Translation: Let’s trust the professionals

Posted on July 22, 2019

Like you, I wouldn’t ask a friend to fix my car just because he likes to tinker, or ask someone to prepare my income tax return just because she’s good with numbers. It’s the same with translation: it’s crucial to entrust your English texts to a professional translator.

I live in Toronto, where there are few Francophones and even fewer fluently bilingual people. This state of affairs can result in some pretty comical situations in everyday life, but especially at the office.

There are pros and cons of machine translation

Reluctant to bother me for “simple” translations, my Anglophone colleagues are increasingly relying on machine translation tools to come up with a quick translation for a sentence. Just hearing the words “machine translation” makes me cringe. Let’s get something straight: machine translation has its advantages, but it has a lot of limitations, too. The software just needs to misinterpret one word, and you end up with a sentence that’s completely absurd. Of all the nonsensical things I’ve ever seen, my favourite is still a website’s home page button, which had been translated into French by the word Domicile instead of Accueil! As you can well imagine, my eyes almost popped out of their sockets when I saw that mistake!

Asking a Francophone for help may not be a good idea

Maybe some of your colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours and friends speak French as a mother tongue, but that fact doesn’t make them translators! In fact, knowing how to speak French is one thing, but knowing how to write it correctly is something else. And we all know that the French language is full of subtleties, exceptions and traps that turn it into a minefield for anyone who hasn’t mastered it. Bilingual Francophones are not necessarily capable of translating a text, and they don’t necessarily want to, either.

Translation isn’t just replacing one word with another

We’ve all seen bad translations before. And no one appreciates poor-quality service, even if it was inexpensive. That’s why it’s important to make an informed choice and opt for an experienced translator, with genuine expertise. Canada is lucky enough to have excellent translation associations, including the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario and the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec, as well as many others. I recommend that you use them to find a professional!

What does it mean to be a professional translator?

What are the characteristics of professional translators? Here’s a short list for your enlightenment, but note that translators do not have to meet all the criteria below to give excellent service.

  • They have studied translation or have equivalent training.
  • They are members of a professional translators’ association.
  • They translate into their mother tongue and have an excellent knowledge of spelling, grammar and syntax.
  • They are experts who translate texts on subjects and in fields they are familiar with, whether architecture, engineering or the arts. This expertise means that they are proficient in a technical language that uses very precise vocabulary, rather than approximate terms. For example, you wouldn’t ask a literary translator to translate a financial statement.
  • They choose correct terminology by using data banks such as TERMIUM Plus® and the Grand dictionnaire terminologique (in French only).
  • They use a wide variety of writing tools. My favourite tools in French are Clés de la rédaction, the Rouleau des prépositions and the Dictionnaire des cooccurrences.
  • They ask questions about the text to make sure they have understood it correctly, and they sometimes find inconsistencies in the source document.

And what about you? I’m sure you’ve come across some bad translations yourself … So share some gems with me in the comments section. I’m looking forward to reading them!

Translated by: Josephine Versace, Language Portal of Canada


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Alexandra Martin-Roche

Alexandra Martin-Roche

Alexandra Martin-Roche holds a master’s in translation, and is an ATIO-certified translator and a member of Editors Canada with 18 years of professional experience in both the private and freelance sectors. She loves linguistic challenges and is always on the lookout for errors that might slip into texts (whether in a favourite magazine or a restaurant menu.) She provides linguistic services in English-to-French translation, as well as in editing, proofreading and comparative revision.

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Submitted by Michèle Picard on July 31, 2019, at 12:34

I would like to share with you a recent translation I saw that would likely be a typical "machine translation" as you call it.
This is what I saw at the bottom of a coffee cup:
English text: "Safe to use in microwave and dishwasher"
The Translation to French was: "Coffre-fort à utiliser au micro-ondes et lave-vaisselle."
Bonne journée,

Submitted by Iam Theman on July 31, 2019, at 13:23

Just out of curiosity and certainly not to nitpick, but shouldn't the French version of this page have warned of the dangers/pitfalls of a Francophone asking an Anglophone to do translation for them, and not simply used "Francophone" on both pages (which doesn't make sense)?
It seems like they simply translated the English text to French without giving much thought to what was actually being said... which is ironic, given the context of the message.
Did anyone else spot that?

Submitted by Our Languages blog on August 1, 2019, at 13:38

This blog post was originally written in French and then translated into English. The texts convey the thoughts and experiences of a Francophone living in Toronto.
And remember that translations can serve different purposes. While an Anglophone might ask a Francophone to translate a document into French if it were intended for a French-speaking audience, a Francophone might ask another Francophone to translate a document from English to French for comprehension purposes.
We hope this helps to clarify things.

Submitted by JP MacDougall on July 31, 2019, at 14:28

I am all for translating documents and emails; however, I have two comments. As an Anglophone in New Brunswick, I am actively engaged in language training and take every opportunity to work on learning. Using official translation, however, does not always allow me the opportunity to work on my language skills. Secondly, as someone who routinely emails a vast population of the workforce in my department, it can take up to three weeks to get a translation back. That usually entails days of back and forth asking for meaning behind various acronyms and phrases specific to our department. This becomes a hindrance to good governance and management. It bogs down our operations immensely. While I understand the importance of translating documents and using the appropriate resources to do so, there is a real cost. The question we need to be asking is what is more important—getting the job done in a timely, efficient and competent manner, or ensuring that our information is translated? This often means it is sent out well after it's importance has expired. Often our correspondence is very time sensitive and cannot wait weeks to be translated. I once sent a document in for translation and three weeks later got over 50 questions back about the document. Needless to say I abandoned having it translated and ran it through Google. I spent another few hours going through the translation and ensuring it was as accurate and complete as possible. As a result, I not only learned a few things but was complemented on my efforts. I agree that translation is a valuable and much needed resource, but it needs to be expanded to make it more efficient and user friendly. Perhaps an official government translation on-line tool? Respectfully submitted.

Submitted by Peter Schmolka on September 2, 2019, at 16:54

I am a retired translator and supported an environmental group, which I will not name to protect their privacy and possibly reputation. They wanted to approach Francophones in French and so started sending out material bilingually, but the French was poorly done and amateurish. I told them about it on several occasions, but they continued to make these bad mistakes. It was so annoying that I stopped my monthly support, although I still donate to them from time to time. I'll give two examples. They talked about a park summit, meaning a meeting to consider parks and green spaces. This was mistranslated as a meeting in a park, certainly not what was intended! On another occasion, the translator took "town hall" literally to mean city hall, instead of a public meeting that could be anywhere, not necessarily city hall. In this case, the meeting was not held in city hall. As translators well know, we do not just translate words: we translate ideas and meaning in context.