As the pandemic filled the news in spring 2020, differences in the scientific copy of the French and UK press became apparent. For example, French journalists took a more learned tone when discussing the R number than their British counterparts, citing journals and presenting complex data. I was reminded of reading inserts for medicines in France, where the specialist terminology used suggests that the French public all have some degree of medical training.

When working with French to English texts, we know to avoid literal translations. We change idioms and syntax so the target text doesn’t “read like a translation”. However, ignoring stylistic conventions can also give the game away, so it’s important to watch out for these and know how to treat them in the target language. Indeed, these conventions are so important that the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation exam typically features several examples to test candidates’ ability to recognize them and find solutions. Here, then, are some common examples.

Elegant variation

One that I like spotting when reading the French press is “elegant variation”, which is widespread in journalistic writing and also appears in academic texts. Maybe you’ve seen France referred to as “l’Hexagone”? Or the metonym “l’Elysée” used for the French president and “Matignon” for the prime minister? The British press does it too—“10 Downing Street”— but to a lesser extent.

In French, it’s considered elegant to avoid repetition, even if it makes the sentence longer and more unwieldy, e.g., “le locataire de l’Elysée”, where simply “Macron” might have done. It might even introduce confusion, as in one Dip Trans paper on the topic of education, where the baccalaureate was referred to simply as “le bac” on the first mention, but as “le premier diplôme du supérieur” on the second, causing a lot of head scratching among the candidates. With the exception of a few well-established metonyms, this type of substitution is best avoided when translating into English.

The narrative present

Another key difference is the use of the narrative present in French. Switching seamlessly between past and present tenses, writers use it to convey immediacy. Try and do this in English, however, and confusion sets in. Changing the narrative present to the past can feel like a drastic edit of the source text, but it’s worth being bold and ensuring the integrity of the sequence of tenses in English.

Reporting verbs

Then there are conventions around reported speech. In French, direct speech is commonly used (where in English we might prefer indirect speech) and people rarely just “say” anything. Ms Lévy might “affirme”, “remarque” or “complète” (confirm, note or conclude), to give three neutral examples from one article in the French financial press. If she’s feeling more emotional, she might “se félicite” (congratulate herself), “avoue” (admit) or “souligne” (emphasize) as she speaks. Note too, that all these verbs are in the present tense. Retaining this array of verbs in formal writing in English, however, distracts from the utterance itself and points up the target text as a translation.

For further discussion on the topic of elegant variation (and some funny examples), see the links below. [subscription required]