but French tends to be more formal than English. There’s a wider gap between how people write and how they speak, whereas in English the two are closely aligned. For example, the issue of front-loading sentences in French is a very literary device that’s rare in speech. Because written French is more literary, novice French-to-English translators often produce texts that are accurate and grammatically correct, but sound very stiff and formal, thinking that they need to copy the tone of the source.

In 95% of cases—even for business writing—stiff and formal is not what anyone wants. Instead, what you should aim for is simple, straightforward English buoyed by appropriate idioms and concrete images. I often get asked by interns whether I think expressions like “job hunt” and “kick off” are too informal for the context. The answer is of course not! As long as it’s not modern internet slang, you should be using idioms in your translations. Here’s an example:

L’État doit aussi s’acquitter de ses responsabilités.

The correct but stiff translation:
The government must also fulfill its responsibilities.

Good plain English:
The government must also pull its weight.

It doesn’t help that we share many Latinate words with French. It can be tempting to leave these words as they are, but in English they tend to have a more academic, scientific or abstract register. Why not use goal or target instead of objective? Perk or gain instead of advantage? Boost or speed up instead of accelerate? Especially if your translation is heavy on Latin suffixes like -ion, ism and -ize, try to find a nice, sharp Anglo-Saxon equivalent. This is a tip I picked up from George Orwell, who wrote that “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.”

It takes a professional

All these examples of differences between English and French require the translator to modify the text without changing its meaning. Translators must fully understand what the document is trying to convey, and have the flexibility in the target language to convey it in a way that sounds natural to native speakers of that language. Translation is an art, so let your creativity flow!

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