Keep calm and translate?

20 August 2018

By François

Category: Posts

Lire l'original en français (« lisez »? nah!)

Most people would think that specialized texts, like contracts and technical specifications, are where translation gets complicated. Those do require exceptional expertise, yes, but what is fascinating and mysterious about translation work is that, sometimes, the most unremarkable things can be the toughest nuts to crack.

And by “unremarkable,” I mean exceedingly simple words like people or food. Just yesterday, I came across this sentence about the similarities between two married people: They like similar food. The translator wrote: Ils aiment les mêmes aliments. But as soon as I saw food, I knew things were not going to be that easy. Chances are, a native French speaker is not going to talk about, say, their parents like that: “Ils aiment les mêmes aliments [food items].” What are you, a nutritionist? So now that you’ve established that the sentence doesn’t quite work, you’re in for the fun bit: how to fix it. “Ils aiment la même nourriture [fare]? les mêmes denrées [foodstuffs]? les mêmes victuailles [victuals]? les mêmes mets [meals]? les mêmes plats [dishes]?” Ah, the French! Never at a loss for words to talk about grub (which calls to mind another one—bouffe—except that doesn’t work either…), but strangely enough, plain old food carries awkwardly to the langue de Molière.

I ended up rephrasing the sentence entirely: Ils ont les mêmes goûts culinaires [They have the same culinary tastes]. It may not check all the boxes, but it sounds good, and in my case, it worked. Another situation might call for a different solution (perhaps Ils ont les mêmes goûts en cuisine [They have the same tastes in cooking] or, if the context is clear, a simple Ils ont les mêmes goûts [They have the same tastes] will do).

I feel like this is as close to alchemy as I’m ever going to get.

That very same day, I stumbled upon an even more fascinating case. The Language Portal of Canada tweeted a call for submissions for their blog, drawing on the British classic, keep calm and…, nicely repurposed into keep calm and blog for the occasion. “Oh man,” you might be thinking, “Everyone knows how this one goes. This thing practically translates itself!” No need to call in a legal or forensic translator, that’s for sure, but under the seeming simplicity of this little phrase hides an unsuspected complication. The French version I had before me was a literal restez calme et bloguez, and that didn’t sit right with me. Little do most translators realize, the second person plural imperative comes across as more aggressive in French than it does in English.

I discussed this in Le traducteur averti, but here’s a recap: the English imperative, what with being the same as the canonical form of the verb, sounds pretty neutral. When you write eat, you might be using an infinitive (to eat), an indicative (I eat, you eat, we eat, they eat), an imperative and even, if you’re feeling fancy, a subjunctive. Meanwhile, the French -ez is a very specific, marked choice—it is a pointed finger. That’s why Achetez canadien would be perceived as harsher than Buy Canadian and why we usually see something along the lines of Achetons canadien [Let’s all buy Canadian] instead.

Another reason why French speakers see the second person imperative -ez as more aggressive: they have so many other, commonly used ways to ask, advise or tell people to do things. Here’s a list:

The infinitive: Frapper avant d’entrer
The first person singular: Je reste dans les sentiers or Je respecte mon environnement (both from signs spotted in the Saint-Charles River linear park in Québec)
That same first person singular, emphasized with an additional pronoun: For instance, right along the Achetons canadien cited above, the Internet serves up slogans such as Moi, j’achète local or Moi, j’achète en français (make no mistake: these indicative verbs convey an imperative)
The nominal form: Prière de préciser votre nom
The indefinite on: On s’attache au Québec
— And, as we’ve seen, the first person plural: Achetons canadien

The fascinating thing about this is that almost all of these forms are unusable in English.

— First, the infinitive: While French lets us pick between cliquez ici (second person plural imperative) and cliquer ici (infinitive), never in a million years would you see to click here on an interface button.
— Then, the first person singular: I once saw an election information brochure titled I think, I vote. This bizarre phrasing clearly mimicked the French Je pense, je vote, to a completely unnatural result in English (the brochure was published by the Directeur général des élections du Québec).
— As for the emphasized first person: Just picture someone proclaiming Me, I buy Canadian. Now take a guess at their native language.
— The closest translation for a nominal form such as prière de préciser votre nom would be please specify your name, which brings us back to the imperative once again (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
— The indefinite on is remarkably rare in English. Technically, its direct equivalent is one, but that word is hardly ever used in that sense, and mostly in didactic contexts. One buckles up in Quebec doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it?
— Out of these options, the first person plural is the only one that could also work in English. Still, it has a downside that the French doesn’t: it’s longer. Why write Let’s buy Canadian when Buy Canadian works just fine?

Having this wide variety of structures means that Francophones are not as used as Anglophones to being ordered around directly. And boy, does it ever get indirect. Quebec drivers will be familiar with La route, ça se partage! (The road is for sharing!) and L’alcool au volant, ça s’arrête ici! (Drunk driving stops here!), which absolutely are commands, despite their form masking their function. Don’t believe me? Then riddle me this: How are you most likely to phrase those two in English? Ah, the good old imperative: Share the road and Don’t drink and drive.

Imagine I’d given the French version of this blog post the conspicuously direct, order-like title Restez calme et traduisez. Would Francophone readers have the same reaction to it? Now, what could a one-to-one English translation of On reste calme et on traduit ever look like? The word on brings us to yet another standstill in English.

(To avoid potential misunderstandings, let me be clear on one point: the second person imperative remains a perfectly legitimate way to give orders or instructions in French. It’s just that the fundamentals of each language make it so that, while it will often work in English, it often seems awkward or inappropriate in French. It is up to English-to-French translators to stay on their toes and make the most out of every resource their target language has to offer.)

Now, back to keep calm and blog: I’d like to think most Francophones will feel a certain sting in restez calmes et bloguez that is not there in the English. What is the solution then? Well, we’ve gone over a few possibilities. In this scenario, I would go with the indefinite on reste calme et on blogue, or the first person plural restons calmes et bloguons. First because they convey the same idea as the original English, and second because, for some reason, they also carry that spark of humour, which would have been crushed under the thumb of that violent -ez form.

Not to mention that—long-time readers will see this coming—they’re just plain idiomatic.