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Bridging the Gap

Kim Lacroix
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 2, 2012, page 10)

The ties that bind

For some time now, the Translation Bureau has offered a series of workshops for French translators on problematic English words and expressions. So I thought it would be interesting to look at the flip side here: tricky French words, expressions or sentence structures that can cause problems for translators working from French into English. These could range from false or misleading cognates (better known in the business as faux amis, those French words that closely resemble English words but don’t mean quite the same thing) to unfamiliar idiomatic expressions or turns of phrase that may force you to stop and reread an entire sentence.

Personally, I find exploring the traits of French absolutely fascinating. Though I’ve been speaking the language virtually all my life, I didn’t really think much about it until I started looking at it from a language professional’s perspective. We language professionals examine languages inside and out. We put words and phrases under a microscope and take them apart only to put them back together again.

Believe it or not, someone once told me that you don’t need to understand the source language all that well to be a good translator; you just need to be a really good writer. While of course I realize that being a strong writer and having an in-depth knowledge of your target language is essential, I think many people underestimate the importance of really getting to know how the source language works. Every language has its quirks. Once you recognize them, you can move beyond an overly literal rendering of the French words and constructions and concentrate on reformulating the ideas in order to make your translations much more readable in English—and make them sound much less like translations!

One obvious trait of French is that it tends to make the links between sentences and paragraphs much more explicitly than English does. Linking words can be especially problematic for English translators because it is not natural to us to be quite as specific. Linking words may add flow to a French text, but they make an English text sound quite unidiomatic if they are all translated literally. Just as “recognizing the problem” is the crucial first step in any self-help program, spotting this characteristic in your source texts is the first step towards avoiding French structures in your English translations.

Let’s look at a tricky little construction with a seemingly innocuous linking word: aussi. It can easily catch you unawares if you’re not paying attention.

J’ai convoqué tous les employés à la réunion. Aussi faut-il noter qu’ils seront au courant de la situation demain matin.

Does this mean that the employees will already be aware of the situation before coming to the meeting? Or does it mean that they will find out about something at this meeting?

When you’re pressed for time and translating sentences like these “on autopilot,” you might be tempted to produce a sentence like this one:

I invited all the employees to the meeting. Also, note that they will be aware of the situation tomorrow morning.

While aussi usually does mean “also” or “in addition,” it can have quite a different meaning when used at the beginning of a sentence. Here, it actually means “therefore” or “as a result.”

I invited all the employees to the meeting, so they will be aware of the situation tomorrow morning.

Pay attention to the inverted subject and verb (faut-il noter): the inversion can tip you off to the different meaning, just as the initial position can. So in fact there is no ambiguity in the sentence above. In the French sentence, inverting the subject brings the verb closer to the previous sentence, which reinforces the link between them (in this case, a cause-and-effect link).

We’ll look at more quirks of French next time.

Many thanks to Sybil Brake, Jacques Desrosiers and Carole Dion, who took the time to read drafts of this article.