Our guide for translating French

Although English and French both have Indo-European origins, translating French doesn’t always come easy. You have to distinguish well between cognates and faux amis, literal meanings and idioms, and formal and informal language.

I. The importance of French translations

French is one of the world’s most popular languages with 80 million people around the world speak French as a native language, especially within the European Union with 12% of EU citizens speaking it. It is also one of the six official languages of the UN 

In addition, French is spoken in many countries across multiple continents. In Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, French is considered the official language. Millions of people also used French in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, Haiti, and in some parts of Asia as a result of colonization. 

Québécois is the dialect of French spoken in Quebec, Canada. The northern dialects which include Standard French, are known as Langues d’oïl, a group of dialects that belongs to the Gallo-Romance. The Occitan dialects are popular in Southern France. Franco-Provençal is widespread in east-central France and parts of Switzerland and Italy. There is also an Indian French spoken in Mahe, Pondicherry, Karaikal, Chandernagore, and Yanam in Southern India. So choosing a proper dialect is the first step for any successful translation project.

II. 4 popular problems when translating French

1. Translate idiomatic expressions literally makes it feel awkward

If you find a French expression that literally makes no sense in context when translated to English, it’s likely to be an idiomatic expression. For example, faire le pont means to make a long weekend but literal translation is to make a bridge. This expression refers to the habit of taking a four-day break by including Friday or Monday to the weekend.

It is not always obvious to recognize and does require special attention. Thus, building a rich vocabulary knowledge isn’t enough for translators, they must learn as many idiomatic expressions as possible.

2. Differences in grammar may cause troubles

Both French and English grammar have auxiliaries, participles, active/passive voice, past/present/future tenses. However, there are some differences that may cause you trouble when translating. Here are some common problems:

French pronouns are gendered and the possessive adjectives have to come along with the nouns they qualify.

English has modal verbs such as ‘may/might’, ‘must’, etc. that express the mood of the verb that follows, but French does not. 

Another typical problem is the wrong choice of tense. There are occasions when you must use a different tense in French to convey a particular meaning in English. Some common examples are the following faulty sentences: Because French doesn’t have the auxiliary ‘do’, you may have a problem when asking something. For example, French simply make a statement and put question intonation in the end: He is rich?

3. Watch out for false cognates

The English language was strongly influenced by French when Norman invaded Britain in the 11th century, so they contain many cognates. Cognates help a lot when we try to increase language fluency, for example, répond – respond, calmement – calmly,  but bear in mind that there can also be faux amis (false cognates). They sound like an English word but are not equal in meaning such as actuellement – currently (not actually), attendre – to wait (not to attend), bras – arms (not bra), une librairie – bookshop (not library).

4. Be careful with enthusiastic

Saying that something is ‘amazing,’ ‘awesome,’ or ‘the best’ or any in-the-face terms doesn’t work well for French people because they are known to be more reserved with giving praise. Thus, it’s more effective to dial back some of the excitement for the French audience.

Another thing worth mentioning is that English repeats itself a lot but repetitions look boring and annoying in French, so translators need to get much more creative.

Wrong choice of language service can affect the cost and the effectiveness of translated content. Therefore, you need professional linguists who understand both languages and the cultural nuances within each of them to advise you. 

If you need to translate from or into French, give us a call today!

Facts about French language

  • French is the only language other than English that is spoken on at least 5 continents.
  • Africa is the continent with the most French speakers in the world.
  • French is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.
  • At least 29% of modern English vocabulary comes from French.