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Why Do Minutes Count?

Barbara McClintock
(Terminology Update, Volume 35, Number 2, 2002, page 18)

Minutes are used to record the matters discussed and decisions reached at a meeting. Often the drafting of minutes is an official or regulatory requirement, subject to rules and conditions (board meetings). "Experience has shown the necessity for rules, for a presiding officer to enforce them and to preserve order, and for a recording secretary to keep a record of the business transacted by the assembly."

It is interesting to note the distinction made in French between procès-verbal and compte rendu. The expression compte rendu is used in less official contexts than procès-verbal. It seems that a compte rendu is less dependent on an agenda so it can simply summarize the discussions and decisions of a meeting. An agenda is the list of items that the chair or chairperson proposes to cover at the meeting and submits for approval. A procès-verbal and a compte rendu of a meeting are both translated by the word "minutes" in English.

Since corporate minutes have legal consequences, board members usually review the minutes of the previous board meeting and make any corrections required to ensure that they accurately reflect what went on. The directors of both private businesses and non-profit organizations may be held legally liable for decisions made unless they express a dissenting opinion. In fact, the recording of a dissenting opinion in the minutes is the best way to protect directors against lawsuits.

Minutes must be translated accurately as well. It is important not to make minor corrections, as professional translators tend to do. Let’s say that the original minutes in French talked vaguely about an upcoming event as a réalignement des ressources, and the translator wrote "the staff would be realigned." The English version might catch the union’s attention and rouse its ire.

Translation hints

I would suggest that you find copies of the minutes of at least the two previous meetings to provide you with some background information. The Canadian Style contains a good section on the difficulties associated with translating minutes.

Here are some typical headings and expressions used in minutes:

Headings and expressions used in minutes
French English
Adoption de l’ordre du jour Approval of the agenda
Approbation du procès-verbal (compte rendu) Adoption of the minutes; Approval of the minutes
Compte rendu (procès-verbal) Minutes
Divers Other business
Lecture et adoption Reading and adoption
Levée de la séance Adjournment
Ouverture de la séance Call to order
Sont absents; Personnes absentes Absent
Sont présents; Personnes présentes Present
Suivi Action; Follow-up
Suivi des réunions antérieures Business arising out of the minutes;
Business arising from previous meetings;
Business arising from the minutes of the last meeting

Tense shifting for reported speech

English minutes do not use the same tenses as in French. In French, minutes are written in the present tense, whereas English minutes are written in the past tense. If the past tense is used in French, shift the verb tense back in English.

The Canadian Style provides a handy chart for converting verbs from French into English. It recommends the use of indirect (reported) speech except for general statements of fact not directly attributed to the participants. It also provides some model minutes.

If the minutes you are translating state: "Le président demandera au directeur financier de préparer un rapport sur la question," the standard translation would be "The President will ask the CFO to prepare a report on that matter." However, the correct translation of that sentence for the minutes would be "The President would ask the CFO to prepare a report on that matter."

The following is a case where you would not shift tenses: "He said that we should get to know the clients with whom we did/do business." The present tense is fine here ("with whom we do business"), since the situation referred to still applies and is likely to continue in the future.

What do you do when the meeting was held in December 2001, the minutes were written in January 2002 and reference is made to developments in the fall of 2002? "Mr Tremblay said that the project will/would be completed by October 2002." Would is certainly correct, but will is right too, since the minutes are likely to be read long before October 2002.

Thanks to Sylvia McVicar, Jim Connelly and Martin Clifford of the Translation Bureau in Montreal.

NOTES

  1. Robert, Henry M. Robert’s Parliamentary Practice: An Introduction to Parliamentary Law. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lewis, 1975. For a description of traditional rules of order, see Robert’s Rules of Order by the same author.
  2. Guilloton, Noëlle and Cajolet-Laganière, Hélène. Le français au bureau. Les publications du Québec. 5th ed. Quebec City, Office de la langue française, 2000, p. 100: "Le compte rendu ne présente pas un caractère aussi officiel que le procès-verbal. Moins étroitement lié à l’ordre du jour, il peut être oral ou écrit et ne fait que rappeler l’essentiel des discussions et des décisions qui ont fait l’objet de la réunion."

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Guilloton, Noëlle and Cajolet-Laganière, Hélène. Le français au bureau. Les publications du Québec. 5th ed. Quebec City, Quebec: Office de la langue française, 2000.
  • Public Works and Government Services Canada. The Canadian Style. Toronto: Dundurn, 1997.
  • Robert, Henry M. Robert’s Parliamentary Practice: An Introduction to Parliamentary Law. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lewis, 1975.