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Context Is King: Translating English To French

Translating between any two languages is much more complex than simply finding the corresponding word and then hoping your new sentence makes sense. Rather, it’s a process which should be completed holistically, taking the overall meaning into account. For example, the French idiom “pleuvoir des cordes” literally translates to English as “raining ropes”, which doesn’t make sense to an English speaking audience. However, French speakers would be just as bemused if they were faced with a literal translation of the phrase’s English counterpart, “raining cats and dogs”.

If you were to use a free translation tool, such as Google Translate, to translate “pleuvoir des cordes” into English, you would receive the “raining cats and dogs” response, thanks to the ever-trending ‘in context’ options, which are often community-verified. But this still isn’t a good enough replacement for a complete English to French translation service, especially where your business is concerned.

French varies, depending on the region

French is counted as an official language in 29 countries, with around 300 million speakers worldwide. But the version of the French language spoken in France itself differs from how it is spoken in Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, and Rwanda. This comes as a result of the cultural differences between these Francophone countries, leading to pronounced changes in regional dialects.

Language naturally evolves over time, which is what has led to slight differences in how people speak around the world. This change is perhaps best proven by the regional differences in the English language across the UK. Even though the root language is the same, certain words and phrases spoken in London are different from how people speak in Newcastle, Edinburgh, or Northern Ireland. So it makes sense for dialects to change drastically across entire continents.

To get an accurate French translation, you will first need to identify where in the country your audience is from, and what dialect is spoken there. This process is known as localisation, which requires a far more in-depth, real-life understanding of the language spoken in that region than translation does.

French and English are rich in idioms

As previously mentioned, translating idioms comes with a cultural barrier, and given that both the French and English languages are littered with these funny sayings, it can quickly become confusing for a novice translator or algorithmic language tool. The phrase “avoir les chevilles qui enflent”, for example, translates to English as “to have ankles that swell”. But this doesn’t mean you have swollen ankles — rather, it’s a euphemistic way of saying that someone is big-headed.

The added cultural differences between French-speaking countries make translation much more difficult. Having a localised knowledge of the language, and the target audience of your translated text, is crucial to getting the tone and meaning right. For example, the French Canadian saying “attache ta tuque” is used to build anticipation in the same way of the English phrase “get ready”. But the word “tuque” is unknown to the French. A tuque is a knitted cap worn in Canada, which isn’t necessary for the warmer weather in France.

French is a longer language

The French language, in general, takes up around 15%-20% more space in its written form than the English language. While this isn’t necessarily a problem for articles, letters, and contracts, it can get tricky for things like advertising materials and website navigation menus, where space is limited. In these instances, every character counts, so it’s important to get the message across in as few words as possible. Automatic translation tools can’t take this limited space into account in the same way as human translators.

Professional translators, who are skilled at providing the appropriate context for a text, will be able to offer suggestions for words and phrases in order to fit the space, while still ensuring the copy makes sense. This often means that, although translation isn’t always exact on a word-for-word basis, the tone and context will remain the same.

Get in touch with our translation team to find out more about how we can help you translate between French and English.

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