Facets of French Translation: Geeking out at ATA58

ata-fld-newsletter-logoBy Trudy Obi

I find conferences to be most valuable for encountering new ideas and new people. The 2017 ATA conference, offering a multi-day schedule of educational sessions and networking events, provided opportunities for both in spades. As a bonus, the sessions and events offered by the French Language Division gave me the opportunity to geek out about French (sometimes even in French) with a group of knowledgeable linguists. I discuss below two FLD sessions that were helpful in expanding the way I think about specific facets of French translation.

Having attended Grant Hamilton’s session entitled “Turning Abstract French into Hands-On English” last year at ATA57, I was excited to see that he was offering a session this year on Canadian French: “Translating for Canada.” Hamilton did not disappoint, presenting a lot of practical information about breaking into the Canadian market. (The good: Canada is officially bilingual, so virtually every Canadian company needs translation services and will pay premium rates for high quality. The challenge: Canada is officially bilingual, so many translation buyers will be fluent in your target language—you’ll need to be on top of your translation game.) Hamilton also emphasized the importance of being familiar with the geography, history, politics, and language policies of the region where the target audience lives; he provided a useful overview of these details for Quebec.

What interested me the most, though, was Hamilton’s discussion of the differences between European French (FR-FR) and Canadian French (FR-CA). No two translators I’ve asked about this issue seem to agree on what they are, so I was interested in hearing his perspective. After outlining the evolution of Canadian French, he noted that FR-CA is very similar to FR-FR in more technical texts (with the exception of legal texts), whereas there are substantial differences in vocabulary between the two in informal writing.

Especially interesting to me were the differences Hamilton described between the way FR-FR and FR-CA each interact with English. Where FR-FR often imports English words for use, FR-CA tends to calque English or, as Hamilton puts it, “commit anglicisms with French words.” I was reminded of a survey about shopping habits that a client recently had translated for several countries: to render the phrase to go shopping, the translation for France imported an English word (faire du shopping), while the translation for Canada used a calque (magasiner, formed by analogy: EN a shop (n.) → to shop (v.); FR-CA un magasin (n.) → magasiner (v.)). Another difference between the two varieties of French—one that might be jarring to translators used to working with FR-FR—is the tendency of FR-CA to treat faux amis as true friends: for example, FR-CA uses eventuellement to mean EN eventually, while FR-FR uses it to mean EN possibly.

While Hamilton touched on the differences between Canadian and European French, Angela Benoit focused on the differences between anglophone and francophone audiences in her session, “Breaking the Mold Again! Throwing Out Even More Translations for an Intimate Look at Source Material.” As you might guess from its title, this session was the sequel to the one Benoit presented last year at ATA57 (“Breaking the Mold: Throwing Out Translation for an Intimate Look at Source Material”). In order to avoid falling into the trap of translation-ese, Benoit proposes a method involving studying pairs of analogous native documents in English and French—adjacent texts rather than parallel texts, since both are originals. She demonstrated her approach using several pairs of advertisements for similar products from anglophone and francophone countries. Benoit pulled out the concepts common to each pair and then opened the floor for discussion of the differences in the way the advertisements communicated these ideas. We also looked at the ideas that were found in one ad but not the other, discussing what clues these might give us about the expectations of the respective audience. Benoit’s process is a systematic way to identify the elusive conceptual gaps between source and target audiences. Of course, we all know these gaps exist—but they may exist only as vague notions hovering around our mental periphery, and peripheral vision is fuzzy. As a result, we may take these gaps for granted or not consider them closely (enough) in the translation process. Benoit’s process forces us to articulate and attend to them before we begin translating.

Many thanks to the French Language Division for offering these and other sessions that engaged my inner French geek. I’m also very happy to have gotten acquainted with other French linguists, both in FLD sessions and in social events. Au plaisir de vous revoir (ou vous rencontrer) l’année prochaine!

Trudy Obi, Ph.D., is an editor, project manager, and French to English translator at ION Translations, LLC.