Translating from English to French: Why translation is all about nuance

In the latest ZOO Community guest blog, experienced French translator, Alexis Thuaux looks at a few of the biggest challenges of subtitling English content into French – and why translation is all about nuance.


Meet Alexis Thuaux

Bonjour! I am Alexis from Paris, France. I’ve been working on many different translation projects with ZOO for the past three years.

To build on what my Finnish colleague was telling us about in July, I wanted to share with you the peculiarities and challenges I encounter when translating series and movies from English to French.

Here are just a few of the complexities that my fellow French translators will no doubt come across!

‘Une écrivain’ or ‘Une écrivaine’ – Feminization of job names

Maybe I need to explain first that in French every object, every animal, every concept has to be either masculine or feminine. Liberty (la liberté) is feminine, death (la mort) is feminine, sun (le soleil) is masculine, a table (la table) is feminine.

I lived in the US a long time ago when I was very young. I was sitting outside with American friends and a fly (la mouche) was buzzing around me. I was trying to push it away with my hand when I said: “She is bothering me.”

Everybody around expressed their surprise at my ability to spot a female fly from a male one. All I could answer was that in French, all flies are female – although that is not necessarily true.

In the first movie that I worked on for ZOO Digital, came the issue of the feminization of occupations and functions. For centuries, some occupations were open to men only – judge, doctor, pilot, minister, writer – and the language reflected this, even if a woman was doing that job, the title would remain masculine.

One of the heroines of the movie set in the 19th century wants to become a writer. There were two ways of saying this. She could be ‘une écrivain’ or ‘une écrivaine’.

I used the feminized one which is used more and more nowadays. If you want to know more about the subject, here is the link to an interesting French academic paper on this subject.

Accent or not, that is the question – The circumflex accent

Language evolves with time and new words, new grammar rules and new spellings appear.

For example, there are many accents in French. They either change the pronunciation of a vowel or in the case of the circumflex accent, they differentiate two homographs or mark the disappearance of the ‘s’ in a word.

Here are a few English-French examples of the missing ‘s’ in French: forest-forêt, hospital-hôpital, host-hôte, tempest-tempête.

A reform in the 90s recommended removing circumflex accents on ‘i’ and ‘u’ if they were not needed to distinguish between homographs – these would be retained in the simple past and subjunctive of verbs.

This is quite a small reform and it was only optional until 2016 when the Académie Française made these changes standard for schoolbooks. A misunderstanding of the reform created quite a buzz on social networks.

Many French translators discussed with ZOO whether we should also make these changes mandatory, in the end we decided against it – based on the fact that the concerned cases were marginal.

Since these words have been written with the circumflex accent for a long time, we can assume that readers are used to them this way.

Since we are dealing with subtitles, people must read the text quite quickly. As it is well known that readers read the shape of the word rather than each letter in the word itself, a circumflex accent is part of that shape.

‘Tu’ or ‘Vous’ – How formal do you have to be?

Unlike English that only has one second-person singular pronoun, French has kept two options which we use depending on context, age, social position and so on.

Vous is a formal way of addressing someone older, or in a higher position or someone to whom you want to show respect.

Tu is more informal and used for friends, equals, and some family members (but not always as you will see below).

Most of the translating I had done before starting to collaborate with ZOO had been corporate – contracts, project specs, business communications – so the question of which pronoun to use was never important as there was no dialog. One always used ‘Vous’.

My first movie with ZOO, which I mentioned earlier, was a classic American costume drama. I realized very quickly that I had to map the use of ‘vous’ or ‘tu’ for all the different characters in the movie.

As this movie was set in the 19th century, I decided to have the children use ‘vous’ with their parents to give it a bygone-era flavor – but used ‘tu’ when the mother addressed the children to make it more contemporary.

But most of the time it is more complicated than just deciding once and for all for a set of characters how they will address each other. In fiction, as in real life, relationships evolve –after a passionate kiss, characters could go from ‘vous’ to ‘tu’.

It’s all much more nuanced and subjective – and a judgment call for translators!

ZOO Community – Sharing our knowledge

I hope you enjoyed reading the above! ZOO Community is all about sharing our hands-on experience with fellow translators and linguists. We work together as creative group of people, and our subject specialty is by no means objective – so I would love to hear your thoughts!

I very much look forward to reading more profiles and experiences from other translators very soon.

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