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The Challenges of Translating Into French

French is truly a global language: not only does it have over 220 million speakers worldwide (primarily in Europe and on the African continent), it is one of the working languages of the United Nations, as well as many other international cooperative organizations.

As one of six Romance languages, French has many similarities to other major European languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. Since English is also heavily Romance-influenced (although not a Romance language), one might think that translating from English into French would be a relatively simple task. However, translating into French must be done carefully, particularly when it comes to vocabulary and syntax. Our experts at Venga have gathered some helpful tips to help make your translation process easier.

It’s ok to be passive

Although English writing considers the passive voice awkward and sometimes evasive, it’s much more common in French. Business writing especially uses the passive voice. You will often encounter the French equivalents of “It is allowed” or “this will allow you to…” There are also multiple ways to construct a passive sentence in addition to the classic “is/was + verb.” You might use “pouvoir” (can, be able to) constructions, as in “les formations peuvent également être conçues” (the training courses can be designed). In English we would add an agent and drop the verb of possibility, choosing instead to say “we design your training courses.”

You’ll also find syntax that doesn’t make sense in English–for example, some forms of French passive have an undefined subject, using a noun instead of a verb. Although the phrase “Quand on clique sur une des images, ouverture d’une description” literally translates “when one clicks on one of the images, opening of a description,” the absent subject is permitted in French.

Finally, some passive verbs are also reflexive, as in “le marché s’ouvre,” literally “the market opens itself.” We might translate this into English as “the market is opened,” but again, the passive construction in French is perfectly permissible. If these constructions sound strange to your English ears, don’t worry — it is permitted to use passive in French.

Periodic sentences

Much like the way passive voice delays the verb, periodic sentences place the point of the sentence at the end rather than the beginning. Delaying the subject or point of a sentence until the end might drive US business English (or Silicon Valley English) speakers crazy, but in French it’s quite common. In French, periodic sentences are considered an elegant style choice. This may mean that it takes a while to get to the point, but when translating into French, savor the sentence!

Beware of false friends

Although French and the other Romance languages came from the same Latin source, time and usage have changed the meanings of words. This means that words that sound the same now (cognates) might not always have the same meaning — something known as “false cognates.” In French, the term for this is faux ami, or “false friends,” suggesting the way that these words can trip up a translator. Assuming that vocabulary and the culture behind these words are the same from English to French may have unexpected consequences if care is not given to the nuance and connotation of words.

For example, “la police” means the police, but it also means a font or typeface. “Ponctuel” sounds a lot like our word for on-time, but it actually means something that is occasional or a one-off. “Eventuel” is used to describe potential, not something that will happen eventually.

Keep an eye out for false cognates and secondary meanings of the words you choose in order to avoid describing Helvetica solving a mystery.

Specialized vocabulary

As a highly regulated language, French is notorious for maintaining specialized terms for values, technology, or social programs. When translating into or from French, it can be difficult to get to the true meaning of a word or phrase without also discussing history and etymology. Names of university degrees rarely translate exactly, and names of laws — as in “La loi ‘informatique et Libertés du 6 janvier 1978,” often translated “the Data Protection Law”— often have shades of meaning or history that may get lost in translation. This means it’s necessary to know this history when translating into French. Keep in mind your audience as well: while everyday French may include more borrowed terms or Anglicizations, formal or business French may require more of these specialized terms.

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