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Editing in a bilingual country

Jacqueline Dinsmore
Editors’ Association of Canada
(The Editors’ Association of Canada began using the name Editors Canada on July 1, 2015.)


The work of copy editors in bilingual Canada, especially in Quebec, presents an interesting dichotomy. Many of us are translators as well as copy editors. Also, the work we edit often involves translations of French texts, or texts written by clients whose first language is French. This results in a slew of challenges.

The most common involves false cognates or faux amis. English has assimilated words from a number of foreign sources, not least of all French. Some of these words have gone on to develop new meanings that, although close to the original French, are far enough away that the original words and their English derivatives are no longer synonymous. We often see assist used in the French sense of attend, actual used instead of current, and coordinates instead of contact information. We often hear the latter in everyday speech among Anglophones, for example: "Give me your coordinates and I'll call you for dinner sometime." Another oft-heard borrowed word is dep, short for dépanneur, a corner store. Montréal English-speakers use it all the time, probably for convenience sake: dep happens to be much shorter and more succinct than corner store.

One of the more subtle forms of seepage from French into English is syntax, that is, the arrangement of word forms to show their mutual relationships in the sentence and, ultimately, to determine the meaning of that sentence. Variations in syntax can be subtle, difficult to perceive and not always easy to correct.

Because French and English differ on how emphasis is indicated and thoughts organized in a sentence, ESL (English as a Second Language) authors often unwittingly use French syntax in an English context. The copy editor is confronted with sentences that look and act like English sentences but need to be examined on a deeper level to parse the correct syntax and, therefore, meaning. Subject and verb can be separated in an English sentence, but the result is frequently awkward, as in "This article, belaboured and cliché-ridden, without authority or references, and running much too long, sucks." In French, however, one can easily string a series of subordinate clauses after the sentence subject and wind up with the verb several lines later. Because this structure resembles a stylistic element we do see in English, it can easily be overlooked.

French style accepts, nay adores, the use of transitional words and expressions as sentence openings, and this practice can often seep into English. De plus, toutefois, pour commencer, or, puis and ensuite ooze into English texts, producing an excessive number of equivalents in the form of then, so, afterward, however, actually, nevertheless, moreover, consequently, etc. Although there is a place for these transitional words in English writing, they are often superfluous and disrupt the flow of the text.

The sophistication of writing tools such as MS Word produces extra work for copy editors in bilingual situations. When French-language authors write in English, they may unwittingly leave MS Word's default language as French. This practice leaves the manuscript littered with pests, such as added spaces around punctuation and fancy « guillemets ». And when the default language has been changed to English, misguided obedience to the pronouncements of Word's spelling/grammar checks can take precedence over the copy editor's suggestions.

To add to the difficulties, the dichotomy of language styles is not just particular to the French/English overlap. Canada is a former British colony, and its language reflects this. But we also have a cozy relationship with our neighbour to the south and its language singularities. Our usage has developed into a mix of two foreign national preferences with a few pure Canadianisms thrown in: license (verb), licence (noun), colour and jewellery, but words ending in "ise" and "ize" are all over the place.