Translating French: what are the do's and don'ts?

Translating French: what are the do's and don'ts?


French is widely known as the language of love, and it is a language that many Dutch people also love. In the 17th through 19th centuries, French was the language of the European elite. It was even an official language of the Netherlands for a while, when our country was incorporated into the French empire for three years in 1810. You would think that the love for France and the French language would have cooled since then, but it is still fine. Although English, German and Spanish are gaining ground in secondary education, French is still a compulsory subject in many schools in junior high and an elective in senior high. Dutch also has many French loanwords. And of course, France is and remains one of the most popular vacation destinations among the Dutch. But did you already know this about the French language?

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Don't borrow too many words

The Dutch language is a beautiful hodgepodge with loan words from all kinds of other languages, from German (sowieso, überhaupt, muesli) to Arabic (apricot, parrot, orange). We also adopted many words from French, such as quiche, balloon and parliament. This can be very handy for translators, but a French translator has to be careful! The French themselves are not so keen on loanwords. They are real language purists, with laws to protect the language. Just last May, for example, the French government agreed to ban English slang terms in official communications. Government agencies may use only the French translations of those terms published by the French Commission for Language Enrichment. So no more >early access, downloadable content and e-sport but only accès anticipé, contenu téléchargeable additionnel and jeu vidéo de compétition.

Different quotation marks and forms of address

The French do many things a little differently, such as addressing each other. In the Netherlands we are quick to say 'je' to each other, but the French are a lot more formal. To family members and close friends you can say tu, but otherwise it is safer to stick to vous. Also look at the punctuation in your French translation. Instead of the quotation marks we are familiar with, in French texts use guillemets: « ». And before question marks, exclamation points, colons and semicolons comes a space. So if you see extra spaces in your document, you are not dealing with a sloppy translator French, but rather someone who is knowledgeable.

Expressions and abbreviations: always tricky

Both expressions and abbreviations often cause problems in translations, which is no different in French. With some abbreviations, a funny thing happens in French translations: the letters of the abbreviation get mixed up. For example, an NGO in French becomes an ONG, Organization non gouvernementale. The abbreviation NATO translates in French as OTAN, which is the exact opposite of the English abbreviation NATO. And the EU in French becomes UE (Union européenne). In turn, EU in French stands for États-Unis, or the U.S., just to add to the confusion.

Nor can you translate most expressions one-to-one from or into French. However, you can sometimes use different words to describe the same concept. We have collected some nice French expressions for you:

  • Ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages = not having light on every floor, or in other words a little bit confused or crazy
  • Bourré comme un coing = as drunk as a quince, or dead drunk
  • Rouler sur l'or = rolling on gold, or 'loaded'

Scriptware Translations French translation agency

As much as the Dutch love France, translating into French is not easy. Do you want to do business in France or do you need certain documents because you will be staying there for a longer period of time? Then hire a French translation agency and make sure you brush up on your French. The love the French feel for their own language is something you should not underestimate!

Scriptware Translations works with experienced French translators who are knowledgeable about the French language and culture. Contact us. We will be happy to tell you more.

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