What Has Been Lost in Translation?

If you’ve ever seen Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, you might remember the scene in which Bill Murray’s character, Bob, shoots a whiskey commercial in Tokyo. After what sounds like a paragraph’s worth of directions in Japanese coming from the director of the shoot, the interpreter turns to Bob and says, “more intensity”. While getting across ideas differs from one language to another, the audience, along with Bob, is left wondering what has been lost in translation.

If you are interested in translating from French into another language, presumably one with which you are familiar, there are several helpful things to keep in mind. An insightful translation will not only convey the meanings of words and phrases in an original document, but reflect a particular environment created by that document. The characters in Sofia Coppola’s film enter an environment of advertising, the world that the director has envisioned for the commercial that is being shot. If Bob’s character had been French-speaking, the commercial could have turned out differently, although the interpreter might have said “plus d’intensité”, which is very like the English version.

While the translation from English into French is quite simple for the above phrase, in that context, not all translations between French and English will be such a literal match, even though the two languages both have Indo-European origins. No matter what language you translate into from French, it is important to distinguish between cognates and faux amis, literal meanings and idioms, and formal and informal language. It is also important to be aware of larger historic and social contexts, stylistic devices, and images evoked by the second, third, and fourth meanings of words the author chooses. Having solid resources on hand is also essential for written translations from French, which will be our focus in the following eight tips for translating.

8 Tips for Translating from French

Below is the 6 tips to keep in mind for translating from French.

Tip #1

Be aware of the type of writing used in the document you are translating. Is the writing a legal document, a work of fiction, or a technical description for an engineering company? This will not only determine the vocabulary you use, but your style of writing. Remember that a legal document has a certain intent, such as the division of property among surviving family members or the donation of assets to a particular cause. A work of fiction could use flowery language or have a more minimalist tone. For a technical description, specific jargon might pop up again and again, which would make other kinds of texts sound repetitive, but which is necessary for this particular type of document.

Tip #2

The more familiar you are with an author’s works, a particular genre, or a certain body of writing, the easier it is to get a sense of the style, vocabulary, and turns of phrase that characterize the work on which you are focusing. If possible, read several works by an author, different encyclopedia entries, various articles for certain publications, or multiple descriptions of technological developments, depending on the text you wish to translate. Once I completed a translation from a French biblical encyclopedia for a friar who was conducting theological research, which meant that I needed to be aware of encyclopedic writing as well as Christian tradition and biblical sources.

Tip #3

Know what register of language you are using. Is the text formal or informal? Is the language old-fashioned or hip and modern? The register of language you convey to your audience will affect your word choice. Certain signs of formality in French may be more obvious, such as the use of literary tenses, e.g., the passé simple or the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif. Others may be less obvious, as with the inclusion of archaic vocabulary, e.g., derechef, which could sound dated to certain ears. Would you translate “On s’en est allé” as “We left”, “We took off”, or “We bounced”? It would depend on context, and for the second and third English examples, you might like to use verbs like filer and se casser, which reflect a more informal register of language. Knowing the target audience of your text can help with word choice, since a younger audience interested in the latest trends on YouTube is likely more familiar with the latest argot than a more mature audience of subscribers to chamber music performance series.  

Tip #4

Find good resources. No matter how adept you are in a language, a good dictionary and thesaurus are essential translation tools. In fact, many linguaphiles are avid users of various reference works, navigate them adroitly, and skillfully cross-reference terms, knowing when and where this is necessary. Aside from physical dictionaries, such as the Robert, which is a classic French source, and the bilingual dictionaries published by Larousse, which are also popular and available online, there are other online sources that serve as portals for linguistic tools. Many of these are multilingual and some include languages that are considered regional or even appear on UNESCO’s endangered languages list.

When using different portals for linguistic tools, it is helpful to keep in mind their goals, whether these be to compile solid references, to find parallel texts in different languages, or to give detailed information about words and their origins. The portal Reverso provides translation, dictionary, conjugation, grammar, pronunciation, and spell-checking tools for the major Romance languages and other major world languages. In addition, it includes really fun grammar quizzes that are not for the faint of heart (i.e., they include minutiæ of the French language that would trip up a native speaker). Lexilogos includes links to resources, including Reverso, that provide a broad array of linguistic information, such as the etymological origins of words, older forms of languages, and encyclopedic entries. Linguee is a web service that provides an online dictionary for a number of language pairs, which include French. Its search engine places texts side by side to show bilingual translations of words and phrases, along with their sources.

Tip #5

If you come across a particularly complicated passage in your translation, get a general sense of the meaning before working out the kinks. French grammar can get quite complex and sentences may include structures that are described in detail by the Grevisse, France’s authoritative grammar reference, but that do not appear very often in everyday language. I had a Latin teacher who recommended continuing on with passages rather than getting stuck for too long on a single grammatical issue. Temporarily leaving aside one knot within a passage also works for French texts, as being familiar with other elements within a text can help with figuring out how one thing in particular fits into the larger context. Once you’ve untied this knot, which is necessary for an accurate translation, you can translate into your target language, using natural phrasing.

Tip #6

Be aware of how structures in French relate to the language you are using for translation. As you have undoubtedly noticed, languages do not match. The way a French text expresses yesterday’s weather differs from the way this would be expressed by a text in Chinese, which has no tenses, and whose expressions involving weather do not require an equivalent of the verb faire (or any other verb, for that matter). Even compared to English, which does use tenses, the way in which these are used will differ from the French, along with uses of other aspects of grammar, such as relative pronouns and vocabulary (compare “ce dont vous avez discuté avait l’air très intéressant” with “what you discussed sounded so interesting”). I met a choreographer who had danced with Jennifer Muller’s The Works, who said that and when the company was on tour in France, no one could figure out a good way to translate Muller’s direction to her dancers – “Reach!” Atteindre à had to suffice.

Tip #7

Identify cognates vs. faux amis. If you are translating from French into a language that is in the same family, there will be words that have similar origins, that look and sound the same and that do, in fact, have the same meaning. “Elle répond calmement” translates into English as “She responds calmly”. There are, on the other hand, words that look and sound as if they should have the same meaning, but actually don’t – such as “actually”. In the sentence “Il existe actuellement plus de 7.000 langues parlées dans le monde, dont la moitié disparaîtra au cours des cent prochaines années”, actuellement would translate as currently or at present.

Tip #8

Identify idiomatic expressions. If you come across phrases such as “elle parle comme une vache espagnole”, “tu cherches la petite bête”, and “un froid de canard”, chances are you will use very different words to translate these phrases into the target language, since these are idiomatic expressions. The way to recognize these is if, for instance, a cow, insect, or duck would be completely out of place in the passage you are translating. This is not always obvious and does require special attention to any incongruities that may arise between the context into which you’ve entered when approaching a specific text and the images evoked by a particular phrase.

Even in a language with which you are familiar, idioms are not always immediately recognizable, especially if they have fallen out of use. I remember reading Agatha Christie’s mystery novel, Curtain, which was written during World War II but locked in a vault and not published until 1975, a year before Christie’s death. In it, a character is described as being in a brown study and, since rooms called studies appear again and again as crime scenes in her novels, I thought the character was actually in a study with brown décor. The mention of a study did seem to appear quite abruptly in the text, which prompted me to find out that “a brown study” was an expression used for being lost in melancholic reverie, dating from a time during which the color brown signaled melancholy.

When you are translating you are, in fact, transferring thoughts, images, ideas, and impressions from one language to another. The origins of the word itself (at least in French and English) are found in the Latin translatio, which means “to transfer”. Whatever your process is for translating from the French language, your writing will reflect this act of carrying over an author’s ideas, intentions, and images, along with linguistic structures and turns of phrase, into your target language. A smooth rendering of one text into another language takes a lot of concentration, as does the study of language itself. The cultivation of writing skills in any of the languages you know, including your mother tongue, is also a fundamental part of this process. Translations can be known in their own right as great works, as is the case with the King James Bible, an English version of a religious text originally written in Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. Achieving this level of translation may not happen in one day, but could happen if you practice enough – with intensity.


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