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Personification of Institutions

Brian Mossop
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 1, 2003, page 14)

French writers in Canada tend to avoid personifying institutions. Where in English we would write "talks with Laval University," in French one often finds "des pourparlers avec des représentants de l’Université Laval." A favourite word used by French writers in such contexts is that notorious headache for English translators, "responsables." Thus instead of "donner un préavis au Ministère," we may find "donner un préavis aux responsables du Ministère."

As evidence of this tendency in French, consider some English-to-French translations taken from the Translation Bureau’s on-line archive of completed translations for the year 2002. A query with the search string "responsables du Ministère" yielded 380 hits. I examined the first 30 English-to-French hits, looking for all instances of the word "responsables" in the French translation. Unsurprisingly, when this word was used as a noun, it was most often the translation of "officials," but I did find four cases in which the English source text used personification:

  1. Regions to work closely with Corporate . . . — Les régions travailleront avec les responsables du Ministère . . .
  2. . . . Parliamentary Relations has to ensure that question period cards are prepared accordingly . . . — . . . les responsables de l’unité des relations parlementaires doivent s’assurer que les fiches pour la période des questions sont préparées comme il se doit . . .
  3. . . . your community’s application has been deemed eligible for entry by the Department of Canadian Heritage . . . — . . . les responsables du ministère du Patrimoine canadien considèrent que la candidature de votre collectivité est recevable . . .
  4. (transcript of an oral proceeding) The Immigration Department, their effort to remove you from Canada is being frustrated in that you are unwilling to sign the application . . . — Les tentatives des responsables du ministère de l’Immigration n’aboutissent pas, car vous n’êtes pas disposé à signer la demande . . .

Of course, this does not tell us how often French translators added the word "responsables" when the English text personified an institution.1 I did not read through the full text of the 30 hits to discover all instances of personification. Still, the fact that in the above four cases the translators had to more or less consciously add a word (that is, no word in the original English was translatable as "responsables") does suggest a tendency, if not in French generally, then at least in formal written French, to avoid personification of institutions.

Now, what do English translators do when faced with "responsables" in a French text? Do they omit it or do they translate it? I looked at all the French-to-English translations in the above-mentioned hitlist, skipping over the large number of job descriptions that had similar or identical wordings, as well as cases where "responsables" was an adjective modifying some noun other than "personnes" or "gens" (e.g. "les ministres responsables"). Here is what I found. In two cases (1 and 2 below), the translator used personification. In five cases (3 to 7), the translator did not use personification; an alternative translation with personification is shown in brackets. Finally, in two cases (8 and 9), personification would not work, for the reason explained in brackets.2

  1. . . . en les commandant . . . auprès des personnes responsables du Ministère — ordering them . . . through Departmental channels
  2. Cet outil peut être remplacé localement après en avoir fait la demande au responsable du Ministère. — This item can be replaced locally through the Department, upon request.
  3. . . . les responsables du ministère du Travail du Brésil organiseront . . . — . . . officials from the Brazilian Department of Labour will organize . . . ["the Brazilian Department of Labour will organize"]
  4. . . . tous les rapports de coûts devraient normalement être disponibles auprès des responsables du Ministère . . . — . . . all cost reports should usually be available from Departmental officials . . . ["available from the Department"]
  5. . . . une large concertation au niveau national entre les responsables du ministère de la Santé, de la Solidarité et des Personnes Âgées (MSSPA), les communautés, la société civile . . . — . . . broad-based national consultation among officials in the Ministry of Health, Solidarity and Seniors (MSSPA), communities, civil society . . . ["consultation among the Ministry of Health, communities, civil society"]
  6. Ces travaux ont été autorisés et ordonnés par des responsables du ministère des Transports du Québec (MTQ). — These works were authorized and ordered by Quebec Department of Transportation (MTQ) officials. ["by the Quebec Department of Transportation"]
  7. Rester en liaison avec les responsables du ministère de la Défense nationale (MDN) . . . — Maintains contact with officials in the Department of National Defence (DND) . . . ["contact with the Department"]
  8. . . . contribuer à l’augmentation du niveau de compétence et de performance des enseignants en fournissant un appui aux responsables du ministère de l’Éducation — . . . increase the skill and performance levels of teachers by providing support to the officials in the Ministry of Education . . . [personification would not work because the support is being given to specific people, not to the Ministry]
  9. . . . se plaindra ou réfutera ces mesures ou toute accusation qui sera portée, auprès des responsables du ministère ou des membres du gouvernement. — . . . will complain or make representation to senior department officials or government members re these enforcement activities [personification would not work because the parallelism of "officials — members" would be lost]

How should we explain the translations where "officials" could have been deleted but wasn’t? Could it be argued that "responsables" has rightly been retained in order to avoid personification of institutions in English? No, because personification is not only extremely common in English, it is also uncontroversial: a check of several style guides (The Canadian Style, the Oxford Dictionary of Canadian English Usage, Editing Canadian English, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, The Complete Plain Words) reveals that while other kinds of personification are sometimes discussed (e.g. referring to a country as "she"), personification of institutions is never mentioned.

Could it be argued that the translator failed to catch an error in English idiom? No, the translations without personification ("officials in the Department") are perfectly idiomatic English. Indeed, there are cases, like example 4 above, where "officials" or some such word is necessary.

It would seem that the translators simply failed to consider the possibility (as opposed to the necessity) of omission. This could be a result of the speed at which they were checking their work (i.e. they did not attend to expressions that were not obviously wrong). Or it may be that some of the translators did not recognize the expression "responsables" as a device for avoiding personification in French. Instead, they rendered this word (or similar words like "représentants") as if it had important semantic value. However, in a great many cases where such words appear with the name of an institution, they are semantically redundant. If you are notifying "the Department" of something, who else would you notify other than "les responsables"? If you are negotiating with Laval University, whom would you negotiate with other than "representatives" of that institution? The words "responsables" and "représentants" in such cases are devoid of content. No meaning is lost if they are omitted.

What we are seeing here is an instance of a phenomenon much noted in recent large-corpus studies comparing translations with original writing in the target language:3 translations are often found to contain a certain language/style feature (in this case, personification) in significantly different proportions from texts originally written in the target language. Thus a larger study might reveal that English translations from French use personification of institutions less often than original English writing uses it.

NOTES

  • Back to the note1 In passing I noticed a case in which the French translator retained personification: ". . . presents this information to the Immigration Medical Advisory Board, to other specialists, or to legal counsel . . ." — ". . .  présenter cette information à la Commission consultative médicale de l’immigration, à d’autres spécialistes ou au conseiller juridique ou à la conseillère juridique . . ."
  • Back to the note2 I assume for the sake of argument that all translations are the invention of the translators, though it may be that in some cases the translator simply did a cut-and-paste from a document originally written in English.
  • Back to the note3 See articles in the journal Meta, Volume 43, No. 4, December 1998, which is devoted to this question.