Published On: 2019-01-09Categories: English-French Translation

The Principles Behind a Good French Translation

We all know what a bad translation is:

what is a good translation

Beef liver bites — translated into French by “morsures de foie de bœuf”, which literally means “bites made by a beef liver”.

strange French translation

Extra Butter Flavour — translated into French by “a very butter flavour”.

wrong French translation

Polish sausage — translated into “Polissez la saucisse” (my favourite!), an imperative sentence that basically gives an order to “polish the sausage”.

But what is a good translation? There are a numerous features that allow to determine if a translation is good: it should be accurate, adapted to the context, idiomatic, and free of transfer and language errors.

1. A good translation is ACCURATE

This is the first and most important quality of a good translation. The meaning of the source text has to be conveyed in the most precise way into the target language. Sometimes, this means that the translation will even have to be clearer than the original text, as it is often the case in EN => FR translations. Let’s take this example of an English sentence that has to be translated into French.

The development of new energy sources is crucial.

As the professor and translator Jean Delisle says in La traduction raisonnée, development can have numerous different translations in French depending on the “stage” of the progression.

  • At the beginning: aménagement, apparition, construction, création, découverte, installation, mise en valeur
  • In the course of progression: agrandissement, amélioration, développement, essor, évolution, intensification, réalisation
  • At the achievement stage: épanouissement, exploitation, mise au point, résultat

The job of the translator will be to select the most appropriate word according to the context, which leads me to our next point.

2. A good translation is ADAPTED TO THE CONTEXT

One of my favourite examples of this — and the evidence that machines still have a long way to go before being able to fully replace human translators — is the following sentence:

Time flies like an arrow.

As human readers, we know that this sentence means that time goes fast. However, our brain processed that time is a noun, flies is a verb and like is a preposition. These three words can also be of different grammatical categories.

  • If time is an adjective, flies is a noun and like is a verb, this translates into: “Les mouches du temps aiment une flèche.” (Time flies — love — an arrow.)
  • If time is a verb and flies is a noun, it translates into: “Chronométrez les mouches comme une flèche.” (Said as an order: You have to time — flies — like an arrow.)
  • Finally, if time is a verb, flies is a noun and like an arrow is a prepositional group defining flies, it goes like this: “Chronométrez les mouches qui ressemblent à une flèche. (You have to time — the flies that look like an arrow.)

Most of these translations make no sense to our human brains! These examples are obvious, but most of the sentences that the translator faces are much trickier, and a professional will know how to differentiate the categories depending on the context.

3. A good translation is IDIOMATIC

According to Collins dictionary, a language that is idiomatic “uses words in a way that sounds natural to native speakers of the language”. In other words, a good translator will create a text that will not sound like a translation. It often means that we will have to stray away from the original words and tap into our creativity to produce something that is appealing for the audience (francophones, in my case).

Here is an example of a tagline I had to translate a few years ago for a lighting company:

Bright people, right solutions.

We are working on many levels here. First, the word bright refers to the industry of lighting. Second, two words rhyme (bright and right). The challenge is to create a French tagline that will be as clever as the English one. I finally came up with this:

Des gens brillants, des solutions éclairées.

I chose to let the rhyme go, but to play with the notion of light with the words brillants (which also conveys the two meanings of bright) and éclairées (which means in French “brilliant” as well as “well lit”). A good gymnastics for the brain!

French translation of a tagline

4. A good translation has NO TRANSFER ERRORS

This particularly applies to an English-French translation, because in Quebec, we use a lot of Anglicisms, which are English words or grammatical constructions that are used incorrectly in French. For example, a car license cannot be translated by licence. This word does exist in French, but its meaning is slightly different. A car license should be translated by permis de conduire. The most obvious word choice is often not the most appropriate one!

5. A good translation has NO LANGUAGE ERRORS

Of course! But after having carefully avoided all the translation pitfalls, one might leave a few spelling mistakes or syntax errors. A good translator always has a proofreading process to make sure the text is spotless. This might mean having another translator doing the proofreading. It’s an option I love: as we say, two heads are better than one!

As a non translator, how can you evaluate the quality of a translation?

Most of the time, you don’t speak the target language of a translation and therefore are not able to assess its quality. When you start to collaborate with a new translator, ask him or her what is their translation and review process. If the text is reviewed by a second professional translator, this is a good sign. You can also have a text reviewed by an external translator, just to make sure you can trust the person you’re doing business with. If the review comes up with a few minor or no modifications, you know you’ve found a professional translator. This post about where to find a reliable translator can also be useful. Remember that a good translation reflects on your company and helps you enter in a new market!

Source: DELISLE, Jean. La traduction raisonnée. 2e ed. Ottawa: Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 2003, p. 271.