Translation Into French for France
For the next few months, McElroy will be running a series of articles that highlight some of the characteristics of languages used in doing business globally. This month, we look at French, in an interview conducted with McElroy translator Alain Thomas.
What are some pitfalls specific to French to avoid that a client should be aware of when translating into this language?
A client willing to translate materials into a foreign language is typically focusing on the linguistic aspect of the task. However, maximizing the impact of the message also requires finding the right tone for the intended audience.
Consequently, the challenge lies just as much with the subtleties of cultural differences as with the complexities of syntax and grammar. The French are particularly demanding in that regard, and small missteps can have a major impact on communication (think of the number of tourists complaining that “snobby” Parisians would not give them the time of day because their wording or pronunciation was not perfect!). It is therefore dangerous to underestimate the necessity to gauge accurately how formally or colloquially a particular text should read.
Too stern a marketing campaign might sound stale or outdated and completely fail to achieve its intended objective. Too familiar a tone might be inappropriate for the context. Is it best to address the reader with a direct (“imperative”) or indirect (“infinitive”) form of address? The informal “tu” or the formal “vous”?
By the same token, it is essential to account for differences in perception of sociocultural issues in order to provide an approach with which the reader can identify. For example, a lecture on ethics in the workplace might elicit more sarcasm than approval if it advocates too candidly an absolute obedience to the law in circumstances when it is deemed culturally acceptable to try to stretch or circumvent it.
Another aspect specific to the French language
is the definition of the target locale. Although most francophone
countries tend to follow very similar rules for the “academic”
language, some differences exist from one country to another
(for instance, the rules for punctuation are different for
Moreover, the spoken language is inevitably affected by the geographic location and the proximity of another culture. In cases where a “hip” feel must be maintained (e.g., an advertising campaign), it will be important to be aware of the local colloquialisms of the target country.
What are characteristics of French that are unique or different from English and/or other languages?
Unlike in English, every noun in French has a gender (i.e., masculine or feminine). This affects every element of the sentence that is in relation with it (article, adjective, etc.).
The form of address (direct or indirect) is dictated by how formal a tone is appropriate for the document. Typically, but not always, an official document will use the more formal indirect address (“infinitive”) to give instructions to the reader. A text vying for a more casual or personal feel will employ the direct address (“imperative”). In this case, a further distinction needs to be made between the familiar “tu” and the more distant “vous.”
And there is always the thorny issue of measurement units. A vast majority of the documents written in English use the imperial units, which have no significance in countries that have adopted the International System of Units (i.e., the metric system). It is therefore imperative to produce equivalents in an understandable, reasonable, and, most importantly, accurate format.
How do these characteristics make it important to use properly qualified, professional translators?
A qualified, professional translator brings to the table a fairly complete set of skills. Namely, a good command of the source language, an in-depth knowledge of the target language, an understanding of the subject matter (assuming the project falls within the translator's area of specialization), years of experience, and most likely, a collection of tools that the “casual translator” might not have available. And it is only the synergetic combination of all these elements that will produce a high-quality result.
Linguistic skills are of course fundamental. French spelling, grammar, and syntax are notoriously arduous, and experience shows that even highly educated people (particularly maybe in the more technical fields) can have difficulty overcoming some of the obstacles.
Moreover, professional translators are typically native speakers of the target language, have generally spent years immersed in both cultures, and by necessity, stay attuned to the latest developments and trends (new words officially introduced by the Académie Française, terminology used in new fields, particularly nascent scientific areas, or even new trends in street slang). This ensures that the professional translator will have at his/her command the appropriate terminology for the subject at hand, but also will come equipped with the necessary depth of language to maximize the impact of the message.
Do you know examples where translation or localization mistakes have occurred with French?
Probably one of the most infamous and costly mistakes in recent memory involved the loss of a Mars orbiter, back in 1999, when a team of NASA engineers made an error translating English units into metric units, causing the spacecraft to crash onto the surface of the red planet.
The issue of measurement units is omnipresent in technical documents. Again, an experienced translator will avoid the common traps, but examples of poor translation abound, ranging from the merely ridiculous (like the distance between two cities expressed in millimeters) to the potentially disastrous (as in the case of the Mars probe).
Relate an example or two of times you found a website page or form difficult to use because it was poorly localized. How might a business lose money, prestige, or incur legal risk due to this bad translation?
The internet is replete with web pages that have been machine-translated. This usually becomes obvious halfway through the first sentence and becomes either grotesque or hilarious before the end of the first section.
Again, there is an important cultural aspect in play here, whereby the American mind-set favors content over form, and will tolerate “imperfections” as long as the global message remains understandable.
The French reader, on the other hand, will be more negatively affected by poor form, and will more readily correlate the deficiencies in language with a general lack of quality at the company level. In an age when companies devote so many resources to projecting an image of quality, it is puzzling that so many open a window to the world that so blatantly inhibits their efforts.
If possible, provide one example of a particular phrase or concept that only a properly qualified, professional translator would be able to correctly communicate.
Unfortunately, the skills and experience of a translator are often put to the test as much to decipher the source language as they are to produce the translation. To wit (excerpt from a recent job):
"Now, for that, for the good and valuable consideration, which I acknowledge and I have received, I have convened to sale, grant and assign to the mentioned corporation my complete rights, title and interest in and for the _____________________ (including its territories and dependencies) and all the foreign countries, said invention, said application and all other, the industrial design (including the extensions) of any other country, that have been or can be granted to the mentioned invention or any other part of the invention, or in said application or other part, continuation, renewal, issuance, or other application, based on everything or in part of the invention, or based on said invention."
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