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French language translation

By Hilary Picken | February 26, 2019 | Languages

French translation

French is one of only two languages spoken on all five world continents, is one of two working languages of the UN and one of three procedural languages of the European Union. In addition to being the mother tongue of 80 million people worldwide, an estimated 200 million people, mainly in Africa, speak it as a second language.

According to the CIA Factbook, the French-speaking world has a global GDP of $3.5 trillion, 33% higher than the UK, making it a significant target market for any business. A key part of tapping into the French speaking economy will involve translation and you’ll need a reputable language service provider (LSP) to help you with that. Here’s why.


1. One language, many versions

Although the versions of French spoken in France, Belgium, North Africa and Canada all originated in the same place, they developed thousands of miles apart, in an age before the internet and real-time communication. The differences are most apparent in pronunciation but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant differences in grammar, formalities and names, whether referring to food, clothing or everyday objects.

English: Velcro, Smartphone, Shopping, Flatmate, Bus shelter

France French: Scratch, Smartphone, Shopping, Colocataire, Abri bus

Belgian French: Scratch, Smartphone, Shopping, Koteur(se) (at university), Aubette

Canadian French: Velcro, Téléphone intelligent, Magasinage, Colocataire, Aubette

The right LSP will select a qualified linguist whose mother tongue is the correct variant of French, but who also knows the subject matter inside out to ensure your text strikes the right chord.


2. French formality

Despite a reputation for ‘Gaelic shrugging’, French life has strict in-built formality. The most common offender in translations is the pronoun “you”, which can be either “vous” or “tu”. Which version you use depends on the context you’re using it in, and can be affected by the country, region, level of formality, authority of the speaker and the message platform.

Some audiences might only be mildly annoyed, but among others the wrong choice can be controversial, conveying unintended disrespect or a sense of misaligned ‘brand thinking’.

In Canada, the population are more likely to address one another informally, using the pronoun “tu” and all its associated informal verb forms. Nevertheless, translated business communications more commonly use the formal “vous”.

In France, the business world generally adopts the formal “vous”. That said, the casual informality of the Ikea brand led to their whole French edition magazine being written in the “tu” form. Ikea staff, nevertheless, over the phone or in their stores, still always address customers with “vous”.

Your LSP will guide you towards the right level of formality for your text, engaging linguists who will ensure you convey the right meaning in the right way.


3. One size doesn’t fit all

Words in one language can translate into more or fewer words in another, depending on the sentence structure. English, for example, is generally a succinct language whereas French translations are often about 15% to 20% longer.

This carries relevance when it comes to page layout, for example on a web page or printed publication. When preparing text you will later translate into French, consult your LSP to ensure your layout will work in French. Items which may be problematic are:

Titles and sub-headings
Legends and axis titles in graphics
Text within images
Overall text length

Tightly packed text, whether on a single page or in graphics, is unlikely to be easily translated into French. Leaving some space when you’re creating your document will save headaches later on.

Your LSP will familiarise themselves with your page layout requirements to ensure is lost in translation.


4. French and English aren’t the same

It seems obvious but it’s often forgotten. Although many English terms and grammar structures derive from the French language’s influence over the years, a number of false friends have crept in to cause confusion.

‘Avertissement’ sounds like ‘advertisement’ but means ‘warning’.
‘Déception’ sounds like ‘deception’ but means ‘disappointment’.

Engaging a professional translator is the safest way of ensuring your meaning is translated accurately. A trusted LSP will ensure their linguists have the requisite language skills and experience to avoid the trap set by these “faux amis”.


5. Same word, different translation

It’s often assumed that a single word in English can be replaced by a single word in another language, but it’s rarely the case. French is no different; take yes and no, for example:

Oui => yes, if you’ve been asked a positive question, e.g. “Do you watch television? Yes.”

Si => yes, if you’ve been asked a negative question and you’re contradicting it, e.g. “Don’t you watch television? Yes (I do).”

Non => no, e.g. “Do you watch television? No.”

The professional linguists engaged by your LSP will be well versed in the nuances of not only the target language (their mother tongue) but also the source language, to ensure the translation is 100% accurate.