English-French Translation
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English-French Translation

A Practical Manual

Christophe Gagne, Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde

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eBook - ePub

English-French Translation

A Practical Manual

Christophe Gagne, Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde

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About This Book

English-French Translation: A Practical Manual allows advanced learners of French to develop their translation and writing skills. This book provides a deeper understanding of French grammatical structures, the nuances of different styles and registers and helps increase knowledge of vocabulary and idiomatic language.

The manual provides a wealth of practical tasks based around carefully selected extracts from the diverse text types students are likely to encounter, from literary and expository, to persuasive and journalistic. A mix of shorter targeted activities and lengthier translation pieces guides learners through the complexities and challenges of translation from English into French.

This comprehensive manual is ideal for advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students in French language and translation.

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Chapter 1

Le Mot juste

To be comfortable in another language you need roughly half of the words you possess in your native language – 25,000. As about 40 percent are variants of other words and can be easily inferred, a good estimate of truly unique words you need to start with is 15,000 words.
This is a huge number and double what you are expected to learn in 8 years at school. Fortunately, you do not always have to learn them all.
Take the word evolution. In Spanish, Italian, and French, the word translates into evolución, evoluzione and évolution. As you can see, many words are almost identical between some languages and come with just slight differences in packaging. Once you understand the rules that govern these differences, you have immediate access to thousands of words.
(Bernd Sebastian Kamps, 2010: 13)


One of the main objectives of this chapter is to draw attention to the fact that there is rarely a one-to-one relationship between the signifiers encountered in French and in English. The “signifiers” we shall examine here will be words, or lexical items. In focusing on word meaning, or lexical semantics, we will look at ways in which French and English make different choices when it comes to categorising experience. Firstly, we acknowledge how there are many similarities and borrowings within the two languages, owing to the communal ancestry of the two languages. We also attend to significant lexical differences between French and English and the ways in which we must be mindful of the fact that full equivalence between lexical items is rare. Throughout our examples, we have recourse to lexicological notions to identify the complex way words are patterned, linked together, fossilised and made new. Crucially, we show how a familiarity with these specific features can be useful for navigating between the two languages when translating.


It is easy to assume that translation is easy, especially when it comes to vocabulary. All you need is a good dictionary, and off you go. Imagine that you are at a museum and you see a 17th-century portrait of a man with the following caption: man in armour with yellow flowing hair. A simple sentence to translate. You remember studying colours in the first few weeks of your French course – yellow is jaune and has always been jaune, just like brown is marron, and what about ginger, is it red, or is it something else? Anyway, you came up with Homme en armure aux cheveux jaunes et ondulés. You have nailed it (well done for suggesting ondulé and for making cheveux plural), except that unless you are describing a Playmobil figurine, using the adjective jaune to describe the colour of a person’s hair is bound to get a few sneers from your Francophone friends. Similarly, using the word femelle when trying to explain to your feminist friends that feminism is not solely a female issue, le féminisme ça n’est pas que pour les femelles (said in an attempt to express the idea that feminism is not just a female issue) might incur the ire of your feminist interlocutors, and for very good reasons. Regardless of their actual take on the issue, such a statement is likely to be interpreted as an insult. Et pourtant, I hear you say, c’était dans le dictionnaire. Of course it is in the dictionary, and you certainly did not mean to insult anyone, and using femelle to translate female works in a large number of contexts. It is just that certain forms that share formal properties in both languages are not semantically equivalent, or not in every context. An “equivalent” term might be restricted to certain usages and carry different connotations and associations (in French, femelle is restricted to animals and using it to refer to women is thus highly offensive).
Figure 1.1

1 Linguistic systems and conceptual categories

The fact that linguistic systems organise the world into different conceptual categories obviously makes the task of translating difficult. What does it mean when we suggest a word or concept is “untranslatable”? As Emily Apter underlines (Cassin, 2017: xiv), one of the risks “of the casual use of ‘untranslatable’ is the suggestion of an always absent perfect equivalence. Nothing is exactly the same in one language as in another, so the failure of translation is always necessary and absolute”. That said, this rather neglects the fact that “some pretty good equivalences are available” and that such a proposition rests on “a dream of perfection we cannot even want, let alone have”. As Apter underlines, this longing for perfection is unwanted, since, if there were a perfect equivalence from language to language, “the result would not be translation; it would be a replica”.
As Jonathan Culler pointed out in his introduction to the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure:
If languages were simply a nomenclature for a set of universal concepts, it would be easy to translate from one language to another. One would simply replace the French name for a concept with the English name. If language were like this the task of learning a new language would also be much easier than it is. But anyone who has attempted either of these tasks has acquired, alas, a vast amount of direct proof that languages are not nomenclatures, that the concepts […] of one language may differ radically from those of another. […] Each language articulates or organizes the world differently. Languages do not simply name existing categories, they articulate their own.
(J. Culler, 1976: 21–22)
Saussure himself famously pointed out that sheep and mouton might have the same meaning (as both terms can be used to refer to the same animal), but do not have the exact same value within their respective linguistic systems (i.e. sheep does not have the exact same value in English as mouton does in the French lexicon because of the presence of the term mutton in the English lexicon). Additionally, to know is not the equivalent of connaître, as in some cases it can also be translated by savoir (Vinay and Darbelnet, 1958).
Observations of this kind are not simply anecdotal. The interdependency of linguistic items within a system is a crucial notion in linguistic theory, as is the notion labelled by Saussure as the “arbitrariness of the sign” (i.e. there is nothing in the actual form of the word that has any direct connection with the object it refers to in the real world). The arbitrariness of the sign means that the way the world is conceptualised in the different languages of the world is never identical between two languages.
However, the fact that language B does not have a lexical item that perfectly matches a lexical item in language A does not mean that the concept in question cannot be communicated in language B. If, as conceptual systems, languages tend to show a lot of differences, they also do have a lot in common. From a cognitive point of view, natural languages are, after all, the product of the human brain, and, from an anthropological point of view, they are used the globe over in similar ways. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have rightly shown, the metaphors that appear in idioms in different languages often operate on the same principles – language A and language B might not have exactly the same idiom (i.e. idiom A might not be translatable word for word in language B), but the principles at play are identical. Whether you have a ...

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