How to Solve the 5 Biggest Problems When Translating French

Aside from English, French is the only language spoken on all five continents of the world and has over 220 million speakers, 68 million of whom are native speakers. French is the second most-spoken language in all of Europe.

Interestingly, French is also the language from which English borrows the most words. Considering English’s’ Germanic heritage, it is a surprise to many to learn that many English words actually come from French.

French is the only other working language used by the UN aside from English and the official language of some important international organisations such as the Red Cross.

In light of this it is easy to imagine that at some point, many businesses will be interested in professionally translating English texts for French markets.

Burgeoning Opportunities for French Markets

After Mandarin and English, French is the most useful language for business, and 27 countries have French as their official language. That said, a mere 4% of internet content is written in French despite many French-speaking countries having moderate-to-low rates of English comprehension.

This coupled with the knowledge that 75% of internet shoppers prefer reading and purchasing online in their own languages shows the enormous potential for English to French translation needs.

Yet translating from English to French can be tricky, partially due to the differing linguistic roots of each language. We’ve come up with five key areas to watch out for and how to prepare so you don’t trip over your own tongue when translating.

  1. Variations Across Regions

Similar to the variations found in UK, US and Australian English, there are notable differences between the French spoken in France, Belgium, and other French-speaking regions. Most differences tend to be in pronunciation, but dissimilarities can be significant for grammar and formalities, along with names for food and everyday objects.

It is valuable to ascertain the area that the translation is being done for, and translating for this region specifically. While ‘Parisian’ French is the most commonly spoken and widely understood, if you are targeting a document at a specific market, you risk alienating or confusing your audience if you do not consider their cultural norms.

Image source: https://thedigitalattitude.com/2013/09/26/3-simple-miscommunication-fixes/

 

  1. Different Cultural Markers

Levels of formality are built into each language differently. In French, the formal pronoun ‘you’ (“vous” not “tu”) and elevated titles (Sir/Madam = Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle) are often used as signs of respect or in formal settings, depending on the region.

It is helpful to understand the demographic that you are translating for to enable the correct level of formalization for your intended audiences.

  1. French is Longer

French naturally has more words (and longer words at times) per sentence than English. Research tells us that generally, French translations are around 15 – 20% longer than the original English text.

It is important to prioritize the original message so that meaning is not lost when space is limited. Situations such as interface text and app stores call for prior planning and deeper understanding of the client’s messaging.

  1. Style

No-one can deny that the English and French have very different styles when it comes to linguistics. Mainly due to the disparate origins of the languages, there are some key differences to be aware of in terms of syntax, gender, verbs, and adjectives.

Being familiar with the regional French you are translating for will enable a careful ear (or eye) to spot these variations with ease.

  1. False Friends

Despite the differing origins of these languages, many English and French words appear to be similar, even though their meanings can be vastly different. These apparent similarities are known as ‘false friends’. For example, whilst ‘Avertissement’ in French can easily be mistaken to refer to an ‘advertisement’ in English, you would do well not to mark your advertisements with this for French markets as it actually translates to ‘warning’.

True fluency in both English and French will protect translators from being fooled by false friends when they come to translating texts.

The rich history and diversities of both languages present challenges in translating texts that will continue to engage audiences. Being aware of the biggest pitfalls of French translation will guard against you falling foul and yielding inaccurate interpretations.

 

Written by Sirena Rubinoff is the Content Manager at Morningside Translations. She earned her B.A. and Master’s Degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. After completing her graduate degree, Sirena won an international fellowship as a Rotary Cultural Ambassador to Jerusalem. Sirena covers topics related to software and website localization, global business solutions, and the translation industry as a whole.