Troubles translating from French to English? Want your copy to sound as natural as possible? Over the years, I’ve noted down some of challenges that keep springing back – the good, the bad and the downright frustrating!
Last week, I looked at some of the difficulties of working as a French-English translator in France.
Today, let’s delve right in and take a good, hard look at nouns.
The French really do love a good noun. Without realising it, they scatter them everywhere. Even simple actions like “to want” can’t escape: avoir envie (literally, “to have desire”).
This is all well and good until you try to express the same meaning in English, a language driven by verbs. English is an action language that likes to get things done.
A few too many nouns in your English translation? The tone is likely to become rather stuffy, static and formal.
Translating dès reception as “on receipt of” is fine for legal documents, but elsewhere it sounds somewhat disconnected from reality. A slightly better alternative would be “on receiving”, but, although this translation now contains a verb, it is still a little lacklustre and stilted. The solution? Adding a human touch, “when you receive”, to make it clear who is doing what. Or, better still “when you get”. Now we’re talking! Of course, your choice of translation will depend on register of the document in question.
What does this mean for translators: where possible (and logical) transform French nouns into verbs in your English translations.
One big happy noun family
One of the great things about English is its endless capacity to create new words simply by juxtaposing nouns without any linking words e.g. “village church” and “coat pocket”. Noun phrases like this can get impressively long: “Council home building finance scandal”. However, I’d recommend keeping it to 3 nouns to avoid any confusion (what refers to what). In French, the same is not true and noun phrases usually require prepositions e.g. l’église du village and la poche du manteau.
What does this mean for translators? Don’t be afraid to cumulate nouns in your English translation – keeping all those “ofs” just makes the sentence unwieldy e.g. “church of the village”.
THE big noun question
Don’t even get me started about gender – it was (and still sometimes is) the bane of my life when learning the French lingo. But, luckily, for French-English translators, this doesn’t create too much confusion.
However, definite articles (the/le/la/les) will give you more of headache, as will their indefinite counterparts (a/an/un/une/des). Does la boulangerie become “bakery”, “the bakery” or “bakeries”? Well, it depends! One of the biggest factors is whether we are referring to the group of nouns in general or a (known or unspecified) example of the noun: “I love organic bakeries (group in general)”; I’m looking for a bakery near me (unspecified example); The bakery just down the road makes great croissants (specific example).”
On the other hand, French nouns nearly always required an article. But which one?
In the following example, there is (exceptionally) no article: Jeune étudiant, j’allais souvent… However, this just doesn’t work in English and we’d usually need to add a verb e.g. “When I was a student, I used to go…” .
What does this mean for translators: getting articles right is mostly common sense and comes naturally to native speakers. Don’t be afraid to move away from syntax of the original text e.g. add verbs when necessary. Non-natives translators may require little English grammar swotting and/or French rule scrutinizing.
Now that you feel more comfortable with nouns, next time we’ll take a look at action-packed verbs!
Any comments, additions, questions, don’t hesitate in the comments box below.